Issues & Commentary: Ethnic Fraud and Art


A Jimmie Durham retrospective has revived questions about the artist’s identity. Two Native writers—Ashley Holland (Cherokee Nation) and America Meredith—respond to Jonathan Griffin’s feature on Durham from Art in America‘s May 2017 issue.  


“ONE MIGHT IMAGINE that Durham’s ethnicity would be, today, beyond question,” writes Jonathan Griffin. Why would that be? After all, Jimmie Durham, an American-born sculptor who has spent most of his career in Europe, has never discussed his ethnicity in detail. An examination of his family tree shows that his ancestors are primarily English, with some Scottish and French. Griffin shared what has been the artist’s standard bio for decades: “Durham was born in Washington, Arkansas, as a Wolf Clan Cherokee but considers himself stateless.” Yet, Durham was likely born in Harris, Texas. 1

To be Cherokee, at the very minimum, requires Cherokee ancestors. Durham has none. Subsequently, he is not an American Indian. Still, this assumed identity has informed much of his artistic practice for more than forty years. Critics, historians, and curators have continued to promote the claim that Durham is Native American. This practice reached a crescendo in his North American retrospective “Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World,” organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

Durham’s activism in the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) in the 1970s might seem to validate his Native heritage. Ward Churchill, Durham’s former comrade-in-arms, was also active in AIM. Churchill’s claims of being Cherokee and Muscogee Creek ended when the Rocky Mountain News found no evidence of any Native people among 142 of his direct ancestors. 2 Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz claimed to be Cheyenne when she worked with Durham in AIM and IITC. She subsequently acknowledged being white. Now, most unfortunately, she identifies as Cherokee. 3

Why is it always Cherokee? The phenomenon of non-Native people claiming to be Cherokee began in Georgia in the mid-nineteenth century. Among certain non-Natives, Cherokee has become a generic placeholder, what people claim when they think they are Indian but don’t know what tribe. In Southern racial politics, Cherokee was even twisted into a code word for a “real” or “authentic” American identity. The best-selling novel The Education of Little Tree (1976) was marketed as a memoir by Forrest Carter, a Cherokee man from Texas. As early as 1976, however, the New York Times revealed the book’s true author to be Asa Earl Carter, a Ku Klux Klan propagandist from Alabama, but the exposé did little to dampen the book’s success at the time. 4 Cherokees must be one of the few ethnicities in which the nonmembers claiming the identity outnumber the actual members. Since Cherokees are an exogamous group, it was relatively easy to pass as a member—at least before the internet simplified genealogical research about published claims.

Why does this matter? With so little representation in the mainstream art world for Native American artists, a retrospective of an individual who built his career on falsely claiming to be American Indian is a major setback for the Native community. Curators at both the Hammer Museum and the Walker Art Center, where the exhibition was on view this summer, have claimed that they did not present Durham as an indigenous artist. Yet almost every page of the exhibition catalogue does just that. Illustrated throughout the catalogue, Durham’s artwork makes conspicuous references to Native heritage. To cite just two examples, REAL INDIAN BLOOD is inscribed on the collage titled My Blood (1985/1991), and a photograph of Durham’s parents included in the collage The Indian’s Family (1985) is captioned THE INDIAN’S PARENTS (FRONT VIEW).

In an interview published in the catalogue, curator Anne Ellegood and Durham discuss the artist’s appropriation of Cherokee language. “I recall you explaining that beyond the obvious fact that you are Cherokee,” Ellegood says, “you like to use the language because very few people speak it.” 5 She echoes Griffin’s observation that Durham uses the Cherokee language (and, by extension, an assumed Cherokee identity) to position himself as the ultimate Other for a mostly European audience. Griffin quotes Durham’s explanation for not translating into English the Cherokee writing in his mixed-medium painting Zeke Proctor’s Letter (1989): “What I want them to know is that they can’t know that,” referring to non-Cherokee-speaking viewers’ inability to decipher the letter’s meaning. 6 Roy Boney Jr. (Cherokee Nation), a scholar who has promoted the use of Cherokee in everyday life, offers a simpler explanation: Durham doesn’t know what the original nineteenth-century missive, by a Cherokee Civil War veteran, actually says. 7


INDIGENOUS IDENTITY can be highly convoluted and fraught. Ho-Chunk photographer Tom Jones explores this complexity in his series “Identity Genocide” (2012–13). Jones overlays photographic portraits of Ho-Chunk children who were denied tribal citizenship with text such as INELIGIBLE, REMOVED, or NOT RECOGNIZED. He provides captions detailing his subjects’ stories. Sometimes parents cannot enroll their children in their tribe. Sometimes one person can enroll while their sibling cannot. But complexity doesn’t mean that curators and art historians can simply throw up their hands and give up trying to understand the situation. The solution is to consult the tribes in question. If curators, critics, and historians don’t like the answers, the problem lies with them, not the tribes.

In explaining the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, Griffin neglects to mention that federally recognized tribes determine their own membership criteria and have the right to designate anyone they choose as tribal artisans. None of the three Cherokee tribes—Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, United Keetoowah Band of the Cherokee Indians, and Cherokee Nation—have chosen to designate Durham as a tribal artisan. Why would they? He has no interaction with any of them and has been misrepresenting Cherokee culture, language, and history for decades.

Placing a tribal affiliation next to someone’s name is not a minor footnote. To paraphrase Richard Ray Whitman (Yuchi-Muscogee), artists are our ambassadors. What a tribally affiliated artist says and does in the public arena reflects back on the tribe. The visual arts have been one avenue of communication open to Native American peoples. Even in the darkest times in indigenous history, art allowed us to share our viewpoints and affirm our identities. In 1932, during the nadir of the Native population, when American Indians were believed to face imminent extinction, the United States exhibited Native arts in its pavilion at the Venice Biennale. 8

Popular discourse about Native cultures is already dominated by misinformation and stereotypes. Discussion of Native issues must be governed by honesty. Part of Durham’s draw is his outspoken criticism of colonialism. What could be more colonial than non-Native curators and museums providing a platform for a European-American man living in Europe to speak on behalf of all indigenous peoples of the Americas? Native American people deserve the fundamental right to speak for ourselves, even within the art world.


AMERICA MEREDITH is an artist and editor of First American Art Magazine.