Image source: Oklahoma Historical Society,
'War Pony' by Allan Houser. Image from Oklahoma Historical Society,

What Is the Role of an Indian Artist?

Jason Asenap

What is the role of an artist?  What is the role of an Indian artist? And by Indian I mean Native American, Indigenous, etc. -- choose your terms, by your decade.  Let’s not obfuscate the meaning or the question. What does it mean to be an Indian artist?

My own definition of an Indian artist is one who creates art and identifies as an Indian. That’s pretty much where my definition ends.  After that the sky's the limit.

And why does this even matter, this question of the role of an Indian artist?  To me the word artist is synonymous with “truth-teller”.  I want to say I’ve read this phrase long ago in some fancy literary journal that only a few academics have read and I want attribute the phrase to the terrific Muskogee Creek poet Joy Harjo. Truth be told I’m not sure who said it. But I’m fairly sure it’s hardly the first time the thought has been uttered.  I think we can somewhat agree that (good) art aspires to a common truth amongst us all.

To be a truth teller sounds pretty amazing to me.  Call it what you will, a  seeker of truth, storyteller, painter, musician, craftsperson, carver, traditionalist, avant-garde, potter, saxophone player, flute player (flutist?), creator. These all sound like great things to be, given this context.

I’m not sure we respect our artists as much as we should in Indian country.  Also we tend to mix up the artist with those who make craft.  Craft, or arts and crafts, is certainly not a dirty phrase mind you. Those who create arts and crafts are keepers of traditions and in many cases are one of the few who continue our heritage and cultural customs consistently.  They are known for their research and meticulous approach to carving, music, song, etc. They help us to remember who we are and where we come from.

And then there’s the fine artist. They are always out there, creating, somehow, in the midst of full time jobs, children, education. They do it because they have to.  It is the need to create.  For me, it is the thirst for knowledge I have had as an infant, I must know, therefore I must find out. This thirst for knowledge and skill can translate to anything really, whatever you do.  For the artist however, you must unlock the unconscious and attempt to make sense of that. You choose to convey a very human expression that hopefully is relatable to someone. The closer to truth we are, the closer to understanding we become. Understanding what?  I say understanding, period.

When Dorothy Dunn told Allan Houser all those years ago at the Studio in Santa Fe, NM, at the birth of  "traditional" Indian painting in the Southwest, to paint within the rules, he resisted.  He attempted to go by her rules and the rules that society dictated he create within, and he played along, and he made some fine paintings in this style.  It was when he left and was given the opportunity to explore his ideas without fear of repercussion that he became the world renowned fine artist he was destined to be.  He was allowed to explore and create, freed to make his own mistakes, and in the process, created a new way of seeing his figural Southwest images in sculpture. He showed us what he saw, his beautiful truth.

Houser wanted to be considered a fine artist, not an Indian artist or a maker of crafts. His goal was large. He wanted to make work that spoke to people of all ages and ethnicities worldwide.  He had painted in what was considered a "traditional" style, yet his passion was to explore ideas, to see what lies outside those black lines that outlined each of his figural images on the canvas.

I think in Allan Houser lies a good lesson.  Here is a man who knows his tradition, is proud to be a Chiracahua artist and yet, at the same time, did work that could stand up next to any of his non-Indian contemporaries.  While his colleagues were looking to oceanic, African, Navajo sand painting, and other so called primitivist art sources, Houser was creating from the inside out, already based in a traditional culture and looking to modernist painting styles and appropriating modernist influences such as abstraction.  He was entirely comfortable in who he was and felt comfortable taking what he liked from the outside world. This is not so different in what we do today as modern Indian people.

The role of an Indian artist is large, to those who take it seriously.  I salute those who create and explore, for our lives would be so much less without these Indian scientists of the humanities, exploring and conjuring up new ideas for us to talk about.  They create new ways for us to see the world, seeking truth.

Jason Asenap (Comanche/Muskogee Creek) is a veteran of the American Indian Arts/Disney/ABC Summer Television and Film workshop, and was one of four Sundance Institute NativeLab fellows. His current projects include Rugged Guy and a documentary about the history and influence of the Comanche Nation on the Native American Church.

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Inuvialuk artist has solo show at Washington's Smithsonian CBC News Posted: Oct 30, 2012 10:43 AM ET Last Updated: Oct 31, 2012 9:55 AM ET Facebook Twitter Share Email External Links Smithsonian: Arctic Journeys: Ancient Memories (Note:CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external links.) Abraham Anghik Ruben has become the first Inuvialuk sculptor to get a solo show at the Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum in Washington, D.C. The carver — who works in bone, stone, ivory and bronze — says his work reflects his roots in the North and Inuit core belief systems. “For myself, it's an exhibition that I've been waiting 40 years for. It's taken 40 years to get to this stage in my life, and I'm extremely pleased with the events and the effort that went into making this exhibit,” Ruben told CBC News in an interview last week. The exhibit Arctic Journeys/Ancient Memories: The Sculpture of Abraham Anghik Ruben opened in early October and continues until January. It centres around 23 of his sculptures, which combine Inuit and Norse mythology in their story-telling. Curator Bernadette Driscoll Engelstad said the Smithsonian selected Ruben’s work in part because of its large scale, but also because of its bold contemporary vision. “We were drawn to Abraham — Abraham has really distinguished himself in many ways,” she said. His carving of a narwhal tusk is not only large – more than 1.5 metres long — but also “reminds you very much of medieval art in the fineness of the sculpting,” she said. '“When two peoples meet and have a relationship that lasts for several hundred years, a lot of things happen including warfare, trade, intermarriage, collective hunting, exchange of cultural ideas and exchange of technology' —Abraham Anghik Ruben For the American Indian Museum exhibit, Ruben extrapolates a series of stories from pre-history about contact between Inuit, who spread from the western Arctic toward Baffin island and Greenland, and the Vikings, who spread from Scandinavia east to the British isles, Greenland and North America. “So where I'm coming from with this exhibition, I'm using the idea of the inevitable consequences of contact as a way to put forward ideas and stories, images in stone,” he said. “There may not be the evidence in Inuit sagas, but when two peoples meet and have a relationship that lasts for several hundred years, a lot of things happen including warfare, trade, intermarriage, collective hunting, exchange of cultural ideas and exchange of technology.” Ruben’s meditations on Norse culture began with a circumpolar conference he attended in Irkutsk, Russia, where he met people from other northern cultures. He later studied Norse mythology, particularly the figures of Odin and Thor, which he compares to Inuit heroes. Memories: An Ancient Past, by Abraham Anghik Ruben, Whale skull, Brazilian soapstone, and cedar. (Kipling Gallery/American Indian Museum) He is particularly interested in how shamanism was practised in both cultures and ways that pre-historic societies form codes of behaviour. Engelstad says there is recent archeological evidence of contact between the two cultures on North Baffin Island and Ellesmere Island. Upwards of 500,000 people could pass through the exhibit, exposing them to fresh ideas about how culture is formed, she said. Important cultural history “I think what Abraham has done is in some way brought [cultural myths] in a monumental way, so they really face us and they move into our spaces,” she said. “He has done this with his own carving of Inuvialuit history and makes us realize the importance of this history, the importance of the history of native peoples throughout the Americas.” Ruben grew up in Paulatuk in Canada’s Northwest Territories. His father was a hunter and his mother was a seamstress, but he attended a residential school in Inuvik, returning home only during the summers. After studying design at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Ruben settled off the coast of British Columbia, setting up his studio on Salt Spring Island. He has worked as an artist since the 1970s. While native artist Brian Jungen has shown his work at the Smithsonian and Inuk painter Annie Pootoogook has shown her work at New York’s Museum of the American Indian, Ruben is the first Inuvialuk to get a solo show in Washington. Arctic warming trends His vision extends to the warming trends in today’s Arctic, which may reflect ancient weather systems, but also picks up on the Inuit belief system that man “must have reverence for all creation." “It has been called the ancient Inuit commandments and it is passed on through the Raven creation myth,” he said. “In 2004, I started forming sculpture dealing with the Arctic environment and there is a sculpture here called Sedna: Life out of Balance and it represents a contemporary and also ancient dynamic from the Arctic weather. From that first sculpture I came to understand that it all comes down to too much ice or too little ice, either extreme cold or warming trends and everything goes haywire,” he added. Arctic Journeys/Ancient Memories: The Sculpture of Abraham Anghik Ruben continues to Jan. 2, 2013.