Courtesy Douglas Flanders and Associates
An art exhibition in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is causing a stir over the artist's use of Native American imagery.

Horse Capture: Art Exhibition Reeks of Cultural Appropriation

Joe Horse Capture

For over 200 years, non-Natives have appropriated Native American culture for their own intents and purposes. The sphere is wide when it comes to the misuse of Native American culture; appropriation can be seen in sports mascots, fashion and design, product logos; the list goes on and on. The problem with this current mainstream model is that it denies Indigenous people the right to represent their own lifeways and worldview.

The show “Scott Seekins, the New Eden” at the Douglas Flanders and Associates Art Gallery, is being touted as Seekins response to the “Great Sioux Uprising of 1862.” Seekins’s “body of work as an alternative to Minnesota’s tepid 2012 150-year remembrance,” as the gallery touts on its website, is problematic in its interpretation, as it reeks of Native appropriation, and lacks a Native voice.

Scott Seekins, a mainstay of the Minneapolis art scene, is best known for his eccentric dress and demeanor as opposed to the quality of his work. This particular collection of Seekins’s work imitates historic Plains style of drawing (erroneously referred to as ledger art), where he replicates scenes, moves the images around, and inserts himself in a sort of Forrest Gump manner. To be clear, Plains style drawings were a warrior’s record of bravery against the enemy, hunting scenes, courtship, and ceremonial life, these accounts were drawn in accountant ledgers and sketchbooks.

Seekins’s work is the quintessential example of cultural appropriation.

In Seekins’s painting, a clear replica of John Casper Wild’s “Watercolor Painting of Fort Snelling,” (1884), Seekins portrays himself guiding a non-Native woman holding a baby, in the background there are tipis and the fort on the bluff. In another drawing created in the historic Plains graphic style, a Native man has defeated an enemy Calvary, while Seekins, wearing his iconic suit, stands with his arms raised. By placing himself in these historical scenes he positions himself as a mediator and witness. By doing this he disregards the Native American narrative. Considering that this is one of the worst tragedies between the United States Government and American Indians, the U.S. Dakota War of 1862 and its aftermath has had a long lasting impact on the descendants of the Dakota that died. Many Dakota died at Fort Snelling and on the gallows in Mankato, their descendants carry the spirit of their Ancestors with them, they live among us, they are part of us, they are an important part of the Minnesota narrative.

Seekins’s use of these drawings and recreation of the events therein are particularly disrespectful considering his attempt at making a tragic event into something amusing and playful. His primary goal here was and is self-promotion of the worst kind. Seekins is not alone in this; he has been empowered to create this type of work. In 2012, the Minneapolis Central Library hosted Seekins’s work where he presented his own personal interpretation of the U.S-Dakota War, rather than actual Dakota artists who have created their own bodies of work that address the lives and experience of their Ancestors.

It is time for the mainstream to insist that Native artists be given the opportunity to present their own narrative, the time of relying on “self-described interpreters” is a thing of the past.

There are a few who have moved to create this new paradigm; Minneapolis’s two Native own and operated Native American art galleries, “All My Relations” and “Two Rivers” Art recently hosted exhibits such as “Re-Riding History: Southern Plains to Matanzas,” an exhibition that focused on the contemporary American Indian artist’s response to the Native Americans that were imprisoned at Fort Marion, Florida.

As Minnesotans, we want the truth; we seek and honor voices that speak from the depths of their soul. There is honor in hearing the voices of Indigenous people of this land. We deserve it.

Joe D. Horse Capture (A’aninin) was the Associate Curator of Native American Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for 15 years, and is currently an Associate Curator of Research and Documentation, at the National Museum of the American Indian-Smithsonian Institution. The views expressed here are his own.

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Peter MacKinnon
Peter MacKinnon
Submitted by Peter MacKinnon on
"The problem with this current mainstream model is that it denies Indigenous people the right to represent their own lifeways and worldview." Surely not true. The indigenous person has the undeniable right, and the ability, to represent their own lifeway and worldview as they wish. The indigenous person also has the right to represent non-indigenous views as they will, and to adopt non-indigenous cultural icons as they wish. But similarly, the non-indigenous person must be free to represent the indigenous lifeway as they see it, adopt or modify indigenous icons as they wish. There is no reason why my story telling is harmed by your story telling, and vice versa.

WhiteManWanting's picture
Submitted by WhiteManWanting on
Peter MacKinnon, perhaps you don't have a personal story with rich history that you want to preserve (and protect). So perhaps that's why you assert that "there is no reason why [your] story telling is harmed by [someone else's] story telling, and vice versa." And perhaps at least one of two analogies might be helpful in your better understanding of why that doesn't work. While I would expect Ford Motor Company to highlight the good things about their vehicles, at least they'd be the subject-matter experts on the topic. I'd be much more reluctant to seek out the story-telling about Ford from a Chrysler or GM dealer - for reasons that would seem obvious. But more serious and real might be Religious Group "X" that is often maligned, trying to tell their own story - their beliefs, standards, history, etc., only to have some other religious (or even atheist) group telling their own version of the Religion Group "X's" story. Can you at least begin to understand how anyone outside of Religious Group "X" simply is not QUALIFIED to explain the subtleties, intricacies, history, etc., of Religious Group "X"? And that how it's not a matter of "undeniable right" under the Constitution, but a much deeper moral inconsistency to have someone from outside a significant ethnic or religious group attempt to properly represent a group to which they don't belong, and in which they had not grown up? Or perhaps you cannot conceive of the almost simultaneous frustration as well as ridiculing laughter experienced by members of a significant group steeped in history and tradition, when they see others trying to explain them. Outsiders simply cannot know what they don't know, and even with decades of diligent study, unless they somehow "become" a member of that group at a heart and soul level, all the "book learnin' " and observation in the world simply cannot capture what is necessary to then adequately and accurately re-explain it to other outsiders.