| There's been a lot of discussion about the name of a certain
Washington football team with lawsuits arguing that it is disparaging,
and media outlets choosing not to use it in their content.
But while the debates around the language are raging, the logo
also a part of the trademark lawsuit remains emblazoned
on hats, T-shirts, and picnic blankets around the capital.
The logo has been the team's brand ambassador for a long time
and this team isn't the only sports team to use Native American
imagery. It's also not something that is exclusive to sports teams;
caricatures and motifs depicting indigenous people have long been
used to sell stuff cigars for one, but also things like chewing
gum and butter.
But there is another body of artwork out there produced
by Native American artists and entrepreneurs that asserts
ownership over the images associated with their culture. Their work
counters the existing "non-Native" representations, questions these
portrayals and provides new context.
'Apache' In A Transcultural Fabric
Jason Lujan lives in Brooklyn, pretty far from the
small town in West Texas where he grew up. Lujan, who is Chiricahua,
Apache and Mexican moved to New York after graduate school in Colorado
in 2001. The move changed his outlook and his work.
"My entire approach is to present Native content, but in the
way I see it existing in the world today everything exists
all at once, everything all at the same time," he says.
The word "Apache", for example, really fascinates Lujan. Through
his art, Lujan shows how it's changed over time.
Growing up, "it meant who we were, but it meant who we were
to outsiders....that's someone else's word to describe us," he says.
But the images it invoked then aren't the same as now.
In Lujan's work, "Apache" exists as the helicopter, quite well-known
around the world. Lujan juxtaposes that visual against newspapers
in another language, in this case Chinese quite literally,
placing it in an international context.
In another piece, a part of his "Wild Places" series, he surrounds
the helicopter with materials he found in his own neighborhood in
Brooklyn such as packaging from a Muji store. At the bottom, there's
a native pattern.
"It's an exercise in putting, forms and words and labels together
with the 'Apache' element inserted in there at some point," he says.
"It all needs to work in tandem with each other because that's how
I see us operating in the world with equitable circumstances."
For Lujan, language is a way to approach another world view.
"When you say to someone 'Native American' there's
kind of an ahistorical image that appears in their mind...someone
on a horse or someone living in a very traditional way and that's
not the entire story," he says. "My intent is to highlight a more
contemporary context where everyone is connected."
Cowgirls And Indian Princesses
Sarah Sense was born in Sacramento. Her mother is
Native American Choctaw and Chitimacha and her father
is of European descent. Sense became acquainted with her Chitimacha
family in college, when she worked on the reservation as a part
of her scholarship program. During that time, she became curious
about her connection with this community, about her own family and
She was also fascinated by the traditional weaving practices
which she incorporated into her art at graduate school at
Parsons. She uses photo paper as a sort of fabric, weaving it into
depictions of the reservation landscape.
Sense continued using the technique in her next series
the "Hollywood" series.
"It had to do with politics of how women were portrayed, and
also politics of how Native Americans were portrayed," she says.
"I think for me, it was the best way to portray what it felt like...
to embody the characters of those two personas the cowgirl
and the Indian princess."
The series is a melange of images from a couple of different
sources. She uses old Hollywood posters she got from Sunset Strip
and Burbank with the cowboy v. Indian tropes, images in antique
stores, photos from Native American archives and combines them with
The piece above, for example, consists of pictures of Sense
and her sister dressed up by their mother who Sense says
was very proud of their heritage.
She didn't want to personalize the experience, but humanize
it by questioning, "The person in that photo who's that person?"
Smiling Indians. Bad Indians.
Red Corn is a graphic artist and entrepreneur who grew up on the
Osage reservation in Oklahoma. Once he got his degree in visual
communications from the University of Kansas, he started a T-shirt
business called "Demockratees." The T-shirts had Native messages
and Indian-themed inside jokes.
But Red Corn soon expanded that to a branding business, helping
Native American businesses tell their stories through the web.
Along the way, Red Corn came together with other Native American
artists to start an comedy improv group called the 1491s. The group
has released a stream of videos since 2009 in which they responded
to the things they saw around them, Red Corn says.
The group's work is mostly satire and like all satire,
while some people read a lot into it, Red Corn says others don't
get the point. That doesn't matter to the group, though.
"We reflect what we know and what we see," he says.
For the 1491s, the videos are one way to claim
some artistic territory, and exert full control over it.
Red Corn has also dabbled in other visual media,
making short films like Bad Indians and a film and portrait series
of smiling Native people he sees around him. He produces images
that don't adhere to the "noble savage romantic idea" that he sees
in broader culture.
people attribute to my work is that I'm breaking new ground because
I photograph Indian people smiling...but really, that should not
be a radical notion," he says. "I don't have the luxury of the time
to go and find that perfect indigenous specimen to photograph, I'm
just photographing regular people."
Before (and sometimes now) Red Corn does a bit of what he calls
"brandalism" tearing down discriminatory advertising or corporations
behind discriminatory symbols using the"brand equity that somebody
has already poured into those symbols." Basically what that means
is that he uses the symbols in the original advertising and subverts
the message. But of late, Red Corn is trying to create original
narratives instead of subverting old ones.
"If you want to tear down something old, you have to build something
new," he paraphrases a Socrates quote he recently read.
In a media space crowded by messages, Red Corn wants to create
a large enough body of work that "it can take up the maximum amount
of bandwidth possible," he says.
"One of the things I try to do is put as much stuff into that
pipeline...so that as a group, we're able to counteract those non-Native
images that are representing us." he says.