Friday, February 10, 2017

Graffiti or Cultural Treasure

After climbing over a fence and trudging up a sand dune, Jan and I stood in front of a large petroglyph panel. Studying the symbols, we speculated what may have motivated the ancient artists to peck those images onto the stone wall. 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 and have often wondered myself, Jan’s query raised a larger issue for me.

Like the distinction between insanity and genius, the line between cultural treasure and historical irrelevance is often difficult for me to draw. 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 necessary to determine the appropriate answer. Given enough years, what initially appears to be unfortunate ramblings may ultimately become a significant window into the past.

My inquiry, 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 Barry and I inappropriately facilitating the prostitution of those traditions?” The issue arises from a series of e-mails we had in response to video interviews Barry did with Navajo sandpainter Daniel Smith, also known as Hosteen Etsitty.

The e-mails accuse Daniel of trading on his Navajo heritage to generate income. To which I must respond, “Yeah, and your point is?” Having watched the video several times, I have developed a greater appreciation for sandpaintings. I also find I more fully understand the meaning behind Daniel’s work and have developed a new fondness for him. To me, the fact 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 personal mania results from Anglo paternalism relative to Native Americans in general, and the militant anger directed at Indian traders specifically. Apparently those e-mailing individuals have not paused long enough to consider that Native Americans have every right to provide for their families and improve their station in life; that Native American culture and traditions are an important part of who these artists are and what they create; and that those traditions are naturally reflected in their work.

Additionally, don’t they realize Barry and I are traders because we enjoy, even love, the people, their art and their culture? We feel strongly we are engaged in an endeavor that preserves and enhances a significant portion of that culture; not one that destroys or demeans it. Is it possible the e-mailers are right? Since Barry and I are never wrong, that is truly inconceivable.

Some time ago Barry and I were at a function for the Utah Museum of Natural History. In explaining a beautiful dance costume he had made, a Native American artist pointed to black and white beadwork on the breastplate 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 the day my life has such certainty. I do, however, realize I will never find it.

Can it be argued Daniel Smith is compromising his culture by creating 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, however, our patrons take time to properly investigate, they may realize the issue is more complicated than they believe. After a patina like that affecting the petroglyphs Jan and I were inspecting has settled over Daniel’s actions, we may know whether he is right or wrong. Until then, however, we must do our best to give the artists freedom to be who they must be and to create what their heart tells them to produce.

With warm regards, Steve, Barry and the Team.

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