“23 Contemporary Indian Artists,” Lloyd E. Oxendine’s essay for A.i.A.’s July-August 1972 issue, was the first major survey of Native art to appear in a national magazine. As such, it is a seminal document. “Even today,” Kathleen Ash-Milby writes in our October issue, “most students and teachers of Native art are familiar with Oxendine’s article because it was such rare coverage for the time.”
Oxendine offers an appraisal of the contemporary Native art scene. His central observation is that that young Native artists had begun to rebel against folkloric conventions and embrace new artistic techniques. This was a response to changing circumstances rather than a rejection of their roots. Indian artists, Oxendine writes, “are, no matter how tribally oriented, modern men and women.” Oxendine’s essay is accompanied by twenty-three capsule critical biographies of emerging Native artists. We are publishing his article online to provide historical context for our October 2017 issue on contemporary Indigenous art. Wherever possible, we have included links to updated information about the artists. The Native heritage of two artists that Oxendine included—Yeffe Kimball and Wayne Eagleboy—was subsequently disputed. —Eds.
Traditional Indian painting is a bore if that's what one becomes stuck with. It becomes meaningless after a while. Stale. Overstated. Pretty. Gimmicky. Dumb. Lazy. I say, and I'm speaking to the young artists, leave traditional Indian painting to those who brought it to full bloom.
—R. C. Gorman, Navajo artist
(Mankind, September 1970)
Until quite recently, modern American Indian art was not considered authentic or valuable unless it was executed in strictly traditional Indian forms. This limitation arose from the praiseworthy desire to protect the historical continuity and integrity of Indian art as separate from European techniques, materials and concerns. Understandably, this attempt to preserve the Indian idiom stifled the work of Indian artists who are, no matter how tribally oriented, modern men and women. So with excellent specimens of traditional Indian art now assembled and collected, Indian artists in the 1960s became more and more eclectic as their educational horizons widened and their numbers increased. Under the directorship of Lloyd Kiva-new, the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, perhaps the most important influence in the training of young Indian artists, now offers courses and supports competitions and shows in nontraditional as well as traditional Indian art, and has come to reflect, in this way, the temper of Indian art today.
Historically, Indian painting was pictographic in style, religious in subject matter and purpose. (Sand painting, for example, which has been practiced by tribes of the Southwest, especially the Navajos, since ancient times, is so sacred an art that to this day many symbols are used only in ceremonies reserved for believers.) Non-sacred, documentary and pictorial Indian art as we know it is relatively recent—a result of the introduction of new materials by white men around the turn of this century. It quickly developed its own rules and definitions, and with the encouragement of Dorothy Dunn, founder of the Santa Fe Indian School, became popular during the thirties. This conventional style showed little concern for perspective depth, form being represented by means of outline and flat color with no modeling. Ceremonial themes were common and, as it is basically a story-teller's art, the emphasis was on legibility and, above all, elegant refinement. The documentary Indian art of the thirties thus echoed the formal aspects of Pre-Columbian religious art, with as little European influence as possible.
Obviously, the strictly conservative nature of such a school calls for rebellion, and as we have seen, a whole generation of Indian artists rose to the challenge in the sixties. But traditional American Indian art forms have not been completely abandoned. They have been reordered and utilized in new ways, and sometimes drastically transformed. The use of modern techniques and materials is an obvious part of this, but more important perhaps is the attempt to deal with subject matter and ideas never broached by the old school—the stereotypes of Indian life to which the general public's thinking has been confined since the earliest days of European invasion and colonization.
Until the end of the nineteenth century, the Indian was popularly depicted as a howling, filthy savage, unpredictable and mean-as-hell. After the Indian wars and during the systematic confinement of Indians—and their culture—to reservations, a more patronizing attitude evolved. The Indian was seen as a dignified, basket-weaving primitive, pitiably unadaptable to the modern white man's world. This latter image haunts well-meaning school texts to this day; the more colorful, menacing Indian persists in the public mind as an identifiable fiction, now safely confined to the reservation of Grade B movies.
Many contemporary Indian artists are confronting these stereotypes in their work with the most modern of idioms—and often with bitterness and rage. Much recent American Indian painting and sculpture, then, is protest art, and can be seen as part of the larger American counterculture that in turn likes to identify itself with the Indian. There were, of course, Indian artists dealing poignantly with the historic plight of their people before the radicalization of younger Indians in the late sixties. These older artists helped form the popular image of the Indian as pitiable, his spirit irretrievably broken; the emotional climate was one of reproachful nostalgia. But the new Indian has demanded to be reckoned with as a whole man, both politically and artistically. Suddenly he has emerged in all media, demanding attention and action, but never that pity which is the liberal side of contempt. For the first time, a generation of articulate and well-educated Indian artists have a positive Indian identity to which they may relate. Their new solidarity focuses their art, an art that is Indian in a whole new way.
Traditional Indian art somehow managed to make Indian faces seem at once noble and uncomplicated—perhaps a more difficult task than one might immediately perceive. Impatient with paintings that display how well Indian features have adjusted magnanimously to their lot, contemporary Indian artists have transformed the Indian face by focusing on the idea and the actuality of ceremonial masks, sometimes by painting and constructing modern masks, more often simply by suggesting them. The result has been to inject a mystical quality into the painting and sculpting of Indian faces. Unearthly, even ghostlike, these masked faces strongly imply that the true Indian is elusive or, at the extreme, dead. The artists who work with the mask have thus empowered their paintings and constructions with a symbol which is both accusatory and proud.
There are modern Indian artists willing to integrate popular stereotypes into their works in a straightforward and non-satiric manner; some use feathers and beads in tapestries and constructions, others depict Indians on horseback and in traditional clothing. These artists accept, ostensibly at least, the Disney version of Indian life as part of their bag of tricks, as good stuff on which interesting work can be built.
But most of the artists using popular material are far more engage. A good example of "pop" materials used for protest is We the People, by Wayne Eagleboy, a member of the Onondaga tribe. Executed in acrylic, barbed wire, and buffalo hide, it speaks eloquently of the oppression of the Indian in the name of Americanism. Wayne Eagleboy says of his work: "I am a half-breed and perhaps because of this my art is not strictly traditional. I try to paint about both cultures, the Indian and non-Indian and how they collide. I hope my paintings speak and tell the non-Indian what he has done to our people."
In a time when disconsolate Indians roam the television screen tearfully deploring water pollution for the United Council of Churches, I need only touch on the fact that Indians and the romantic possibilities of Pre-Columbian native life are fast becoming a popular example for what the ecologically concerned think might be right for America. Though as much concerned as anyone else, most of the Indian artists represented here have nonetheless shunned the pastoral ideal in their work. Perhaps because many have personally experienced the limitations and restrictions of rural life, they have rejected the simplicity of such an answer. They demand a great deal more than to be left in peace.
Judy Corlette, Song, acrylic on paper, 1970. Judy Corlette, a Nez Perce, attended the Minneapolis School of Art. She is now studying in Rome. She writes: "I am intrigued by what is usually called primitive or grass-roots art. This includes all those nice old guys stuck out on some remote prairie who pass their time decorating fences and trees and backyards with old Clorox bottles and bicycle tires. I like the way those fellows think. I like the basic idea of 'fixing things up a little so they look pretty.' Art? Well, I don't know about that." The design in Song is reminiscent of the parfleche, a leather container used by Plains Indians for carrying arrows and objects of exceptional value.
Linda J. Lomahaftewa, Snake and Animal Symbols, oil, 1970. Linda Lomahaftewa, of the Tewa Pueblo, was born in Phoenix, Arizona. She attended the Institute of American Indian Arts and holds both a B.A. and an M.A. in fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute. Miss Lomahaftewa's art reduces natural forms to elements of design; to these she adds her own conformations in bold colors and organically unlikely juxtapositions.
Lloyd E. Oxendine, Hanging Piece, mixed media, 1971. Lloyd Oxendine is a member of the Lumbee tribe. A painter and sculptor, he holds an M.F.A. degree from Columbia University, and is founder of American Art, a gallery in New York City devoted exclusively to contemporary Indian artists. He is also the director of Native North American Artists, the first national organization of American Indian artists. A grant from the New York State Council on the Arts has enabled him to do research and development on contemporary Indian art. Hanging Piece combines natural and man-made materials—papier-mâché, rags, cotton, vinyl, rope and shells—in a manner that suggests they are interchangeable. Fetishistic and magical, this work is notably successful in creating the sense of Pre-Columbian art; yet no attempt has been made to reproduce an actual historical form.
Wayne Eagleboy, We the People, acrylic and barbed wire on buffalo hide, 1971. Wayne Eagleboy, an Onondaga Indian, was born in Michigan. He attended the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, the Clyde Warrior Institute, where he headed the American Indian Development Workshop. He writes: "I am a half-breed, and perhaps because of this my art is not strictly traditional. I try to paint about both cultures, the Indian and the non-Indian, and how they collide. I use traditional forms in a contemporary manner. I hope my paintings speak and tell the non-Indian what he has done to our people and also show him the beauty of our ways."
JoAllyn Archambault, Brush Dance I, buckskin, shells, and seeds, 1970. JoAllyn Archambault is both Sioux and Creek. Born in Claremont, Oklahoma, she received a National Merit Scholarship and a grant from the Ford Foundation, and is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. This wall hanging, Brush Dance I, is inspired by a Hupa dance skirt, with a buckskin base and fringe, and abalone shells, pine nuts, and juniper seeds as pendants.
Michael Naranjo, Deer Spirit, bronze, 1971. Michael Narango was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and was raised in Santa Clara Pueblo. A sculptor, Narango was blinded in Vietnam, but has continued his work, which has been exhibited in one-man shows in Washington, D.C., Santa Fe, and Albuquerque. In September 1971 he presented his Deer Spirit to President Nixon.
Michael G. McCleve, Red Personage, welded steel and cast iron, painted, 1971. Michael McCleve was born in Oregon. He is currently employed as a foundryman at the Cosanti Foundation under the direction of Paolo Soleri. He writes of himself: "I think I am basically a dreamer, a fantasizes, a surrealist . . . a maker of mysterious, sometimes menacing personages and sentinels with which I hide from reality.” The linearity of McCleve’s sculptures is heightened by the use of nature, especially the sky, as a background.
Se-gwoi-don-kwe (Duffy Wilson), Iroquois Creation Myth, steatite, 1971. Se-gwoi-don-kwe is a member of the Tuscarora tribe and has lived on the Tuscarora Reservation in upper New York State for most of his life. Originally a house painter and wood-carver, he takes the iconography of his sculpture from the Iroquois Long House religion, to which he belongs. (The turtle shown here is a symbol of the Indian’s genesis.) His sculptures are carved from steatite, a stone that is found in North Carolina, the area from which his tribe was forced at the beginning of the eighteenth century. At that time, the Tuscarora tribe moved to New York State, where they were adopted as members of the Six Nations of the Iroquois.
Yeffe Kimball, Comanche-Brave Horse, acrylic resin, 1971. Yeffe Kimball was born in Oklahoma and is of Osage ancestry. She studied at the Art Students League in New York and in France and Italy with Fernand Leger, Corbino, Bridgeman and other teachers. Widely exhibited and collected, she is an authority on American Indian art and culture and is consultant on native arts for the Portland Art Museum and the Chrysler Museum. Comanche-Brave Horse is one of Yeffe Kimball’s newest works. Totemic but ghostlike, it suggests the frozen march of time across which the modern Indian must view his once vital link to nature through magic. At the same time, it is reminiscent of the mounted animal heads used by white men to decorate their dens—a suggestion, perhaps, of the positons to which Indian culture has been relegated by white society.
Larry Golsh, Black No. 7, polyester and acrylic, 1971. Larry Golsh is both a Cherokee and a Pala Mission Indian. Born in Phoenix, Arizona, he studied design and sculpture at Arizona State University, and worked with Paolo Soleri on a special architectural exhibition, originating at the Corcoran Gallery, which traveled to museums throughout the country. His sculpture is highly formalized and austere, with little Indian reference in subject matter or technique.
Larry Ahvakana, Have You Ever Danced for What You Eat?, marble and ivory, 1971. Larry Ahvakana, an Eskimo, began his studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. After one year at New York's Cooper Union, he entered the Rhode Island School of Design. He has recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to establish an Indian stone-carving and glass-blowing workshop in Barrow, Alaska. Have You Ever Danced for What You Eat? is a relief in Vermont marble with ivory inserts. The ceremonial dances before the killing of animals for food are a vital part of the traditional concern of Native Americans with the continuance of the life cycle. As expressed by a modern Eskimo, the title question is, however, bitterly ambiguous.
Fritz Scholder, Super Indian No. 2, oil 1971; collection of Susan and Joachim Jean Aberbach. Fritz Scholder, a Mission Indian, was born in Minnesota. A student of Wayne Thiebaud and of Oscar Howe, the traditional Indian painter, he holds an M.F.A. degree from the University of Arizona and has taught both there and at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. He recently had a two-man show with T. C. Cannon at the Smithsonian Institution. Scholder handles his subjects with a sense of humor that is indicative of a new Indian self-confidence. He deals with sociological problems—such as alcoholism—which until recently have been avoided in Indian art.
Mary Morez, Yei of Plenty, pen and ink, 1971; collection of M. Antonia Land. Mary Morez is a Navajo and has been associate staff consultant to the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art in Santa Fe and research associate at Heard Museum, Phoenix. Miss Morez derives her knowledge of Navajo symbolism and ceremony from personal recollections of reservation life and from study and research in the field. While she incorporates Navajo symbols, especially sand-painting figures, into her work, she purposely omits those reserved for use by medicine men. Yei of Plenty is a modern response to the Navajo "Yeibachi," a ceremony celebrating the abundance of the gods in nature.
Ah-swan (Bob Maldonado), Salmon Run, pen and ink, 1971. Ah-swan is a member of the Yakima Nation, whose reservation is in the state of Washington. He studied at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is currently at the Rhode Island School of Design. When he receives his degree, Ah-swan plans to return to his reservation to found a school of arts and crafts. His aim is "to teach young Indians that art was once—and still can be—a way of life."
R.C. Gorman, Rug Motif No. 3, oil, 1971. Gorman was raised on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. The sun of a noted traditional Navajo artist, he was the first recipient of a Navajo Tribal Scholarship, on which studied mural painting in Mexico. Gorman is represented in the collections of the Museum of the American Indian, the Philbrook Art Center, the Heard Museum, the Museum of Indian Arts, and the U.S. Department of the Interior. Rug Motif No. 3 represents Gorman's new emphasis on historical continuity. He says: "Recently I have been using the design motifs of Indian rugs and pottery for my paintings because one day these things are going to be no more. They are going to be lost." "Moths don't like polymer" is his way of describing his role in the preservation of traditional designs by transforming them into modern materials.
T.C. Cannon, It's a Good Day to Die, oil and collage, 1966. Cannon is a Kiowa/Caddo Indian. He has studied at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe and at the San Francisco Art Institute. He is a student of Fritz Scholder's; recently they shared a two-man exhibition Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It’s a Good Day to Die, an oil painting and collage, is typical of Cannon’s work and a good example of Indian protest art.
Peter Jemison, Orenda, acrylic, 1971. Peter Jemison is a member of the Seneca tribe. He studied at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he received a degree in art education. Bold blocks of color characterize Jemison's work, which he describes as "obviously Indian." He believes that Indian life needs Indian culture. "I am an Indian who knows and cares about Indian life. I reflect this in my work as a contemporary painter.”
George Morrison, Collage, acrylic, wood and metal, 1964. Morrison was born in Grand Marais, Minnesota, and is a member of the Grand Portage Reservation, Chippewa. He attended the Minneapolis School of Art, the Art Students League, and the University of Aix-Marseille, Aix-en-Provence. A painter and former associate professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, he is now teaching at the University of Minnesota. The Pre-Columbian artifacts of Woodlands Indians have largely been lost to us because they were to a great extent, made of wood. It is perhaps for this reason that Morrison uses materials (aged wood, rusted metal, etc.) which are visibly mutable and subject to obvious decay.
Earl Eder, Ghost Dancer (detail), oil, 1971. Eder is a member of the Sioux tribe. Ghost Dancer, the figure shown here, is a detail from a larger painting. Originated in the 1880s by Wovoka, a Paiute Indian from Nevada, the Ghost Dance was performed in a circle to mystical chants in "tongues." It was believed that Wovoka had returned from the Land of the Dead as a messiah; the response he engendered from tribes of the Southwest formed the last real movement of Indian self-awareness and unity until the present day. The Ghost Dance spread the Plains Indians and was eventually stopped by the federal government's almost total annihilation of the Sioux at Wounded Knee. Eder’s Ghost Dancer is a specter crying vengeance, and must be seen both as an angry response to Sioux history and a warning to contemporary non-Indian society.
Frank R. La Pena, There Is Remembering, oil and ribbon, 1968. Frank La Pena is a Wintu, born in San Francisco. He received a B.A. degree from Chico State College and has done graduate work at San Francisco State. A painter and photographer, La Pena teaches at Shasta College, and was invited to the First Convocation of American Indian scholars, held at Princeton University in 1970. La Pena writes: "I believe that a man should be a teacher all his life—learning and giving. Understanding can take place if we as individuals can find out who and what we are. I believe that the values of Indian culture hold answers for all people."
Neil Parsons, Shoshone, acrylic, 1970. Neil Parsons, a member of the Blackfoot tribe, was born in Browning, Montana. He received his M.A. degree from Montana State University and is directing an American Indian Art graduate program at the University of Montana at Missoula. He writes: "The language of vision is one having few barriers—how one shape relates to another continues to be a universally accepted challenge, regardless of time or place. I have gradually realized that the forces of a motivating atmosphere like the city, and those of an individual's background are two different things; and that I might best be able to express myself through the use of traditional Indian cultural ideas.”
James St. Martin, New Ways, pen and ink, 1971. St. Martin has studied at Portland State University in Oregon and at the Institute of American Indian Art, Santa Fe. He serves as Indian Coordinator for the Neighborhood Arts Program in Santa Fe. St. Martin's art is sociologically oriented to Indian subject matter. He feels that "Indians must show and tell the white man what our needs are, and convince our own people that they can change the status of the Indian nations. Dramatization with art is a preliminary step."
Arthur Amiotte, Stitchery, mixed media, 1969. Amiotte was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, and is an Oglala Sioux. He studied at Northern State College and at the University of Oklahoma and Pennsylvania State. After three years as instructor of art education at Northern State College, he returned to his home reservation, where he is teaching at the Red Cloud Indian School. Amiotte, who has exhibited throughout the United States, has recently devoted most of his energies to wall hangings. They have been shown in a one-man exhibition at the Sioux Indian Museum and Crafts Center in Rapid City, South Dakota. Although nontraditional, they are thoroughly Indian in material, design and effect.