What do Native American artists think of white artists depicting Natives in their artwork?

What do Native American artists think of white artists depicting Natives in their artwork? This is perhaps the most provocative question in the fields of contemporary Native American art and contemporary Western art.

Most of the artwork you see depicting Native Americans isn’t produced by Native American artists. It’s white artists painting Native people. Native ceremony. Native scenes. All the ads in the Western magazines, all the gallery shows, all the museums – white artists painting Natives. This practice goes back to Thomas Moran, Fredric Remington and Charles Russell at the turn of the century and the Taos Society of Artists shortly after. It goes all the way back to white colonizers arriving on the continent.

I, myself, am guilty – if that’s the right word – of buying artwork depicting Native Americans produced by white artists. I have a copy of Remington’s famed “Cheyenne” sculpture and a watercolor of a Native American man from contemporary artist Chance Hays. Both are exquisitely rendered.

If I had it to do all over again, however, knowing what I know now, I don’t think I would have purchased either. I would rather have seen that money support a Native American artist through his or her depiction of Native people.

I do own Native American artwork from Native artists. I have an Earl Biss (Apsáalooke) serigraph, a John Potter (Ojibwe) teepee scene and a pair of abstract paintings by Jay Smiley (Diné).

What do Native American artists think of whites depicting Natives in their artwork?

I asked.

Here’s what they said in their own words.

Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.
Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.

Gregg Deal (Numu)

“I don’t like it. In fact, I have a painting that says, ‘white people should not paint pictures of Indians.’

“There’s a level of Western romanticism that’s attached to that. There’s a lot of these amazing painters that are painting Native Americans and those paintings are well within the romantic nationalistic narrative of Native Americans that perpetuates the stereotype, flat out. That’s the situation, even painters who are working with Native Americans for their photographs, I don’t agree with it. I don’t like it.

“These are our stories; you have your own history, you have plenty of things you can draw from, let us work out ours. I say that because growing up in (Park City, UT), with all of the different galleries, I’ve seen paintings of Indians in headdresses that look like crap and those things are sold for $15,000. In my mind, you’re taking funding out of the mouths of Native artists who are actually doing this work and have a completely different perspective that is actually worth more than the perspective of the person.

Gregg Deal, Untitled #6, 2021, acrylic on panel.

“That’s the world we live in, our lives have been commodified in every way shape, or form, in the same way that the Washington football team or any other sports mascot… these are multi-million, billion-dollar industries and there’s not a Native community or individual in the world seeing any penny of that. That is about commodification, that is about a free market that exploits this marginalized people in this country and not giving them an opportunity to express themselves or to have a stake in those games and the same is true in the art world.”

John Potter (Ojibwe)

John Potter, Golden Moment.
John Potter, Golden Moment.

“I have a hard time with it to be honest. They use the word ‘appropriation’ quite a bit, but you know we, as Native people, appropriate a hell of a lot from white culture. I don’t know many Natives who don’t drive cars and use computers and have phones, but what we don’t appropriate from is the religious aspect if we don’t participate in that religion.

I’m not a Christian, I’m not a Catholic, I would never dare dream of depicting a Catholic ceremony in my painting and yet a lot of non-Native artists just run rampant with that kind of stuff. You see Native people with pipes and eagle feather fans and holding up buffalo skulls and things like that; I really feel like that’s just rude and arrogant.

“I know a lot of (white) artists who are friends of mine who just do portraits of Native people and they get to know those people, they know the people that they’re painting, they get to know their families and they give back to them, so there’s reciprocity there.

“It’s a complicated issue. I see a lot of people making a lot of money painting Native people and I always wonder, ‘does any of that money go back to the communities that you’re using for subject matter?’”

Susan Folwell (Santa Clara Pueblo)

“I don’t mind. Art is out there for art’s sake (and) I don’t feel like It’s for me as an artist to say you shouldn’t or you can’t be (depicting Native imagery as a white artist) – unless they’re touching on really delicate subjects like religious ceremony or things of that nature.

“But in terms of using Native peoples for their subject matter, I’m hoping they do it with dignity, project them gracefully in whatever they do. I’m okay with that.”

Gerald Clarke (Cahuilla)

Gerald Clarke, "Cahuilla Realms," at Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa in Rancho Mirage, CA. Courtesy of the Resort.
Gerald Clarke, “Cahuilla Realms,” at Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa in Rancho Mirage, CA. Courtesy of the Resort.

“I’m teaching a contemporary Native American art course (at UC-Riverside); I showed my students this painting and it was this Indian brave from I don’t know, probably the 1700s, on his horse with his bow and arrow and he’s just shot an elk and of course the Indian Brave is really muscular. We talked about what makes (the painting) ‘Native,’ and when I get done talking I say, ‘Oh, by the way, this wasn’t painted by an Indian.’ So, what’s Indian about it? Just the subject matter.

“It’s really surface and you have to question whether it’s even honest or not, because again, most of the time, imagery like that validates mainstream American ideas of what an Indian culture is, whether it’s true or not. One of the things I’m saying to my students is that you don’t have to be an Indian to paint an Indian, but that doesn’t make it Native American art.”

Dan Namigha (Hopi – Tewa)

“The difference there is sometimes, and this also relates to European artists who were influenced and inspired by Native culture or Indigenous people throughout the world, for example Picasso was very inspired by African (masks), he liked the design, the sculptural aspect of the work, but he had no idea what it was, he had no idea what it meant, he had no idea about anything like that. He had never been to Africa.

“So that’s the difference.

“A non-Native person who paints (an image) with a Native connotation to it may not understand what they’re depicting whereas a Native American can take their cultural knowledge and they know what it means, they know what it is because they are part of that culture. They are part of that society. Some of them have been initiated into the society.

“What they’re depicting is the knowledge they have, but sometimes in contemporary format, or context, but it still has that deep meaning. That’s the difference between someone who knows and someone who’s just fascinated by it.”

Dan Namingha, Hummingbird Montage, 2022. Acrylic on canvas, 30x70.
Dan Namingha, Hummingbird Montage, 2022. Acrylic on canvas, 30×70.

Travis Mammedaty (Kiowa, Seneca-Cayuga)

Travis Mammedaty, Called to Smoke, 2022. 16×20

“I don’t have an issue with that, I just don’t call it Native art. I call it Western art.

“I don’t want to be classified as a Native artist, just an artist who happens to be native. Who happens to be Kiowa.

“If that’s how (a non-native artist) wants to paint, as long as they’re not painting something completely ridiculous – even if they were – do whatever kind of art you want to, that has nothing to do with me. If I want to paint a white guy, then I’ll do that. Maybe at one point I’ll branch out into something other than Native Americans.

“White people, European people, back in the day you had Bierstadt and Remington, all these people creating really awesome work with Native imagery in it and sometimes I’ll look at that and think, ‘that is badass!’ That’s a Remington, he’s a white guy, but it’s really, really cool so I look at that too, as resources. I’m actually kind of glad that some people like that created those kinds of images because it kind of helps me out a way.”

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