- American Indian Art:Teaching and Learning
Introduction: American Indian Art History
American Indian art history is recognized today as a field of study, but very few colleges or universities currently offer courses in American Indian—or Native American—art.1 This essay will consider several approaches to teaching American Indian art, such as American Indian art survey courses (and Native artists' engagement with modernism as vital to these surveys); "world art" courses that focus on indigenous arts; and courses that position American Indian art, including contemporary Native art, as integral to the history of art in North America. The emphases of these courses will vary, but any of these approaches to Native American art history necessitates a reconceptualization of art history's discursive frameworks, canonical narratives, and assumptions about art, artists, and representation. Critical engagement with indigenous methods and knowledge is crucial to this reframing, and must be fore-grounded as key course content.
While contemporary Native American art and art history tend to operate in what W. Jackson Rushing has termed "the fertile interstitial zone that critical theory and cultural studies have created between art history and anthropology," the production, reception, and study of Native art has historically been laden with deeply problematic assumptions about art, artists, and indigenous cultures.2 The discourse of [End Page 85] Native American art history is generally understood to have begun in the second half of the nineteenth century, when anthropologists, photographers, explorers, and others eagerly collected American Indian art and artifacts.3 To these predominantly European American collectors, the material culture of the indigenous peoples of the Americas represented evidence of a "dying" culture. Objects were hoarded as "oddities" and "curiosities" in private collections and in those of larger institutions that were established during this period, such as the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History. In the late nineteenth century, non-Native photographers documented what they presumed to be vanishing indigenous life, and anthropologists amassed great collections of various objects with the same intentions. These objects, many still on display in museums, were created by members of cultures that continue to thrive despite the threat of extinction. The creation of these institutions, intended to house these kinds of artifacts and historical objects, established the study of Native American art through exhibitions of material culture, most often interpreted through an anthropological lens that presumes the embodiment within these objects of a "tradition" that is static, ahistorical, and on the verge of extinction.
Private collectors, traders, and popular writers also contributed to the early study of Native American art. Beginning in the latter part of the nineteenth century, deliberate marketing strategies affected Native art production, technique, style, and iconography.4 The desire for "authentic" Native expressions drove the collecting by non-Native tourists and ethnographers in the Southwest of pottery, baskets, Navajo weavings, and drawings and watercolor paintings. The Arts and Crafts movement's valorization of California baskets as manifestations of a fantasized era of natural domesticity, peaceful coexistence with the Spanish settlers, and harmony with the land also contributed to European Americans' appreciation of Native American material culture—prompting a shift from an "artifact" to a "souvenir" to a "work of art" paradigm.5 Because the demands of the dominant culture determined which works of art were understood as "authentic" and "traditional"—which in turn shaped their consumption in the marketplace—indigenous agency regarding Native works of art, as well as other aspects of Native people's lives, was generally ignored. For example, the life and work of the Washoe basket maker Louisa Keyser (ca. 1835-1925) was mythologized by her patrons Abe and Amy Cohn, while Keyser's own voice was noticeably absent from the narrative they created, resulting in distortion of the historical record of this time.6 In general, the absence of Native perspectives in publications on these baskets, and the lack of documentation of Native responses to the fascination baskets held for non-Native collectors, prevailed at the turn of the last century and beyond. In contrast, more contemporary resources, such as the National Museum of the American Indian's online exhibition The Language of Native American...