Thursday, November 15, 2007

Grafitti or Cultural Treasure

Hosteen Etsitty
Navajo Sandpainting Artist Hosteen Etsitty

After trudging up the sand dune, Jan and I stood in front of the large petroglyph panel, studying the symbols and trying to decipher what may have motivated the ancient ones to scribble these particular images on the stone wall. As we admired the sandstone canvas, Kira and Grange scrambled over boulders a few feet away and Buffy the Wonder Dog dug into the dirt to find a cool spot. Although November had arrived several days before our hike, the sun was bright and the day warm enough to make you long for a siesta.

Looking carefully at the drawings, and considering all the Latino tagging associated with her native Los Angeles, Jan said, “So, is it just ancient graffiti?” Although I have been asked similar questions before, and have often wondered myself, Jan’s query raised a larger issue for me.

The line between cultural treasure and historical irrelevance is often difficult for me to draw; like the distinction between insanity and genius. I often think Barry is crazy, he, on the other hand, believes he is inspired. Experience tells me that, in many cases, time is the crucial element needed to determine the correct answer. Given enough years, what might initially appear to be unfortunate ramblings may ultimately become a significant window into the past.

My question, although related, was more personal than Jan’s. It goes something like this, “In creating their art, when are Native Americans improperly ‘selling their culture,’ and as Anglo traders, when are we inappropriately facilitating the prostitution of the those traditions?” The issue arises from a series of e-mails we have had in response to video interviews Barry recently did with Navajo sandpainter Daniel Smith, who is also known as Hosteen Etsitty.

The e-mails accuse Daniel of trading on his Navajo heritage to generate income. To which I must respond, “Yes, and your point is?” Having watched the video several times, I have developed an greater appreciation for sandpaintings. I also find that I more fully understand the meaning behind Daniel’s work and have a new fondness for him that I did not possess before hearing the stories. To me, the fact that he was so forthcoming about his personal history is especially endearing.

Quite often comments like those made in the e-mails cause me to think of the 1976 movie Network . In that film, news anchorman Howard Beale galvanizes the nation when he says, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

My mania results from Anglo paternalism relative to Native Americans, and the militant anger directed at Indian traders in general. Apparently those e-mailing individuals have not stopped long enough to realize that Native Americans have every right to provide for their families and improve their lot in life; that Native American culture and traditions are an important part of who these artists are; and that those traditions are naturally reflected in their work?

Hosteen Etsitty Sandpainting
Navajo Sandpainting by Hosteen Etsitty.

Additionally, don’t they realize that Barry and I are traders because we enjoy, even love, the people, their art and their culture? We feel very strongly that we are engaged in an endeavor that will ultimately help preserve and enhance a significant portion of that culture; not destroy or demean it. Are we wrong, and is it possible that the e-mailers are right? Certainly that is conceivable.

The other evening Barry and I were at a function for the Utah Museum of Natural History. In explaining a beautiful dance costume he had prepared for the museum, a Native American artist pointed to black and white beadwork on the breastplate of the outfit and said something to the effect that those colors related to an earlier time; a time when everything was either right or wrong, not gray as it is today. Frankly, I long for a time when my life has such certainty, and realize I will never find it.

Can it be argued that Daniel Smith is compromising his culture by doing his sandpaintings and speaking so candidly about his experiences? Sure. It can also be said that in speaking so freely and giving so openly he has brought many of us closer to his people and given us a newfound respect for them.

Might it also be said that Barry and I are trading illegitimately on the traditions of the local tribes? Again, sure. If our e-mailers take the time to properly investigate, however, they may realize that the issue is more complicated than they believe. After a patina, like that affecting the petroglyphs Jan and I were inspecting, has had the opportunity to settle over the actions of Daniel, Barry and me, we may know whether we are right or wrong. Until that time, however, we must do our best to give the artists freedom to be who they are and to produce what their heart tells them to create.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

No comments: