“of doubtful attractiveness for morality”

Guests browse more than 20 local, Native American artists’ booths during the 2008 In The Spirit Native Arts Market and Festival.
(Christopher Nelson photo, Washington State Historical Society)

The EDGE Program has been pretty awesome so far. (Thank you Artist Trust!) We’re three sessions into it and I’ve already gained valuable insights and information into creating a life as a successful working artist. One thing I think it will be extremely helpful with is in mapping out our dreams and goals as individual artists. There are sixteen of us and we seem to be a pretty diverse group who are serious about building our skills on the business side of our practices.

So what’s on my mind? Indian Arts Markets/Festivals. I have yet to personally exhibit any of my work at one of these events and have felt somewhat conflicted about whether I should or not. On one hand, it seems like “the thing to do” for Native (and many other) artists. But somehow, maintaining a travelling show of my work on a Native American arts circuit just doesn’t feel right to me. Full disclosure: I do have some of my work through From the River Collective that has been included in events like this, but that also seems different as I am being represented as opposed to maintaining a booth of my own.

A week or so ago, I ran across an article (Why there ain’t no such a-thing as “Aboriginal culture”) that instantly put things into a clearer focus for me on this subject. And let me start by saying that I’m not passing judgement on these events or the people who participate in them. I’m just clarifying–mainly for myself–why I have chosen not to pursue this particular avenue for promoting my work.

The article is written by a Canadian about First Nations/Aboriginal issues, but can just as easily apply to the United States. Here’s a section:

No, what gets me is the crass commercialism and blatant fleecing of the crowd, one perhaps lured by the call of the drum but more likely by increasingly slick advertising for…  what? ‘Aboriginal culture?’

The signs are up at every single one of these gatherings: “Welcome to (insert place) Powwow, a celebration of Aboriginal culture.” It might be in Wikwemikong, Fort Alexander, Carcross, Winnipeg, Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Kahnawake, Ohsweken. They’re all guilty of promoting something called “Aboriginal culture.”

This is bad enough for the idiots among us. But the real target is the poor unknowing Caucasian who wouldn’t know the difference between Ojibway and Algonquin, Mi’kmaq or Maliseet. For all I know, these poor suckers might actually believe this is how we live all year round, in little powwow villages called reserves, surviving on bison burgers, corn soup and selling each other mass produced dreamcatchers.

Of course, they’ve heard about Attawapiskat. But that’s a place that doesn’t look like a powwow village. Perhaps this is the real reason for their outrage last winter.  Maybe, they think, folks up there don’t sell each other enough dreamcatchers and bison burgers and that’s the real reason why that place is in such a mess.

But that isn’t the point. This is: there ain’t no such a-thing as “Aboriginal culture.”

“Aboriginal culture” is a false construct, a somewhat pleasing but ultimately stupefying myth. I expect some idiot to tell a reporter someday that he ain’t Cree — he’s Aboriginal! Or she isn’t Anishnabe — she’s Aboriginal!  Or they’re not Inuvialuit — they’re Aboriginal.  When — not if — that happens, I’ll know that we’ll have totally failed as storytellers and artists and playwrights because we haven’t done a good enough job to protect and explore our own cultures. By falling for this one word, we encourage a process that erases our national identities and helps dissolve us all into one big tasteless, meaningless pot of cold mush.

He is obviously angry about the situation and for good reason. The same thing happens in the States with the terms “Native American” and “American Indian.” These labels are constructs for a colonized people, for the ease and use of the dominant society. Do I use these terms? Of course I do! I actively participate in life in an urban American setting. But these pan-Indian events and the commodifying of many cultures into one neatly commercialized package doesn’t really show respect to our traditions and ancestors.

So no, you will not see me as a vendor at any Native Arts Markets in the near future. This does not mean that I will not allow my work to appear in them, or will refuse to personally attend these types of events… I just don’t want to promote and commercialize my work in this particular manner.

I don’t have a problem if non-Native people collect my work (it would be silly if I did since I’m mixed-race myself), but I disagree with this mode of selling my work. Why? Because it feels less like people are genuinely interested in the work itself than in purchasing items that will allow them to feel like they now own something that is “authentically Indian.” Because of the division between the Native and non-Native people attending, and their reasons for doing so. Because it feels like a modern day continuation of the tradition of exhibiting Indigenous people from across the globe for European/American amusement at World Fairs. I’ll close with a quote from an attendee at the 1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago:

“There was about the Midway Plaisance a peculiar attraction for me. It presents Asiatic and African and other forms of life native to the inhabitants of the globe. It is the world in miniature. While it is of doubtful attractiveness for morality, it certainly emphasizes the value, as well as the progress, of our civilization. There are presented on the Midway real and typical representatives of nearly all the races of the earth, living in their natural methods, practicing their home arts, and presenting their so-called native amusements. The denizens of the Midway certainly present an interesting study to the ethnologist, and give the observer an opportunity to investigate these barbarous and semi-civilized people without the unpleasant accompaniments of travel through their countries and contact with them.” -Interview of Chauncey M. Depew, excerpt “None can compare with it”- -The New York Times June 19, 1893 page 5-

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