“Kill the Indian and save the Man” was the catchphrase at Carlisle Indian Boarding School, where Native American children were assimilated into American culture, given new names, and punished for speaking their native language. The school ostensibly didn’t view Native Americans as inferior, but Cherokee artist Shan Goshorn argues otherwise. In Cultural Genocide, she revisits this systematic erasure of Indian culture with a large, coffin-shaped basket inscribed with the names of some of the 12,000 students who attended between 1879 and 1918. It’s sharp commentary on a part of our history that should make us uncomfortable.
Goshorn, one of only 14 living Cherokee double-weave basket masters (as recognized by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, NC), combines her potent message with exquisite craftsmanship, as do many of the Native American and Canadian artists featured at the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s Changing Hands: Art without Reservation. Even viewers already acutely familiar with narratives like Zinn’s People’s History will find the show worthwhile.
The UMMA’s ordinarily spacious A. Taubman Gallery seems almost congested with an arrestingly vast and varied array over a hundred works by 85 artists. Changing Hands is about much more than colonization, assimilation, and tradition versus change, but since these themes were imposed onto Native American history, they inevitably carry a presence in the show.
Jordan Bennett’s Re:Approprating the Wheel is a quotation of Duchamp’s Bicycle wheel, but Duchamp’s stool is replaced with the sort used by elders during a pow-wow, the wheel’s spokes are crafted from moose sinew and assume the form of a dream-catcher, and garish, artificial feathers adorn the wheel, undermining any sacred or ritualistic associations, evoking instead the cheap dime-store Indian bric-a-brac of a tourist shop. It’s both an apt metaphor for the synthesis of Western and native traditions and a commentary on the trivialization of Indian cultures.
Some works address contemporary social problems in Indian communities, such as disproportionately high rates of substance abuse. Things weren’t always that way; before the Jackson-era Treaty of New Echota (which forced Cherokees at gunpoint to cede all their land in the Southeast), Cherokees even surpassed their non-Native neighbors in literacy, something artist Alan Michelson’s reminds us in Phoenix, a sculpture depicting the shop which published the Cherokee Phoenix, the first Native American newspaper in the United States, the text of the Echota Treaty inscribed incriminatingly on the sculpture’s roof.
This show isn’t about just history, but history hasn’t been just, and confronting these works is to confront the demons of our past, which, however uncomfortable it makes us, can only be healthy. Furthermore, the show helps dismantle lingering stereotypes concerning Indian art should be. Viewers may leave Changing Hands completely at a loss regarding what Native North American art actually is; then again, perhaps that’s the point.
Additional information regarding Changing Hands, which runs through September 14, can be found here: http://umma.umich.edu/view/exhibitions/2014-changing-hands.php
Established in 1828, the Cherokee Phoenix still maintains a presence online: http://www.cherokeephoenix.org/