It’s been said that art is meant to comfort and disturb.
“Tonto, Teepees, and Totem Poles: Considering Native American Stereotypes in the 21st Century,” an exhibition at the Iroquois Indian Museum, which opened last week, certainly does both.
From the cheeky painting of Furbies waiting to be picked up by a crane and aptly named “Fur Trade,” to the subtle statue of a figure with blonde hair and blue-eyes wearing traditional garments from a mismatch of Native American cultures (this one called “We Stereotype Ourselves”) there’s a lot to unpack.
Curator Colette Lemmon said the exhibition is meant to stir up conversation and in some ways, she’s already seen that among visitors.
The museum first held an exhibition that explored stereotypes in the 1990s with artist Tom Huff.
“We wanted to revisit [the topic],” Lemmon said.
Some of the stereotypes have faded, yet others have risen up to take their place in the last decade or so.
With the influx of casinos in the area, in the eyes of some, “[They’ve] gone from being the poor Indians to being the rich Indians,” Lemmon said.
Some of the artwork explores the perception that reservations are dangerous and poor. Others get at the opposite view: that Indians are getting rich and that because of their native status they somehow get a “free ride.”
A mixed media piece by Natasha Smoke Santiago of the Mohawk Nation, called “No Free Ride,” explores that; with a bingo board-like background and a figure in a headdress, arms lifted to the sky, riding a horse.
But the stereotypes don’t just span economic ideas.
There’s also this stereotype that native people are extinct, said Lemmon said, that they just don’t exist anymore. In years past, some visitors have come to the museum and asked an educator [who is native] “Where are the Indians?” There’s this perception that Indians are only Indians if they're wearing traditional headdresses and garments.
A series of portraits included in the exhibition works to shatter that perception.
“Te Iakwa Ti:Hon (We are all different)” shows the portraits of nine high school students in Mecena. They’re wearing sweatshirts and jeans, they’re just smiling at the camera in some and in others they’re dancing or posing. The figures look like typical high school kids. And they are in some ways.
They’re all natives though; some from the Mohawk Bear Clan and some from the Mohawk Turtle Clan, among others. It’s almost like these students are asking to tell their own narratives, to create their own identities, without the stereotypical ideas of the viewer getting in the way.
And these stereotypes aren’t just kept alive by non-natives.
“The stereotypes are not always applied from the outside,” Lemmon said.
This is another spot where the exhibit gets a bit controversial. There are a series of photos taken in the last few years of different scenes on reservations both near and far. In one photo, taken in 2017, a native woman is wearing a sash declaring her the Indian Village Princess. In another photo, there’s a totem pole outside of a gas station on a reservation in New York. There’s another with a Tonto statue outside of a general store on a reservation.
Totem poles were used by Native Americans out West and the statue could be considered offensive, said Lemmon. Yet, it makes the place easily identifiable.
“A lot of it is marketing,” Lemmon said. But she hopes viewers will ask themselves whether or not symbols and statutes like that are appropriate.
The exhibition pushes the envelope on expectations of Native American art as well.
Take the large wall-hanging of fake grass cut in the shape of a bison skin with long tassels made of colorful yarn hanging down from it. The piece, “Golf Clubs, War Clubs, and Pow Wow Clubs (a story of my youth)” by Marion Snow, is held up by string with a Hello Kitty head beaded along with it.
“She’s playing with [the idea of] what native art should look like,” Lemmon said.
At first glance, it’s strange, sure, but it’s clear from the shape of the piece that she’s asking the viewer to deny that this isn’t native art. Snow, who is part of the Mohawk Nation, “grew up off the Res,” as she said in her artist statement. Visiting the reservation was always a time of family closeness and joy. She stood in complete admiration of what she thought of as “real Indians,” dressed in white buckskin and singing and dancing for a group of tourists. After the tourists left, she watched as they changed back into their “plaid pants and polo tops.”
Even though these performances were an act, during which many stereotypes were probably embraced, Snow said in a way she became like that “Buckskin Indian princess,” which she so admired as a child, learning everything she could about the culture.
It’s a unique vignette and it shows that the issue of stereotypes is in no way one-dimensional. And neither is “Tonto, Teepees, and Totem Poles,” which will be on exhibit until Nov. 30. For more information visit iroquoismuseum.org.
1 p.m. - 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 19, at the Iroquois Indian Museum, Howes Cave
Featuring guest speaker Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara/Lakota) who will present his film “This is a Stereotype.” Luger is from Standing Rock Reservation and the film juxtaposes footage from the IAIA’s 1976 Native American video archives and interviews with modern-day indigenous artists, activists and scholars. For more information visit iroquoismuseum.org.