American Indian Message Carriers In A Multicultural Environment

By Karen Gillen Allen

Editor’s Note: The following interview was taken from talks with Otilia Sanchez, a panelist in the symposium accompanying the HCP "Message Carriers" exhibit. Sanchez is an active member of the Intertribal Council of Houston. She is founder of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce and has been involved in numerous outreach programs on a national, regional and local level. She is of Yaqui descent.

Editor: What place does art hold in American Indian culture?
Sanchez: The living spirit of the American Indian is his art—whether the medium is the flute, the drum, pottery, wood carvings, beadwork, paintings, photography, or songs. By his art, the American Indian perpetuates his own identity and Culture, in this sense, art is a gilt of understanding. His art serves as a "message carrier” about his identity to cultures outside his own—explaining who he is and what molds him. Serving as a message carrier to non-American Indian cultures is an educational process by which the American Indian can avoid the fragmentation and isolation caused by outside forces.
Ed.: How does, the ''Message Carriers” exhibit fit this idea of art?
Sanchez: The exhibit, "Message Carriers," is a fine example of American Indian beliefs regarding the artistic process of photography augmented by various art media and text. The eight photographers featured—Patricia Deadman, Zig Jackson, Carmen Little Turtle, James Luna, Larry McNeil, Jolene Rikard, Hulleah J. Tsinhanahjinnie, Richard Ray Whitman—conveyed compelling messages to the audience, not only of identity but also of objectification and insensitivity. These messages deal with outsiders (non-Indian) versus insider (Indian) views of American Indian culture and focus on history, social conflicts, and art.
Ed: Where does the notion of the "Noble Savage" come from and is there any truth to these perceptions?
Sanchez: Historically, outsiders have viewed the American Indian as a "noble savage" leading an idyllic life in total communion with nature. It's interesting to note that the labeling of American Indians as savages, as Chief Standing Bear wrote in his autobiography The Land of the Spotted Eagle, was "the last abuse" cast upon them. But all the years of calling the Indian a savage has never made him one..."
This view is evident, for example, in the works of German writers and artists, most notably the novelist Karl May (1870s) and the artist August Macke (early 1900s). Theirs was a highly romanticized literary image of the American Indian, the natural man whose life was apolitical and whose culture was not materialistic. Indeed, modern-day Germans still have a romantic view of American Indians and routinely participate in re-enactments of Indian dramas at the "Indian" city Bad Segeberg retreat to the recesses of Germany’s Black Forest to revert in living the way the Cheyenne did, donning authentic-looking native dress, setting up tepees, and cooking never open files.
As Lakota Chief Standing Bear wrote, "Let the American Indian write his own history; let him convey his message to the outside work. The realities of American Indian life and history, far from being glamorous, are more apparent to the insider than to the outsider.
Ed.: What Is modem lifelike for American Indians?
Sanchez: Life for the American Indian, especially today, is plagued by social, educational, economic, and health problems experiences daily. Social problems deal primarily with the issue of identity, addressed by Tsinhnahjinnie in her black-and-white self-portraits, Census Makes a Native Artist. We are dealing with the problem of determining who is Indian and who is not. Does a tribal roll or Census number make one any more Indian than not having a number? How does one determine who is Indian—by blood quantum? Why is it even necessary to prove one's heritage?
The enactment of Public Law 101-644, "The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990," requiring native artists to prove their heritage, places the burden of proving "Indianness" on the Indian for the benefit of the outsider who wants to buy authentic Indian art. Why should the burden be placed on the artist and not on the consumer? If the potential buyer of Indian an is not knowledgeable, the problem is due to the outsider's own can of mind which has failed lo seek understanding and knowledge what is or isn't Indian art.
Ed.: Are these realities at the root of the art of many modern American Indian artists?
Sanchez: This is often the case, for example, objectification and insensitivity of outside cultures are addressed in Zig Jackson's photograph, Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Indian. Indians have long been treated as objects, and insensitive tourists often thrust their cameras at the "object" of their fancy, totally oblivious to the concept of invasion of one’s space.
Each photographer succinctly brings a message to the audience, both Indian and non-Indian; and the audience leaves the exhibit with a questioning mind if not with a better understanding of modern-day American Indian culture. If the observer truly wants understanding, he will seek answers to the questions raised by the photographic art in “Message Carriers.”