Contemporary Native artists discuss their work, stereotypes, and 'Hipster Racism'

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Listen: Contemporary native artists discuss their work, stereotypes and 'hipster racism'
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MPR’s Marianne Combs sat down with author and fiber artist Gwen Westerman, painter and sculptor Jim Denomie, actor and spoken word artist R. Vincent Moniz, Jr., and poet Heid Erdrich. The discussion included what it means to be a contemporary Native artist working in a world that still has stereotypical notions of what it means to be an American Indian.

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TOM WEBER: I'm Tom Weber, along with Mary Ann Combs here. Mary Ann, you've been having some interesting conversations. Here at MPR, we have our UBS Forum up on the fifth floor. And you've been talking to some people in the art scene.

MARY ANN COMBS: Exactly. It's a series of conversations with different members of different diverse community groups. And just basically listening sessions, wanting to find out what's going on and within the community, what's on their mind. What stories are we not covering that maybe we should be covering? And recently, I sat down with author and fiber artist Gwen Westerman, painter and sculptor Jim Denomie, actor and spoken word artist Vincent Moniz, and poet and playwright Heid Erdrich. We talked about what it means to be a contemporary Native artist working in a world that still has stereotypical notions of what it means to be an American Indian.

Gwen Westerman says that right now is actually a great time to be a Native artist. In part because of the Legacy Amendment, which has helped to fund artistic projects and cultural initiatives.

GWEN WESTERMAN: It's not just the money that helps get this flow going. It has a lot to do, I think, with the energy that we as Native people share in terms of telling our stories. And we've been telling our stories for a long time in a lot of different ways. And I think it's a good time in that people are ready to listen. Ready to listen with their eyes, ready to listen with their ears, ready to listen with their hearts and minds as well.

So while the river is getting crowded, we're all going with the flow here. And it's impressive to me to be part of group efforts over the last couple of years, because we don't collaborate. But when all of the pieces are put together, it's an incredible story. There's a strong, strong thread that's woven through everything that we do. So to me, that says we're all in a good place, and we're all coming from the same place as well from our hearts and our heads.

MARY ANN COMBS: That was Gwen Westerman. Painter Jim Denomie agrees that now is a great time to be an artist. He says that attitudes toward his work have changed dramatically over the years, for the better.

JIM DENOMIE: When I first went back to art school and I felt an expectation by a lot of people to do Native art, Indian art. And in most people's minds, it's a stereotypical genre imagery of buffaloes and teepees, spirits and eagles and things. And I grew up in South Minneapolis as a contemporary Native American person. I didn't grow up traditionally or on a reservation.

And so my worldview, it incorporates a contemporary experience. And so my work reflects that. But I also work in the traditional storytelling aspect. And so when I was creating some of these contemporary political social stories visually, it wasn't understood and therefore not critiqued and supported by my professors, my art teachers at the U. And so people said, why don't you paint a good Indian painting, go down to Santa Fe? You'd make a lot of money. And I said, well, if I'm in this just to make money, I could be painting Elvises on Black Velvet.

[LAUGHS]

You know, and so it was a choice to be honest and innovative. And when you put your stuff out there and you take risk, you're subject to criticism and disappointment. But the response has been great by my fellow community members. And so it's not just the fellow community members, it's the art community at large in terms of recognition and grants and museum collections. And it all just encourages me to keep going forward.

MARY ANN COMBS: That was artist Jim Denomie. While the audience for Native art has improved over the years, actor and spoken word artist Vincent Moniz says there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to teach people to respect Native cultures. He gave the example of a Tumblr site called Hipsters in Headdresses, which calls out non-Indians predominantly young white women who pose for photos wearing headdresses as a sort of fashion statement.

VINCENT MONIZ: And I think for me, the frustration is that that larger stereotype has seeped into the Twin Cities here. And--

SPEAKER 1: Help me to understand that. What do you mean by that?

VINCENT MONIZ: There's just a-- I don't know what to call it. It's just a--

SPEAKER 2: Isn't it hipster racism?

VINCENT MONIZ: Yeah, just really, really overt hipster racism. Just, oh no, I know the headdress was worn by specific leaders in your race. But I'm doing it ironically. It's funny. And I really feel like there is a maybe subconscious want to know more about us. And so you reach into what you have, and what you have is basic stereotypes. Indians wear headdresses, and they put on face paint.

And there's even a t-shirt line where there's an Indian woman all in white surrounded by wolves sometimes. Or the Urban Outfitters with their Navajo underpants. I mean, that was the most-- that was funny. That was so funny.

SPEAKER 2: And Sasha Brown, a young woman that lives in our community, she shut it down. She had--

SPEAKER 1: What were these?

SPEAKER 2: --protest. It's the style right now. And Target backed up on theirs, I believe. But it was a style to have these fake--

VINCENT MONIZ: Yeah, they're really--

SPEAKER 2: Indian imagery.

VINCENT MONIZ: Yeah. On everything.

SPEAKER 3: Navajo designs.

VINCENT MONIZ: Yeah.

SPEAKER 2: Yeah.

SPEAKER 1: On their underwear?

VINCENT MONIZ: On the underwear.

SPEAKER 2: And they called it the Navajo-- you know. But it goes into fine art too, and, performance and everywhere. And in the Twin Cities, it's around us, too.

VINCENT MONIZ: There are way more teaching moments out there than there are actual, oh, you get it. You understand that this is what you're doing. You have to reach past the decapitated heads on baking powder or the football logo or wherever it is. Because our particular oppression is a commercialized nightmare. And so to be able to have these teaching moments, to be able to say, I'm not that headdress. This is how it is.

MARY ANN COMBS: Spoken word artist Vincent Moniz. Poet Heid Erdrich says these stereotypes are still ever present, even in the publishing world.

HEID EDRICH: In literature, it's so hard. It's such a fine line. People will take on the voices of Native people. The genre books written about Native people will always outgross any book written by an Indigenous person. I don't know how we'll ever catch up, except for there are a lot more of us in this hemisphere. The book will be gone before we'll catch up. More books are written every day about Native people than by Native people.

So it's really, really difficult there. And it's not commercial to tell the story of people who don't have redemption at the heart of their narrative. We don't get Oprah books, because we don't have an easy ending. We don't have that same sense of history is a closed loop, I think. I think we have a sense of time repeating. And I don't want to generalize too much, but I think that the story is not over. The story always continues is not satisfying necessarily to other people.

So yeah, it's very, very difficult, I think, for writers to control the imagery. The Indigenous people who get big grants in this country often are people who will capitulate to the stereotypes. Even though they may be excellent writers, I still believe that they capitulate to the stereotypes and they play to a non-Native audience often. And when you actually are writing to a Native audience, people don't get it. They're like, there are no leather and feathers here. There's no beads. There's no spirituality. There's no bowl of stubbed out sage in the middle of your poem.

This isn't an Indian poem. They might not even recognize it. Whereas Native people might. But I'm just saying might, because we're a diverse peoples. Very diverse peoples, even within individual tribal groups. You have so many different ways of experiencing your culture. Your culture is-- yeah.

So I think, I mean, appropriation for writers is complete, I think. That is the norm. And the true Native voice has just squeaky little places to fit. In it's very difficult. People still don't-- they don't accept it. They don't like the vision. Not happy with the politics involved. I think it's really, really difficult. That said, there's some amazing new writers right now, who I'm really happy to read, so.

MARY ANN COMBS: That was poet Heid Erdrich ending her remarks on what sounds like a bleak situation for Native writers, but on an optimistic note.

TOM WEBER: Very interesting conversation, and I appreciate it. I know you did a blog post about this--

MARY ANN COMBS: Yes. People can find out more on state of the arts where I normally live.

TOM WEBER: At mprnews.org. We had Sue Hague on this hour. You can certainly post more comments there on our blog, the Daily Circuit Blog, another blog we have at mprnews.org.

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