Issues & Commentary: The Artist Formerly Known as Cherokee


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. 


IN HIS ESSAY on the exhibition “Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World,” writer Jonathan Griffin fails to explain the complexities of Native identity and representation that surround Durham, reflecting the confusion prevalent throughout the show and catalogue. This has left many Native artists, scholars, curators, and community members feeling, once again, ignored and frustrated. 

It is well past time for the art world to stop calling Durham a Cherokee artist. Though he once self-identified as Cherokee, and much of his work addresses an assumed Native persona, Durham renounced tribal identity years ago. In response to Lucy Lippard’s 1993 essay “Jimmie Durham: Postmodernist ‘Savage,’” published in this magazine, Durham wrote a letter to the editor in which he states: “I am not Cherokee. I am not an American Indian. This is in concurrence with recent US legislation, because I am not enrolled on any reservation or in any American Indian community.” 1 Durham made this statement in the wake of the controversy surrounding the passage of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA) of 1990, a federal law that prohibits artists and artisans who are not enrolled in recognized tribes from claiming Native identity when marketing their work. Whether Durham believed what he wrote in 1993, or simply wanted to avoid the possibility of repercussions from the IACA, we should honor his statement. 

Durham’s activism with the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s is frequently cited as evidence of his Native heritage. Yet, just as Rachel Dolezal’s position at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People did not give her, a white woman, a pass to misidentify herself as African American, neither should Durham’s work on behalf of Native people be confused with confirmation of his tribal affiliation. Durham’s supposed refusal to enroll as Cherokee has also been cast as a critique of the United States government’s colonial influence over Native tribes and their enrollment procedures. 

Legal sovereignty and self-determination of citizenship by tribal nations such as the Cherokee Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians are complicated facets of the contemporary Native experience. When Durham flippantly discredits enrollment and implies that he has chosen not to adhere to its requirements, he misrepresents the issue. Cherokee citizenship for any of the three federally recognized tribes was not an option for Durham. His parents were not documented in the necessary ways by either the US or the Cherokee governments. His grandparents or great-grandparents were not either. 

As a Cherokee Nation citizen, I may not always agree with how tribal nations choose to handle enrollment. Many practices for determining tribal enrollment, like referring to historical US documents such as the Dawes Rolls, are determined by a specific history of settler colonialism. Within settler colonialism, the colonizer aims to become the eventual “indigenous” community through the assimilation and annihilation of the original indigenous peoples. Tribal sovereignty is a hard-won counterweight to this ongoing threat, and it is essential for tribes to assert their right to self-determination. The US government does not dictate enrollment for any tribe. Each tribal government, in an act of sovereignty, determines who is eligible for enrollment. 

For a Cherokee person, enrollment is also a means of fortifying traditional social structures in the face of settler colonialism. A Native person’s family remains a pivotal aspect of his or her identity and place in the community. I did not grow up in Oklahoma, where many Cherokee, including my ancestors, were forcibly resettled after the Trail of Tears. Nor have I made my home in any of the ancestral lands that are now part of the Southeastern US. But I know my family. I can tell any Cherokee person where I come from.

Durham’s public criticism of the IACA should not be regarded as an example of his Native activism.[pq]Even though Durham was referred to as Cherokee or Indian in the past, those words should never be applied to him in the future.[/pq]The IACA is far from perfect, but it does afford Native people a measure of control over representations of their identity. There are provisions in the IACA that allow non-enrolled Native artists to market their work as Native-made if they have the support of their community. Durham does not have such support. The IACA does not allow the US government to designate who can and cannot be labeled Native artists. Instead, the law grants tribal nations the authority to make that determination.

Native identity is also far more than legal recognition. In his seminal work of Native critical theory, X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent (2010), Scott Richard Lyons (Ojibwe/Dakota) argues that Native identity arises from an array of factors, including personal history, self-identification, and legal enrollment. He writes: “All we can do is think consciously about the materials out of which our identities are made—their origins, logics, and implications—and make the best calls we can during those moments when identity controversies beg for authentication.” 2 My identification as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation is tied first and foremost to my family and my sense of responsibility to being Native. I know that everything I do has to answer to my Native relatives. And I use the word “relatives” in the sense of all Cherokee peoples and even all Native peoples. 

Instead of forging links to the Cherokee community, Durham has created an artistic persona that resonates with what scholars such as Philip J. Deloria (Dakota) have called the practice of “playing Indian.” practice of playing Indian has clustered around two paradigmatic moments—the Revolution, which rested on the creation of a national identity, and modernity, which has used Indian play to encounter the authentic amidst the anxiety of urban industrial and postindustrial life,” p. 7.’]3 Durham and non-Native scholars want to argue that his art is forcing a critical look at how colonizers have romanticized and stereotyped Native peoples, but many of the references to Cherokee traditions in his work reek of pan-Indian pandering. His claims to a specific clan affiliation, for example, are highly dubious, as many Cherokee citizens with deep ties to the community do not know their clans. He has recounted having received a “real name” from a Coyote, an animal that does not, in fact, play the trickster role in Cherokee stories as Durham claims. The artist’s text pieces also frequently include misuses of Cherokee words, despite his claims to have grown up in a Cherokee-speaking household.  

“Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World,” organized by Anne Ellegood of the Hammer Museum, will travel to venues in the United States and Canada through 2018. Institutions that continue to promote Durham as Cherokee, and frame his work as informed by indigenous identity, are doing a disservice to Native peoples and artists. Retrospective exhibitions can be moments to rethink and reevaluate artists whose own understanding of themselves may have changed as much as their art over the years. Why not use this exhibition to do that with Durham? The exhibition could be an opportunity to heal and explicitly acknowledge that even though Durham was referred to as Cherokee or Indian in the past, those words should never be applied to him in the future. Ellegood and the Hammer Museum failed to change the conversation. Curators and institutions must be held accountable for their actions and words, just as artists need to acknowledge their impact on marginalized communities.  

Scholar Nancy Marie Mithlo (Chiricahua Apache) also wrote a letter to Art in America in response to Lucy Lippard’s 1993 article to correct the record about Durham’s uses and misuses of Cherokee identity. , letter to the editor, Art in America, July 1993, p. 23.’]4 Mithlo critiques his work for pandering to clichés. Mithlo was arguing for something that almost a quarter century later we are still having to debate. We are tired. But we won’t stop. I hope the art world can appreciate our commitment and finally acknowledge that they made a mistake, a mistake that can be righted by an increase in domestic and international retrospectives of deserving Native artists. We never want to make institutions afraid to work with Native artists because of identity issues. It’s about listening, learning, and respect. We may be tired but we are also hopeful. 





ASHLEY HOLLAND is a doctoral student in Native American art history at the University of Oklahoma, Norman.