Art Warriors and Wooden Indians

New York

Cover of the July–August 1972 issue of Art in America, showing a close-up of a trading post sign in Gallup, New Mexico.


Despite its diverse critical range, A.i.A.’s 1972 special issue on Native Americans overlooked a wellspring of creative energy and institution-building efforts in Indigenous communities.


ART IN AMERICA’s July–August 1972 special issue devoted almost entirely to the subject of Native Americans did not open with an explanation of the editor’s goals and aspirations, but it did include a short note at the bottom of the table of contents. “Today neither the image nor the reality of the American Indian fits traditional preconceptions—a recurrent theme in this special issue,” the mission statement reads. “‘Sap’s risin’, ole wooden Indian’s burstin’ out with leaves,’ writes John Lefeather in his poem on page 95.” It is a promising preamble, despite Lefeather’s awkward imagery. Yet of the eleven editorial contributions, five address interpretations of Native people and culture through a distinctly non-Native lens, exploring topics such as the representation of Indians in Western movies, European depictions of Indians primarily from the eighteenth century (“The Imaginary Indian in Europe”), the nineteenth-century paintings of George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, Paul Kane, and Alfred Jacob Miller (“The Artist-Explorers”), and the photographs of Edward Curtis (“‘The North American Indian’ in Forty Volumes”). There are two anthropological articles, one about the Mescalero Apache puberty ceremony and another on the development of Navajo weaving in the nineteenth century. If this issue was meant to counter “traditional preconceptions,” the bulk of the material presented only reinforced the widely held notion that Native Americans could be defined primarily through the past and through fictional representations by non-Native whites.

It is ironic, then, that in his article “23 Contemporary Indian Artists,” Lloyd E. Oxendine writes: “Until quite recently, modern American Indian art was not considered authentic or valuable unless it was executed in strictly traditional Indian forms.” 1  Oxendine, a Lumbee artist and curator, worked for years in New York City, advocating for Native art to be recognized as contemporary art. He organized exhibitions under the aegis of Native North American Artists, an association he founded in the early 1970s, and from 1972 to ’74 he ran American Art, a contemporary art gallery on Wooster Street in SoHo showing works exclusively by Native artists. Despite the relegation of contemporary art by living Native artists to a single twelve-page article (out of some eighty editorial pages), the very fact of its inclusion in a national art magazine was momentous for the Native art community. Even today, most students and teachers of Native art are familiar with Oxendine’s article because it was such rare coverage for the time. When I met Oxendine while I was working as the curator of the American Indian Community House Gallery in the East Village in the early 2000s, he still spoke proudly about this single publication as the pinnacle of his work on behalf of contemporary Native artists. [pq]Seen as a whole, A.i.A.’s special issue was about Native people as subjects, not as participants, in popular culture and art.[/pq]

Irish-born Brian O’Doherty, A.i.A.’s editor at the time, told me that during his tenure he wanted to shake things up at the magazine, and this special issue was part of his agenda. “My impetus was primarily social justice,” he said. 2  His concern is reflected in the issue’s first article, “The Indian and the White Man’s Law” by Monroe Price, which gives a decent outline of the long and complicated relationship between Native people and the US federal government. It’s also present in Dan Budnik’s “Black Mesa: Progress Report on an Ecological Rape,” a horrifying account of a disastrous strip mine.

These sober topics make a striking contrast to the prevalent imagery of Indian people in popular culture in 1972, which was riddled with fantasy and the mythology of the Western frontier. This genre, with its one-dimensional and cartoonish Indian, was still popular on television and in the movies. And who could forget Iron Eyes Cody—that pseudonymous Italian-American actor who, as a spectral guardian of the environment, shed an epic tear in a public service announcement about littering. Native American clothing elements like headbands and fringe infused counterculture fashion. Paradoxically, appearances of actual Native people in the media were characterized by strife as the American Indian Movement (AIM) took root in the late 1960s and exploded in the news during open conflicts with the US government, such as the seizing of Alcatraz in 1969. In the fall of 1972, AIM activists led the “Trail of Broken Treaties” caravan to Washington, D.C., where they temporarily occupied the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. A.i.A.’s special issue was riding a cultural wave that crested in 1973, when Cher released the song “Half-Breed,” which she performed on TV wearing an iconic Indian war bonnet and sitting astride a horse, and the Red Power movement continued with the highly publicized AIM seizure and occupation of the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. 

However, if the special issue was meant to have an impact, it seemed to fail at the time. O’Doherty recalls that it was barely noticed in the art world. Perhaps this was because the issue was not that provocative after all. The nostalgic, soft-focused images of largely nameless Native people (such as “Hopi Man” by Edward Curtis) only reinforced a common stereotype of the tragic and doomed Indian, saved only in effigy by the white man’s camera. Author Douglas C. Ewing writes that “Curtis’s work is unique in that, emotionally, it seems to reflect an Indian viewpoint.” 3  But his claim is hard to take seriously in an article dominated by these highly romanticized images and a long excerpt from the photographer’s writings that reflects Curtis’s concern for his project but not for his human subjects. Even the cover of the issue, a detail of a cartoonish depiction from a Gallup, New Mexico, trading post, was a white man’s Indian. It would have been bolder to use a provocative portrait by T.C. Cannon or Fritz Scholder, subjects of “Two American Painters,” a spring 1972 exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum).

There are only two Native authors in the issue: Oxendine and Vine Deloria Jr., a Dakota lawyer and theologian. In his scathing article, “The Bureau of Indian Affairs: My Brother’s Keeper,” Deloria minces no words in expressing his frustration with the shortcomings of the government’s dealings with Native people and the resulting destructive, codependent relationship. “For many years, and in comparatively recent times, Indian people looked on the Bureau as an absolute necessity,” Deloria writes. “Indians who appeared to be the least bit intelligent faced immediate termination of federal services and were left to fend for themselves.” 4 His passionate words offer a biting counterpoint to Price’s dry, historical accounting that opens the issue.

There is a third ostensibly Native voice in the issue: John Lefeather, mentioned in the preamble, whose poem, titled “Hi, Paleface!,” spouts words of parody (“How! / Brother, let’s pow-wow”) and faux pidgin English (“Who’s full of it up there, heap big heap of it”) throughout. He is described on the Contributors page as “a young Cherokee Indian and a poet of promise, [who] was killed in an automobile accident last winter.” More tragic than his demise was the fact that he was, actually, another fictional Indian, this one invented by O’Doherty—an Easter egg of sorts, hidden so long it was almost forgotten. The author’s tongue-in-cheek name (“le feather”) should have been the first clue! Playing Indian has a long history in this country, so O’Doherty’s masquerade was not especially original. Non-Natives have used cultural role-playing to do things deemed uncivilized or otherwise contrary to norms for centuries. Lefeather was “born” the same year O’Doherty created his artist alter ego, Patrick Ireland, who “lived” until 2008, while Lefeather existed only long enough to fulfill an editorial need. In this case, Lefeather’s purpose was to speak directly about uncomfortable subjects such as alcoholism and poverty, but the language used to do so is patently offensive and riddled with stereotypes. 

How sad that esteemed Native poets such as N. Scott Momaday (who received a Pulitzer Prize in 1969) and Leslie Marmon Silko were overlooked in favor of a fantasy tragic Indian. But frankly, it is not a great surprise. Seen as a whole, A.i.A.’s special issue was about Native people as subjects, not as participants, in popular culture and art. Discussing Hollywood politics in “The Indian in the Western Movie,” Philip French astutely states that “for all the fine liberal sentiment, the Indian remained one of the pawns in the Western game, to be cast in whatever role the filmmaker chose.” 5  The same point applies to the art world and the 1972 publication.


I’VE INDICATED WAYS in which more space could have been given to Native voices and viewpoints in the 1972 special issue. I can further imagine a version where Native Americans would have had a true presence as living artists, not artists of the past. I would have emphasized the twentieth century by including a profile of revolutionary Dakota artist Oscar Howe, whose famous 1958 rebuke of the art world for “holding us in chains” was the rallying cry for the Native artist’s right to individualism and what we today might call visual sovereignty. 6  Howe’s bold abstract painting positioned the artist as a serious modernist, not a maker of nostalgia or kitsch. My fantasy issue would also more fully represent the Indian art stars of the time, rather than burying them in a single article with more than twenty other artists. That would mean including features on artists such as R.C. Gorman, whose sensitive and monumental drawings of Native women were beginning to catapult him to celebrity, and Fritz Scholder, a provocative painter known for his dark, distorted portraits of Native people. T.C. Cannon, Scholder’s former student, applied a similar, visually lush approach to historical figures and contemporary subjects in work colored by his experiences in Vietnam. (Interestingly, Scholder’s success had a somewhat ghostly presence in the actual 1972 issue. His work was seen in gallery advertisements sprinkled throughout the magazine, in addition to an image in Oxendine’s article.) Kay WalkingStick was making sensual nude paintings that, with their bright colors and hard lines, would have fit right in. The Institute of American Indian Arts, established in Santa Fe in 1962, deserved an article as well. It could have been authored by Vincent Price, who, in addition to being a well-known actor in the horror movie genre, served on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board and was a staunch supporter of Native leadership in the arts. 

But 1972 is now nearly half a century gone, and I don’t have a time machine. Easy as it is to criticize the past, it is hard to admit that some things have not changed as much as we’d like. For instance, the narrow fascination that non-Native popular culture has with the romantic image of the nineteenth-century Plains Indian persists, especially in sports mascots and commercial products. In other ways, we have moved light-years ahead as Native American art has expanded and surged forward, largely outside the gaze of the mainstream art world. Today there is a robust field of Native art scholarship that was seeded by the art warriors of the 1970s. In the United States, major artists of that era included G. Peter Jemison, George Longfish, and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith; in Canada, there were Tom Hill, Bill Reid, and the early members of Professional Native Indian Artists Inc., also known as the Indian Group of Seven. Their groundbreaking projects, from seminal [pq]Though there is much work to be done to make up for the exclusions and omissions of the past, it is an exciting time for Native art.[/pq] publications to exhibitions of contemporary Native art across both countries, pushed institutions and organizations to take Native art seriously in the following decades.

Much of that creative energy owed to the frustrations these artists had with the art world’s refusal to acknowledge contemporary Native art, and the larger culture’s insistence on clinging to imaginary Indians. As Oxendine explains: “Many contemporary Indian artists are confronting these stereotypes in their work with the most modern of idioms—and often with bitterness and rage.” 7  But it is important to note that they circumvented the art world’s obstructionism by creating opportunities for themselves and their communities. These leaders weren’t content to wait for the art world to take notice. They initiated change themselves, in part by mentoring the next generation of artists and scholars.

It is impossible for me to summarize everything that has happened with Native art in the past forty-five years. But I can tell you that, if you scratch the surface, the depth, sophistication, diversity, and quality of the work you will find will blow your mind. Native artists are working in all manner of art forms, including sculpture, painting, digital media, performance, installation, fashion, and filmmaking. There is no blanket formula for what makes Native art count as Native, beyond the artist’s identity. Some artists work with historical themes and mediums, while others express Indigenous epistemologies and worldviews in nontraditional forms. These artists can derive their inspiration from any part of their experiences as contemporary people. There is no one way to be a Native artist.

This issue of A.i.A. is focused on Native art, not art about American Indians. But it is only a snapshot of the important work being done today. Since 1972, many museums have started to catch up, especially regional museums with exhibition programs and growing collections of contemporary Native art, such as the Denver Art Museum, the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Native figures of the late twentieth century are slowly being recognized with major retrospectives. The National Gallery of Canada has featured Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig, and Alex Janvier. In New York, the National Museum of the American Indian, where I work, has organized surveys of work by Scholder, WalkingStick, and James Luna. The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe has become a major venue in the field. Indigenous curators from all reaches of the globe have organized themselves and created active networks that have led to a host of international exhibitions and opportunities. Though there is much work to be done to make up for the exclusions and omissions of the past, it is an exciting time for Native art. So take a look in this issue at some of what you’ve been missing. Above all, as we look to the future, don’t be distracted by the wooden Indians of the past.


KATHLEEN ASH-MILBY is associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.