Indigenous Art History and the Education System
“His Buffalo and horses are always in motion--they're running for their lives. They can't be caught. That's real freedom”(Lee).
In the American educational system the curriculum is supposedly designed to enrich the hearts and minds of all the students who wish to become enriched. Professional educators throughout western civilization compose their contributions as to what is considered to be in the best interests of the students. However, some oversights have been made apparent. The history of Indigenous
American Art has been ignored, for too long, at the expense of the students who happen to be the descendants of the first peoples of this continent. Furthermore these students also happen to be the majority within the Los Angeles Unified School District; whether these students are of American, Canadian, Mexican, or Central American ethnicity they almost always have one thing in common, the indigenous blood that runs through their veins. Science has established that environment greatly influences behavior, whether that environment is a classroom, a home, or the American Continent. Subsequently, this continent is reflected within the hearts and minds of its people, and inevitably in our artistic expression. We the first people of this continent have existed here for thousands of years before the western civilization stumbled its way to this side of the planet.
Indigenous American Art and its history play a vital part in our facet of the human experience
. What's more, it is fundamental for fulfilling our potential and responsibilities as human beings. In addition to the contribution to our collective psyche, indigenous art is a historical and anthropological timeline of natural and supernatural phenomena. It is apparent that natural phenomena such as volcanoes, storms, and floods have a profound affect on the evolution of art. For example, People would leave a burned out site and likely delay their artistic expression until they found a new stable location to prosper: somewhere that was hospitable. The history of art on this continent teaches us how to survive as well as thrive. When we are not taught our history, we lose touch with our past, which is what makes us what we are today. The history of art also records political ideology, spirituality, and every day life and customs. Furthermore, it illustrates how we have developed the ideas we have in the present. It is the account of the evolution of our wisdom, knowledge, “social activism”(McMaster 82) and creativity.
For many indigenous people, speaking of an encounter with a predator in the woods is a perception, which may be likened to something from Joseph Conrad”s “Heart of Darkness.” For the European, the unfamiliar forests and lands of the “New World” can be understood to represent the “Darkness,” but for those who live in areas that are near to the American wilderness, the “heart of darkness” is deeper than the forest; it is not so superficial as to be the forest itself; it lies somewhere within the forest. For some indigenous people this “heart” of ours is contained within a Grizzly bear or possibly atop an icy mountain and maybe found within the patterns of a butterfly”s wings.
The Eurocentric attitudes of this new nation have forced, often violently, the indigenous cultures to assimilate. Throughout the last five hundred years we have become subject to predominant-alienation: and have been predisposed to turn away from our inalienable right of self-determination. Consequently, we as indigenous inhabitants of this continent have had to concern ourselves with quite a few details and modes of behavior that
conflict with our own non-European ideologies. Moreover, we have lost a great deal of our identity and have abandoned a position within creation that has always belonged to us as indigenous people. Consequently, the minorities of indigenous elders who have retained their identities apart from western civilization have necessarily alienated themselves from the majority of contemporary indigenous people. A great number of contemporary indigenous people are not even aware of what they have lost through the last five hundred years of colonialism.
For too long the generations of Indigenous people of this continent have yielded to learning the intricacies of the European psyche, whether it is the teachings of Aristotle, Marx, or even Freud. This is in correlation to Eurocentric history, which has dominated the theater of evolution of human thought within the last few centuries. This must not continue to remain unchallenged. Human beings have a far greater potential to fulfill than this. Consider McMaster, ““He calls into question” Eurocentric History (upper case), whose dominant intellectual space is now coming into contact with, and being perforated by, other histories (lower case), especially by those which do not count Europe as part of their lineage” (81-82).
In comparison to European, Asian, and African philosophies, we offer different questions and answers into human nature. Time and again our perceptions of reality and existence was limited by the fact that we were not permitted, literally and figuratively, to inquire into the nature of our perceptions. The western civilization wanted us to believe what their scholars wanted us to think. Today, by assimilating, an Indigenous person could achieve a great deal of success within contemporary society at the expense of fulfilling one”s role as a “person of color.” It was once said “A house divided cannot stand”, that can also mean that a person divided by cultural conflict may not be able to fulfill one”s personal potential. The indigenous person is required by eurocentricism to accept
““How dominant society organizes, constructs, and constitutes the world through basic elements as foundation” [European history] tends to construct a history and teleology of art by projecting the dominant contemporary notions of art into the past and future” although the imaginary mainstream purportedly includes a majority of people, it excludes everyone” When stripped of its mystifying pretensions”(it is a)
rather small minority of people” [a] Eurocracy” (McMaster 82).
Without sincere appreciation of Indigenous achievements in the art community, the community is by default both hypocritical and “should not be validated as representative of the accomplishments of humanity”(Gangel-Vasquez). Unquestionably, it would be in the interests of the entire art community to understand the rewards of uniting the various perspectives.
““For just as modern art stands as an island of revolt in the streams of Western European aesthetics, the many primitive art traditions stand apart as authentic accomplishments that flourished without the benefit of European history”(McMaster 82).
The right to be ourselves, even as artists, within the context of modern society requires an open-minded humble dynamic by those “Eurocratic” historians and officials, to realize the importance of learning and living side by side with all the unique qualities of the numerous cultures. Additionally, humankind can reap far greater benefits than ever before in terms of knowledge and wisdom “with an honest examination of the contributions of all cultures”especially those that have been denigrated or swept aside”(Gangel-Vasquez).
For us, the natives of this continent, it is impossible and outmoded for the history of Indigenous art to be dominated by European art history
. Apart from Christianity, our ancient perceptions of spirituality differ significantly from the rest of the world and continue to exist over the thousands of years. Even our perceptions about the same stars in the sky differ. As well as how we perceive spirituality”
“One of the most important things to realize about Mesoamerican deities is that none of them assumes an ethereal, "cosmic" human body. The portrayal of a god as a human is simply how he or she would appear if a person were to embody the respective qualities. Others may even appear as animals, to express a universal principle which may be best understood through the nature of a certain animal”(Martín del Campo).
God did not make man in his image but rather made himself into the image of man. To the western mind the vision of Venus in the night sky has connotations of feminine beauty, clamshells rising from the ocean, and frothing ocean waters. While the Mesoamerican people commonly see the same star as the god called Tlauixcalpantecuhtli, Lord of the House of Dawn. The physical features of the god included large fangs, plated eyes, sharp weapons, and a skeletal body. In contrast to the European perception, this is what the Mesoamerican see in the dark sky.
The indigenous students of this continent should be looking to enrich themselves with their own history. And if they cannot find it within the educational system, they should be concerned with instituting the necessary changes. Perhaps concerned students or teachers should research the art history of the Americas and seek to present the body of research to regular art history classes through lectures (Moreno). Columbus” Indian aesthetics are not what we, as indigenous artists want to be recognized for. We expect to be recognized for telling our own stories; and we aim to submit the images from our own sense of perception. Today”s representation of our American experience is a continuation of yesterday”s works. Too long we have known nothing about ourselves save the colors staring back at us in the mirror. The lines on the faces of our people carry the traces of the ancestors. We call upon academia not to discourage European thought, but instead to resolve to stand side by side as we all account for each other and ourselves with clear wisdom and responsibility before creation.
Gangel-Vasquez, Janice. “Re: Native Art History II”. Email to the author. 17 August. 2003.
Lee, Jeff and Donna Hand. “2 dimensional Art-Ed Defender”. Trophies of Honor. 9 Aug. 2003.
Martín del Campo, Edgar. “Mesoamerican Deities”.
Edgar”s Mesoamerican art page. 7 Oct. 1996. 9 Aug. 2003. members.aol.com/emdelcamp/edgar2.htm
McMaster, Gerald R. “Towards an Aboriginal Art History”. Native American Art in the Twentieth Century. Ed. W. Jackson Rushing III. New York. Routledge. 1999. 81-96.
Moreno, Lisa M. “RudyResponse”. E-mail to author. 15 Aug. 2003.
Surrounded by beauty: History and Culture. 9 Aug. 2003.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. www. Artsmia.org/surrounded-bybeauty/history_culture.html