Thursday, March 6, 2008

Whose Culture Is It Anyway?

There are times in this life when I feel I am cruising along, with the top down and the wind in my hair, only to find I am really skating on thin ice, about to break through. So it was recently. Everything appeared to be progressing nicely, then an e-mail message arrived that cast a dark shadow over the trading post.

John Huntress
Bead Maker John Huntress

The internet team had done an artist feature, which I felt was well done, on bead maker John Huntress. The message we received as a result of the spotlight, however, indicated we had once again failed to properly identify a cultural cyclone that was blowing outside our red rock sanctuary.

The missive was from one of our longtime friends, and it said, “I am surprised and disappointed to see you carrying heishi jewelry by an Anglo, John Huntress. ” Not many people, besides my mother and first wife, have ever said they were, “surprised and disappointed” with me, so I took the comment seriously.

We have long appreciated John’s work. Brother John, as he is affectionately referred to at the trading post, is an aging, long-haired fifty-something Hippy, who makes some of the most beautiful turquoise beads I have ever seen. I do not remember when we first met John, but it seems he has been part of our trading post family from the beginning.

Years ago Barry and I resolved we would not discriminate based upon skin color; we do not care whether an artist is red, yellow, green or aquamarine. We are primarily concerned with the individual and his or her art, and believe that if we are open about the origin of the work, our customers can decide for themselves whether or not to support the maker. John never misrepresents his beads, because he is genuinely proud of who he is and what he can do with clumps of colored stone.

Although the message made me think of reverse discrimination, it was not mean-spirited. Instead, it was complimentary of our web site and the work we have done. As a result, I replied by explaining that I am personally unable to determine where one tradition begins and another leaves off, so I am loath to tell any artist what he or she can and cannot create.

Rug and blanket weaving, for example, is a skill the Navajo people borrowed from the Pueblo Indians. Additionally, many of the “traditional” regional patterns originated in the Middle or Far East, and were imported onto the Reservation by Anglo traders. Am I required to tell my Navajo weavers they can no longer sell their work at the trading post because it is not part of what my correspondent referred to as their “cultural patrimony,” I inquired. And what about Navajo silversmithing?

It is generally accepted that sometime around the 16th century the Spaniards found their way into the American Southwest, and about that time the Mexican people learned to work silver from these Spanish explorers. The first Navajo silversmith, believed to be Atsidi Sani, was trained by a Mexican metal smith, who studied under the Spanish, who learned from . . . , well you get the picture.

The squash blossom necklace is an excellent example of how cultural patrimony is often dictated by civilizations other than those with which it is commonly associated. The crescent shaped pendant, or naja as it is known among the Navajo, associated with these necklaces was first seen by Southwestern tribes as ornaments on equine bridles of the Conquistadors. Originally brought to this country from Spain, these horse decorations were influenced by the Moors. Must I tell my Navajo silversmiths I cannot purchase their necklaces because the initial design may be Moorish, Spanish or Mexican, I questioned.

Turquoise Necklace by John Huntress
John Huntress Turquoise Necklace

Putting aside the fact that the oldest shell beads ever found were excavated in Israel and Algeria, and are approximately 100,000 years old, heishi is believed by many to be an exception to the cultural spaghetti bowl that is Native American art.

The meaning of the word heishi is “shell necklace,” and comes from the Keres people of modern day Santa Domingo Pueblo, New Mexico. Heishi may be one of the few types of Indian jewelry deriving primarily from Native America, so my commentator made a valid point when she said, “It is one thing to carry jewelry by non-Indians that is not a direct copy of Native work, but another to sell types that are based upon centuries-old Southwest Indian traditions.”

After much spirited dialogue about Indian traders and their role in the Southwest art market, bias, prejudice, protectionist views and cultural misappropriation, my counterpart stated, “As for being discriminatory and protectionist, I’m convinced that, unlike being pregnant, one can successfully be just a little bit of these two!” Again, I had to give her credit for making an excellent point; we all protect that which we love and discriminate against that which we do not.

As for me, I prefer to give art a forum to flow freely, and believe I am obligated to allow our artists to employ the most personally inspiring influences. I think it was Saul Bellow’s Augie March who cleverly noted that, “If you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining.” In my opinion, art must go where it will, and creative freedom for one means creative freedom for all; no exceptions.

In the end, my friend and I agreed to disagree, which seems a reasonable conclusion to a complicated and emotional issue.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

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