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  • No Word for Art in Our Language?:Old Questions, New Paradigms
  • Nancy Marie Mithlo (bio)

Contemporary American Indian art, like other American Indian disciplinary fields, such as American Indian literature, law, or politics, has a unique historical trajectory. Yet unlike these more established scholarly subfields, American Indian art lacks a discernable infrastructure, a theoretical basis, or a comprehensive history.1 Why is this so, when the arts occupy such an integral space in imagining American Indian identities—past and future? Curator Margaret Archuleta and law scholar Rennard Strickland attribute the failed policies of cultural genocide in America to the power of Native art, concluding that "the determined effort to destroy Indian culture and break Indian pride" failed due to the great legacies of Native American artists who enabled an understanding and preservation of unique cultural traditions.2 Given the absolute saturation of images and icons surrounding American Indian life and the very real impact of the arts for Native survival, an accounting for the marginalization of Native arts is essential. The underdevelopment of a theoretical basis for American Indian arts both in the realm of public culture (museums and galleries) as well as in established scholarly institutions (universities, publishing industries, and granting institutions) needs to be addressed.3 Concurrent with this project of unearthing the nominal presence and overwhelming absences of American Indian arts scholarship, attention should be paid to the flux and variations of Native arts reception over time.

My essay examines what I consider three key strategies employed [End Page 111] in articulating the place of Indian arts in the broad theoretical landscape of Indigenous studies internationally: (1) the rejection of standard fine arts categories of reception ("No word for art in my language"); (2) the assimilation of these same fine arts categories ("I'm an artist first and an Indian second," now expressed as a "post-Indian" sensibility); and (3) the creation of new categories that reflect Indigenous values of cultural reclamation, sovereignty, and land-based philosophies (what I term "American Indian Curatorial Practice"). These strategies may independently occur in space (tribal land bases, urban regions) and time (across generations of practitioners). The rejection, incorporation, and creation of the platforms outlined above may be clearly defined by discussion of specific cultural events and places. While I will endeavor to illustrate each of these strategies with an exemplary case study, this narrative can only suggest the outlines of the applied and academic work that will hopefully take shape in the careers of our emerging curators and scholars. Only one theorist or school of thought cannot accomplish the crafting of a field of study. This is work that will take generations of events, contemplation, and establishment of patterning to discern.

My analytical approach to the development of contemporary Native arts from the 1960s onward is an effort to amend problematic theories while identifying new applications.4 Theories, like objects, are flexible, and can be mobilized to speak at will to the concerns of the maker (the artist), the viewer (the audience), or the subject (the individual or community represented within the artwork). This essay will first examine the orientation of producing artists and then will apply various art projects as evidence of theory.

No Word

The Indigenous rejection of fine arts as a descriptor for contemporary American Indian arts is best illustrated by the common refrain "There is no word for art in my language." Native artists and curators expressed this perspective most commonly in the multicultural era of the "new museology," dating roughly from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. The arts commentator and writer Jamake Highwater expressed the "no word" sentiment in his book The Primal Mind, in which he observes, "For primal peoples . . . the relationship between experience and expression has remained so direct and spontaneous that they usually do not possess a word for art." Highwater adds, "We cannot readily translate Indian iconography and visions into terms that make realistic sense to the Western mind."5 Highwater was later exposed as an alleged ethnic fraud for posing as an American Indian when his heritage is reported to have been Italian. Nonetheless, Highwater's manifesto gained credence over time.6 Throughout the 1980s and into the...


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pp. 111-126
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