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30 September 2012

Cultivating Vocabulary: An Ongoing Process

Ah Tz'ib, a Mayan word referring to painters and writers
While it’s clear that we need new vocabulary to discuss Indigenous art; the effort to find new words seems to be stymied. One problem is, especially here in the southwest, there’s an incredible volume of writing about Native art, but it’s dominated by the language of marketing and hyperbole and seldom written by people with both a background in arts and Native cultures. 

The first obvious challenge is that much of the dialogue takes place in the English language, whose grammar is hardwired for antonyms, that is binary opposites, such as black/white, hot/cold, or right/wrong. In the language, these opposites seem clear cut and logical. However, in reality, couldn’t transparent be the opposite of black or morally relative between the opposite of both right and wrong? The pairing of concepts as binary opposites is rife with unspoken assumptions that steer the ensuing dialogue in a predetermined direction. That’s why I have tried in the past to write about the futility of any discussion positioning traditional in opposition to contemporary or craft against fine art. The racism at the core of these pairings is inexcusable—the notion that tribally specific art or art informed by tribal values is old fading away before the Western-sanctioned new or that artists using non-Western forms have no content or message to convey but are only repeating decorative utilitarian forms.

Traditional is not a bad word at all, but everyone has her or his own definition of it. As Scott Ennis (Cherokee Nation) once said, “Tradition is like cornbread; everyone has their own recipe, but it’s still cornbread.” Personally, I view traditional as being ceremonially involved in one’s tribe, speaking one’s language, reflecting and living one’s tribal worldview, which is all completely positive and something to aspire to. Locally, some Pueblo people see traditional art as following procedures and artistic prescribed collectively for a reason. Whether tradition describes what’s in a person’s heart or in techniques and aesthetics (or both), it’s a term grounded in an Indigenous community. If an artist is creating video art of their tribal members using their own language, wouldn’t that be traditional?

A place to reject the word traditional is how it is used in marketing transitional Native art forms. A great deal stays the same in the Native art world because vast quantities of money is invested in keeping things the same. Because certain art forms were marketed in a certain way in the early 20th century, other dealers want to keep artists in their ascribed categories. For instance, the notion that overlay silver working technique is Hopi. The overlay style was developed and promoted by Hopi artists such as Fred Kabotie and Paul Saufkie for veterans returning from World War II (Byrne et al. 191–192). The fact that people initially resisted Charles Loloma’s use of gold in jewelry boggles my mind, when Hopi jewelers only adopted silverwork in the late 19th century. That’s on par with Oscar Howe’s 1958 rejection from the Philbrook since he didn’t paint Flatstyle, which was developed in the 1910s to 1930s. That drive, usually by non-Natives, to freeze art in time should has nothing to with the Indigenous perspective of tradition and should be actively resisted.

From a modernist Western perspective, integration within one's community hasn’t necessarily been the ideal in art; individual self-expression has been celebrated—even fetishized in the romantic vision of a lone genius struggling in a studio. The primacy of community versus the individual could be a potential fault line between Native and non-Native art; however, I believe the best of post-modern Western art is in the process of evolving back toward the community in the arts. Especially since so many historical art stars have had innumerable people working with them to fabricate their art.

And historically, “innovation” has been celebrated in Western art over “tradition”, in the sense of recreating pre-existing forms or designs; however, it’s easy to argue that there’s nothing new under the sun and a great deal of “innovation” is just appropriation. Appropriation, or the reuse or reference of early artworks, is the earmark of the contemporary art world. An excellent example of this is the work of Sherrie Levine, who in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, photographed or recreated famous pieces of art, shifting their context. In 1982, Levin rephotographed the Great Depression-era social realist photographs of Walker Evans (Owens 114). How do the artworks change, now they are by a woman in the 1980s instead of a man in the 1930s? I would argue that there also incredibly potent conceptual possibilities behind a 2010s Odawa basket weaver weaving a black ash basket — how has the environment shifted, how do pesticides and invasive species come into play, what range of technologies are employed, how has societies’ perception of basketry shifted and changed, what actions is the basket weaver performing that have no English words but can be described in the Odawa language?

Appropriation with a complete disregard for the earlier work's cultural context or meaning would be misappropriation — or a banal or commercial use of sacred imagery. That could be another point of departure between Western and Native art since the brunt of Western art is forcefully secular.

“Derivative” doesn’t get used much in Native art but it should, since it implies a copying that doesn’t renew or add to meaning but rather produces a weaker copy, akin to cloning plants. An artist who copies but doesn’t acknowledge the source would be derivative, and an artist using symbols without understanding or at least striving to understand their meanings might also be described this way.

Obviously, these are just stray thoughts on an ongoing major discussion, but I have observed that discourse improves when more precise terms are substituted for worn out, catchall terms. What the hell is authenticity? Why not discuss honesty? Is an artwork traditional or is it historical, tribally specific, customary, or using non-Western media?


While it can be a challenge to make the leap from English to tribal languages, the wisdom is stored within the languages. I just learned an amazing word, Eqqumiitsuliorneq, which is the Greenland Inuit word for art and more literately translates to mean “odds products, something artificial” (Arke 5).  The Cherokee word for art, ᏗᏟᎶᏍᏙᏗ or ditlilosdodi, refers to making an imitation of reality. The Muscogee Creek word for art is nakvkakv and their word for artist is nakvjayv (Martin and Mauldin 193). A Minnesota Ojibwe word for artist is mazinibii’igewinini (Nichols and Nyholm 80). The Mayan word uj uxul literately means “he of the burnishing/scratching” and is also the title of the royal sculptor (Montgomery).


Not every tribe has a word for “art,” as we are so often informed, but related words are also potent. The Navajo word, hózhó, has had a widespread impact on art discussion. Extrapolating from Harry Walters’ definition, author Mary Lawlor writes, “The sense of beauty invoked in the term is clearly not synonymous with Western concepts that emphasize an exclusively visual appeal based on limited aesthetic criteria. Hózhó implies harmony as well as ethical and moral strength, which derived from a fluent relationship between the one who is hózhó and other beings in a social or spiritual environment” (Lawlor 68).

I’m extremely curious to hear other people’s “forbidden words” they would like stricken from Native art discourse and to hear more Indigenous words for art.

Lane stitch on Arapaho moccasin, 1880s
Addendum: An example of improving terminology is using the term "lane stitch" for the technique of sewing parallel lines of beadwork with single stitches at each end. This stitch was once known as "lazy squaw stitch," an utterly insulting term, then it became known as "lazy stitch." For anyone who's tried their hand at beadwork, there's nothing "lazy" about it. The current term, "lane stitch" is both neutral and actually describes the nature of the stitch.
  • Arke, Pia. “Act 5: Ethno-Aesthetics.” Re-Thinking Nordic Colonialism. 2006. Web.
  • Lawlor, Mary. Public Native America: Tribal Self-Representations in Museums, Powwows, and Casinos. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006. Web.
  • Martin, Jack B. and Margaret McKane Mauldin. A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. Print.
  • Montgomery, John. “AJ u-xu-[lu]. Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies.
  • Nichols, John D. and Earl Nyholm. A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995. Web.
  • Owens, Craig. Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Web.

10 comments:

Martha Berry said...

Good job, America! I am going to go through my website and replace the words "traditional Southeastern and Cherokee beadwork" with "Southeastern Woodlands Beadwork." The styles are shared among the SE tribes, but the work is different from that of any other region of North America. I create within that framework, so it is contemporary. So, I am turning over a new leaf today, from now on I am creating Southeastern Woodlands Beadwork. Thanks. mkb

Reid Gómez, Navajo said...

America, I think at the heart of the problem is the idea many people have, and require, for our art, is that they are not selling art, or asking for a relationship with the work, they are selling Indians. I think you hint at this with your statement: "but it’s dominated by the language of marketing and hyperbole and seldom written by people with both a background in arts and Native cultures." For us to get into the mud of it (what you are asking of us all) is something we'll have to do. Only then we can start to make language work for us, instead of against us. I think this is going to require several long nights of translation. Where we sit and speak shared languages, teach each other what we mean, and listen to the way we are using words. All artists need to learn how to talk about their individual work and place it in context. I would like this context to be international, and for us to give each other the respect of listening to what we're trying to do and why. Then we can get away from "Indian" art and work from the center of our own world, with all the complexity that entails.

America Meredith said...

To Martha, this is why a linear timeline for indigenous art doesn't work. All the information you are uncovering about Southeastern beadwork is new to me and most everyone else. Our oral histories encompass our past, present, and future, so I don't see why our art history can't also encompass this folding of time upon itself as well, since our histories have been stolen from us and we are trying to regain them now.

To Reid, absolutely we are in a work in progress and have to have the bravery to be wrong and stumble just to continue the dialogue.

ᏩᏕ ᎦᎵᏍᎨᏫ said...

ᎣᏍᏓ ᎿᏛᎦ

America Meredith said...

ᏩᏙ, ᎩᎾᎵᎢ. ᎾᏍᎩᏭ ᏍᎵᏌᏆᎴᎯᎰ —ᎠᎢᎢ.

Reid Gómez, Navajo said...

All evening I kept thinking. How m any people are making their living off our lives, but not our lives, really, but what they want and choose to believe about our lives (writers, traders, appraisers). How they attribute value is shaping much of the allowable conversation. At the core is currency, and the need (we) have to "make a living. Until we face the material conditions of colonialism (poverty, broken K'éí and K'é) two things continue to get lost: the art and the artist. We need to make a relationship to both. An honest relationship, asking who are you, and what are you saying. I don't think this is happening? I don't think a lot of people are open to this, they want a roi (return on investment).

Irving Toddy said...

From what I understand about Native American art is just how close the arts are with what we do on a daily basis. Within the Navajo culture art defined by the people often have terms of utilitarian origins.
Traditionally a tribal member begins his or her orientation on life emcompassing the language; beliefs system; order of life within the universe including all that crawls, swims, flies and walks within it as well as acknowledging plant life with the corn pollen being the ultimate symbol of rejuvenation of all life; and within each of these teachings the underlying impetus are the arts. Art then comes to life when a need to create a utlilitarian object becomes necessary whether it be a rug/blanket, pottery, leather object, sandpainting for a ceremony, and more recent jewelry, painting or sculpturing. It is within this confine we find art defining us a "The People" or as Dine' in our language. But recent influences of the dominate society has us slowly losing the original meaning and intent of the arts in our lives. I do feel at some point if this trend continues all we have to fall back upon are the pseudo-Native American thoughts based on the interpretation of others who will have written and researched Native American cultures. Much like many western/cowboy artists who paint Native American subjects calling it western art. Many have of these artists have little in common with Native Americans other than recreating glorified version of ideals a culture they have little understandingor knowledge of. I do believe art is unique when it emcompasses all that a person is, and more meaningful if it includes the person's background and beliefs. Terminologies maybe important, but it's the thoughts behind the art that are more important. Art as someone said defines its people.

America Meredith said...

Thank you, Reid and Irving. That art-making is integral to daily life and not a separate entity is another point of departure from the Western perspective, whose need to separate and categorize can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. It's interesting that the majority of Native art is still within Native communities, especially ceremonial and dance regalia and tools, but art writing focuses on what is put in the public arena for discussion. Maybe this can change but also maybe ceremonial artwork is too culturally sensitive to discuss with the public?

Irving Toddy said...

I think we are way beyond cultural sensitivity. Just anyone who have engaged in Native American history have just about recorded every aspect of our cultures barring actual religious experiences. We are now at a point where almost anyone can call themselves Native American for identity aligned with a Native American tribe or for personal gains. I have even started noticing non-Natives now creating Native American art in the likeness appealing to them. In this realm, it does leaves a lot for discussion as well as appreciation. We are still so sorely misunderstood as Indian tribes even after 500 years of recorded Western history. Hopefully through arts we can perhaps enlighten others to begin appreciating us for who we are and not for what we are.

America Meredith said...

"The most pervasive and arguably most insidious term artists of color must challenge is 'primitivism.' It has been used historically to separate the supposed sophisticated civilized 'high' art of the West from the equally civilized art it has pillaged from other cultures. The term locates the latter in the past—usually the distant past—and in an early stage of 'development,' implying simplicity on the positive side and crudity or barbarism on the negative." —Lucy Lippard, Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America, page 24