A Conversation on Culture and Change Regarding the Washington Slurskins

Photo courtesy of BrianMKA
FedEx seats
courtesy of BrianMKA

(Originally posted on 2/8/13 at WeLoveDC.)

By now, local Washington media has covered the internet with their summaries of a timely – yet still largely ignored – issue involving a particular football team located in this area. While Racial Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports spoke to the broader issues regarding Native American culture and peoples and their use as sports logos and traditions, make no mistake: the local NFL team’s moniker was a lynchpin in the discussion. The topic was subject of one-third of the day’s symposium, and itself is well-covered elsewhere. (You can watch the recording online in its entirety.)

I couldn’t attend in person, so I settled for the live webcast. And I’ve spent time re-watching the panels as well, because there was so much information and passion involved I couldn’t catch all of it the first time around. I could probably write several blog posts about the topic, and may yet in the future.

But what I wanted to really comment here and now, since other outlets are more focused on the local team aspect, is some key comments made by Director Kevin Gover at the start of the day. Thanks to NMAI, I received a full copy of his remarks; they provide a context that is important to the background of the overall discussion. While I won’t simply copy them all here – you can listen to Dr. Gover online for that – I did want to point out some relevant comments.

Photo courtesy of New York Public Library
Broncho and the Redskin
courtesy of New York Public Library

The call to change the team’s moniker isn’t an isolated issue and it’s not, as many opponents callously bawl, “a bunch of PC bull.” It’s part of a broader issue in how we, as humans on this planet, relate and respect each person’s beliefs, culture, and ideals. How is it that this crude and racist epithet continues to exist on the fourth-most valuable sports franchise in the world? It’s an issue that goes beyond the misguided use of a word; it’s the taint of a past that many refuse – or ignore – exists. Dr. Gover addressed this in his opening remarks:

Certain myths persist and are reinforced. Disney’s animated “Pocahontas” celebrates the Indian-princess-helping-white-people-bring-civilization story of old. Even the movies in which Indians are heroes too often engage in the old stereotypes. The large blue Indians of “Avatar” and the Indian werewolves of the popular “Twilight” series may be heroes, but note the spectacular violence of which they are capable. Note as well the addition of new stereotypes that evolved in the late twentieth century: Indians as pristine environmentalists and, even better, magic Indians.

Further, these characters represent Indians of the past. Television, movies, and books almost never portray Indians as contemporary characters. are confined to the past, as though the government’s policies directed toward the deconstruction of Native nations had succeeded universally. The practice of using Native people as mascots largely emerged at the very time government policy was to deliberately destroy Native language, Native religion, and Native identity. In this respect, the mascots served very directly the government’s purpose by portraying Indians as proud and noble figures, but only figures of the past. Government policy and the popular culture assumed that, certainly by the end of the twentieth century, there would be no more Indians.

These policies find their roots in the misguided beliefs of the nineteenth century in racial hierarchy and the ranking of cultures from primitive to civilized. It hardly bears noting that the so-called “science” of race in the nineteenth century always concluded that white people, “Anglo-Saxon” or “Nordic” white people in particular, were the pinnacle of human development and their civilizations were the best ever achieved. This foolishness has long since been discredited as simple racism, as have the policy ideas that arose from it. The popular culture, however, has kept alive the “vanishing red man” stereotype that is at the foundation of the phenomenon of Native mascots.

The celebrations of our extinction turned out, of course, to have been premature. However, certain ideas and themes in the popular culture remain persistent and influential. Native mascots are primary offenders in perpetuating these stereotypes. Consider why a franchise or university might choose a Native image to represent its team or teams. We are told that they are meant to honor Native American qualities such as bravery, strength (physical, not mental), endurance, and pride. Certainly Native people had and have those qualities in varying degrees, though I do not believe that they had or have them in greater quantity than other peoples. And why is it that Native people are not chosen to represent positive human qualities such as intelligence, piety, generosity, and love of family? I suppose the answer is that we are far less interesting to mascot makers when revealed to be ordinary human beings, with all the virtues and failures of other human beings.

At the National Museum of the American Indian, we address a public that has been deeply influenced by the failings of formal education and the misinformation imbedded in the popular culture. The existence of Native American mascots is partly responsible for this misinformation. Mascots stereotype Native people, employing imagery and ideas that arose from the racism of the nineteenth century.

I challenge those who find the whole “name change” issue either pointless or an affront to their team loyalty to take the time and watch the symposium, listen to the panelists. Better yet, visit the museum. Talk to the staff. Grasp the cultures of the hundreds of nations that were here before Europeans – and still thrive today. Learn more about the “history” behind the team traditions. (Did you know Lone Star Deitz, whom the team was supposedly named for, was actually 100% German and posed as a Sioux to avoid serving in the Army? I didn’t until yesterday…)

We need to look at this issue not with burgundy and gold glasses, but with educated respect and understanding. That’s how change truly begins. And hopefully, one day soon, we’ll all be united in cheering on a re-branded and re-birthed Washington football franchise.

The Song of Emil Her Many Horses

Photo courtesy of
‘DSC_0027’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

(Originally posted on 10/28/11 at WeLoveDC.)

out of the earth / I sing for them
A Horse nation / I sing for them
out of the earth / I sing for them,
the animals / I sing for them.

~a song by the Teton Sioux

Emil Her Many Horses is, by first appearance, a quiet, unassuming gentleman. A museum specialist in the office of Museum Programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), he is responsible for the facility’s latest exhibition “A Song for the Horse Nation.” A member of the Ogala Lakota nation of South Dakota, his expertise on the Northern and Southern Plains cultures is well served and seen in the exhibit that opens to the public tomorrow.

NMAI’s latest offering is a touching and brilliant display of how the horse has deeply impacted and affected Native cultures since their introduction to the Americas in the 17th century. “The exhibit tells the history of the horse; that they were here once before, migrated to Europe, and returned as the horse we know today,” explained Her Many Horses. “They changed Native culture. The horse had a major impact on hunting, warfare, travel, spirituality. These were big changes.” Changes that extend beyond the European vision of the animal.

Seen as a beast of burden, a tool, a weapon, the horse was brought and used by European explorers and colonists early in America’s “New World” history. And their introduction, according to many Natives, was probably one of the biggest positive changes brought about by the white man.

Emil Her Many Horses, NMAI Museum Specialist (photo courtesy NMAI)

Exploding across the Plains after the Pueblo Uprising in 1680, the value of the horse was readily apparent to many tribes. Their acceptance quickly altered the very fabric of tribal life and culture as Natives admired the animal’s grace, beauty, bravery, and determination. “When American Indians encountered horses—which some tribes call the Horse Nation—they found an ally, inspiring and useful in times of peace, and intrepid in times of war,” said NMAI Director Kevin Gover (Pawnee). “This exhibition shows how these splendid creatures came to represent courage and freedom to many tribes across North America.”

“The horse really became a fellow creature that lives with us,” explained Her Many Horses. “They are a comrade, ally, friend. What we try to establish is a relationship with a fellow living being, something that really reaches into the realm of companionship, as opposed to that of a simple tool or resource.”

That relationship can be seen in Her Many Horses’ own family history. The name is Lakota and that of his paternal great-great-grandmother. “More accurately, the English translation would be ‘Many Horses Woman,’ meaning she owned many horses,” he said. When the first census was made on the Ogala Lakota reservation in South Dakota, her name became the family’s last name. The census takers, however, had mistranslated “Tasunka Ota Win” into English as “Her Many Horses.” And so it stuck.

Photo courtesy of
‘DSC_0123’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’
Among the Lakota, horses were a measure of wealth, but not in the traditional European sense. To the Lakota—and many other tribes—a more important demonstration of wealth came from giving away horses or other items in honor of a family member. Possession was not as important as generosity. Horses could be given away at naming and memorial ceremonies, or at giveaways, which celebrated anything from the return of a war veteran, honoring a graduating student, or the marriage of a daughter.

In the exhibit is a piece familiar to Her Many Horses. It is familiar because he made the toy painted tipi himself. “I made it to talk about the origins of my last name. It shows a woman—my grandmother—surrounded by many horses. To me, it became an honorable name to have.”

The opening of the exhibit is exciting to Her Many Horses. An expansion of the original exhibit at NMAI’s New York City George Gustav Heye Center location, this one adds an additional 15 major objects. One of the centerpiece displays is a 19th century 38-foot round tipi that stands 16 feet tall. Cavorting across the surface are 110 hand-painted horses, both with and without riders, all in full gallop. “The tipi is Hunkpapa-Lakota, showing horse raiding and battle scenes all along the outside,” said Her Many Horses. His glee at being able to set it up for visitors was evident. “If you look at the drawings, you can see who’s the enemy. It’s Lakota versus the Crow—you can tell because of the hairstyles. It’s kind of a war record of the warrior who lived within.”

Photo courtesy of
‘DSC_0023’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’
The tipi was a challenge for the staff to set up, taking them four afternoons. “We knew it had been re-sized, plus it wasn’t being set on open ground but a slick display surface,” he said. It’s safe to say the effort was worth it; the tipi is an exquisite testimony to how personal the horse was to one individual in the tribe; a sentiment still shared across the Native landscape today.

Other objects of life and culture of the Plains tribes decorate places of honor in the exhibit. “We included pieces that are associated with famous people, such as the rifles of Geronimo, Chief Rain-in-the-Face, Chief Joseph,” said Her Many Horses. “And we have photographs of many of these people, showing that link between the object and the person.” These placards are entitled Honor In the Name, introducing them to visitors and providing a glimpse of past lives to those in the modern day.

But primarily, the horse dominates. So entwined into the lives of tribes, they are the subject of beaded artwork on tipi bags, shaped into dance sticks, decorate jackets. Objects of everyday use with the horse, such as saddles, saddlebags, and horse masks, are given individual touches of color and life, providing an intimate look into the relationship between the owner and the animal. “I want the public to walk out of there understanding not just how the horse revolutionized Native life, but how that thread continues even today,” Her Many Horses said.

Photo courtesy of
‘DSC_0096’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’
Bridging that gap of history to the modern, Her Many Horses invited Native artists to create their own contemporary art for the exhibit. He believes it’s critically important to show that continued thread of relationship still impacts Native life in today’s world. “We may no longer depend on the horse for travel, for hunting, for warfare – but it’s still important to us, our culture.”

To that end, NMAI will celebrate the opening of its new exhibit with a variety of events on Saturday, October 29. Partnering with the Washington International Horse Show, celebrating its 53rd year through this weekend at the Verizon Center, both WIHS and NMAI are providing free programs and activities at both locations. (A free shuttle will run between the museum and the Verizon Center on Saturday only.)

Central to Saturday’s events is a presentation of the U.S. and Crow Nation flags on horseback between Crow equestrian and artist Kennard Real Bird and the DC Mounted Police. Following the presentation, K.J. Jacks of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma will sing the U.S. national anthem. The presentation will happen in the museum’s outdoor Welcome Plaza.

Photo courtesy of
‘DSC_0106’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

Award-winning bead worker and porcupine quill worker Juanita Fogarty Growing Thunder (Assiniboine/Sioux), whose own art is displayed within the exhibition, will hold demonstrations throughout the day. Children will be able to “dress” a full-sized horse mannequin using pieces that simulate many of those in the exhibit. S.D. Nelson (Lakota/Standing Rock Sioux), a children’s book author and illustrator, will host special storytelling sessions and lectures for both kids and adults.

It’s a jubilee worthy of the exhibition, and one that Emil Her Many Horses and the museum’s staff have worked tirelessly to bring together. It’s a celebration of the horse through many pathways, one that gives a glimpse into the history, life, and culture of many of the 38 Native communities represented.

Photo courtesy of
‘beaded horse mask 1’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

In the exhibition’s companion book of the same name, Her Many Horses points out one particular piece that succinctly symbolizes the power and value of the horse in the Native community. A beautiful and elaborate Lakota horse head cover is on display. Covered in exquisite designs among a glimmering background of white beads, the cover was used at a 1904 Fourth of July parade at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Alone, it is a fascinating work of art in geometric design and stitching.

What stands out, however, is that it appears to have been made with the intention to be recycled later on as different objects. A critical Native eye can discern where a pair of women’s beaded leggings could be fashioned from the “face” of the horse. A pipe bag, from the “cheeks.” Tipi bags (or, “possible” bags, because pretty much anything possible could be stored inside them) and moccasins could also have been made from the upper and lower neck areas.

The resourcefulness of the artist is evident; fortunately for us today, never followed through. The union of gifts never passed on and remains a delicate and intricate symbol of traditions brought together through the celebration of the horse. It stands as a beaded and colorful declaration of the art and the grace of the animal.

To Emil Her Many Horses, it is an expression of life and of culture that will hopefully never fade. “The Horse Nation continues to inspire, and Native artists continue to celebrate the horse in our songs, our stories, and our works of art.” With the opening of this latest exhibit, Her Many Horses honors his Lakota roots. Through the blend of art and artifacts, stories and characters, community and culture, he presents the public a valuable gift worth more than a simple object. He gives away to all of us a view into part of the past, the present, and the future of Native America.

And that is a song worthy of the Horse Nation.

A Song for the Horse Nation opens on Saturday, October 29 and will remain open through January 7, 2013. The National Museum of the American Indian is located at the corner of 4th Street and Independence Avenue, SW. The closest Metro station is L’Enfant plaza, servicing the Blue, Yellow, Orange, and Green lines. For more information, visit the museum’s website. WeLoveDC will have a full review of the exhibit on Monday; you can see some of the items in the exhibit on my Flickr site.

The Strange Comfort of Brian Jungen

People's Flag

(Originally posted on 10/16/09 at WeLoveDC)

Opening today at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is a new exhibition that will run through August 8, 2010. Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort is a major exhibit showcasing the critically acclaimed works of the Canadian-based artist and is his first exhibition organized by a Native American museum. Jungen’s work has been on display around the world, including the Casey Kaplan Gallery in New York, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in Quebec, and the Witte de With in the Netherlands.

The NMAI’s first solo exhibition since its opening in 2004, Strange Comfort is exactly that. The stunning “Crux” is your first view of Jungen’s work – recognizable from the crocodile piece show in the recent ads around town – and only continues to intrigue and inspire when you visit the main gallery on the third floor.

Jungen, of Dunne-za First Nations and Swiss-Canadian ancestry, explores several themes through his art. The use of every-day objects to create Indian cultural icons is something very different, born from Native ingenuity of crafting one object out of another, a common practice with many First Nation people. Jungen commented that he grew up watching his Dunne-za relatives recycle everything from car parts to shoe boxes. “It was a kind of salvaging born out of practical and economic necessity, and it greatly influenced how I see the world as an artist.”

Shapeshifter

It shows. The first piece to greet visitors in the main gallery is a suspended whale skeleton entitled “Shapeshifter” – made entirely out of white plastic lawn chairs. (This was easily my favorite piece of the collection.) It’s utterly reflective of something one would see at a natural history museum – indeed, a visitor need only roam over to Sant Ocean Hall to see something similar. But the realization that it was made from simple white lawn furniture, the kind that nearly everyone has on their deck or back yard, makes the piece comforting, not intimidating.

Shapeshifter - front

Prince

Consider “Prince,” made entirely of baseball gloves and a dress form. Jungen captures the iconic image of an Indian chieftain with its form and shape, but draws you closer to the piece with the knowledge of its material. The simpleness of the items used redefines in a sense how you begin to see the world around you.

Totem Poles

Probably the best example of this is the series of totem poles made out of golf bags and cardboard tubes. As you look on in rapt attention, you begin to see the images of faces within the stacked columns through the use of symmetrics and cleverly-positioned handles and straps. Something so iconic of corporate deal-making and upper-class sport is transformed and brought into the foundations of Indian culture.

Carapace - side

“Carapace,” argueably the one piece custom-made for NMAI (it had to be shipped over in pieces, which Jungen then assembled to his satisfaction within the gallery, making it a bit different than previous displays), allows people to walk through it. The dome-shaped structure made out of green trash cans and recycling containers suggests a turtle’s shell, linking it to many First Nations creation stories. But in truth, the piece reflects Jungen’s interest in geodesic architecture and the environment. Again, a combinational melding of modern materials and thought with established cultural identities and nature.

Prototype for New Understanding

Overall, 24 pieces grace the entire collection, curated by Paul Chaat Smith. Other pieces of note are the Northwest regional iconographic masks made from Nike Air Jordans (“Prototype for New Understanding”), an interweaving of professional sports jerseys to make a Native-patterned blanket (“Blanket No. 7”), and delicately carved five-gallon gasoline jugs (“Monarch,” “Dragonfly,” “White Death Camas”).

Isolated Depictions of the Passage of Time

The most intriguing sculpture was an always-on television encased in multicolored serving trays (“Isolated Depictions of the Passage of Time”), representing the number of Aboriginal men doing time in Canadian prisons, color-coded to the length of each sentence. It was a piece with more sound than sight – the television is all but hidden from view though you could hear it – and once you understood his message, you couldn’t help but think. Its ordinariness took on a whole new meaning, forcing the viewer to change perspective.

Monarch

And that, at the root of it all, was what I think Jungen is trying to tell us. Out of the ordinary everyday icons of our modern world one can find a deeper meaning, infused with the uniqueness of our own beliefs, understanding and preconceptions. And often enough, you end up finding the past in the modern, bringing a sense of comfort within its strangeness.

Imagine that.

All photos courtesy of myself. View my Flickr set (will be continually updated) or check out the Flickr group set up by NMAI for visitors to share their own photo captures.