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"Real Fem: Native Women In The Arts" by Nancy Marie Mithlo
Real Fem: Native Women In The Arts
"Our Indian Princess" Subverting the stereotype

To find out more about the book visit the SAR Press website



Introduction: “The Sting”
As the mother of a grown daughter and another approaching adolescence, I have grown weary of confronting the willful ignorance of contemporary Native American identities in popular culture and the schools. Recently, I was surprised to encounter the following math question in my daughter’s homework: “Sarah is making an Indian war shield. If she paints 3 of the 4 quadrants red, how many are left to paint blue?” As I groan out loud and drop my head into my hands, my child demands “What’s wrong, mom? It’s just my homework! Why do you always hate my school?”
My childhood was less complicated. At least, that’s how I remember it. Growing up in the Deep South in the 1960s, the conflict experienced was not about identities but about race - Black versus White. I recall once running inside the house with my brother and sister to ask dad which side we were on - Union or Confederate. Dad gave an exasperated answer, “Neither! You kids are Indians!” We countered “But d-a-a-d! We’re not playing Cowboys and Indians; we’re playing North and South!”
It amazes me to think of how our family made it in a segregated South where, even in our neighborhood, crosses were burned, the synagogue was bombed, and “white only” drinking fountains still existed at the local zoo. We were part of the great federal influx into the South; among our neighbors, in the newly built subdivision we moved into when I was three, were two FBI agents. My dad, an engineer, worked for Housing and Urban Development and often traveled. Under school desegregation policies in the 1970s, my mother, a home economics teacher, was transferred to an all-Black junior high school across town. Fearing that the quality of educational instruction was suffering under the bureaucratic chaos of desegregation policies, she chose to pull us out of public schools and send us to private schools. We were not raised with any formal religion, so it was a shock to later find myself in a navy and white uniform attending mass in a high school gym. She was right though, the classes were rigorous.
I imagine that for my parents it was best not assert any differences, yet physically there were differences. My father was fond of saying, “When you are young and good-looking everyone wants to own you. To my university professors, I was a smart young Jewish boy, at the Italian restaurant, I was a good-looking Sicilian.” I remember that when the “Hawaii 5-O” show came out on television, all the neighbors were excited because dad looked so much like Don Ho. Did people treat my Apache father badly in the race-conscious South? A handsome, large man who was quick witted and charming, dad didn’t let on to us kids that he was the target of hateful speech or acts. Yet, he told vividly about being in Memphis the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. He heard the news on his car radio and drove the four hours straight back to our home in Jackson without stopping.
Unlike my parents’ generation where persistent racism was overt and common, racism today operates more subtly. It is often a private and painful event manifest in innocuous settings like Disney movies, museum exhibits, school curriculums, advertisements, and tourism. You may not loose your life in these times, but you could loose your soul. As a fair-faced Indian myself, I “pass” in Native and White communities. No one claims me; it is often up to me to assert my heritage - as a Native, as a Chiricahua Apache, as a Mithlo. I am not torn about how others perceive me, I’m too old for that now, but I am hurt and often enraged at how my children experience their Indianness in mainstream America.
I am an academic and like my dad I have traveled a lot. I have lived in the mountains of North Carolina, New England, the San Francisco Bay Area, and New Mexico. My children have been exposed to varying degrees of knowledge about Indians in their schools and in their social lives on the east coast, on the west coast, and in-between. Yet the sting is always fresh when I encounter it - each time fresh and painful. I wonder, how can I ignore this destructive thinking? I wonder, “How can I respond each and every time?” Ignoring it means I will tolerate ignorance - even assist in its reproduction. , Addressing each and every act of ignorance means I will be always led by the actions of others, always a servant to their lack of motivation to learn otherwise, always giving.
This year I visited a private elementary school described to me by other parents as alternative and experimental. I was considering sending my daughter there and was allowed to observe a typical classroom. On the low tables covered with newspaper were papier-mâché masks. I thought to myself, “Please do not let them be Indian masks.” But as I slowly looked around the room, all the evidence was there - posters declaring that Indians had little body hair, books with awkwardly drawn depictions of Native dress and lists of Indian foods - corn, beans and squash. I held it in while the director toured me around the other classrooms. I held it in while she showed me the curriculum with Indians placed between beavers and bears in their topics list, but I could hold it no longer when she stated “We encourage students to work in multi modalities because when they make something themselves, they understand it fully. When they depict it, they own it.” Slowly, calmly, I told her that my daughter and I are Chiricahua Apache. I told her that no one could own us by making masks. I told her that I felt sick in my stomach, that I was hurt deeply by her callousness. “I am sure you have wonderful students and really skilled teachers, but this place is not for us.” I couldn’t drive away fast enough.
Alfred Young Man has written, “It would not be stretching credulity by much to say that graduates of most, if not all, universities in North America and Europe still harbor a child’s awareness and feelings on North American Indians, their art, and metaphysics, if they have an awareness at all” (1991,12). A college professor myself, I find Young Man’s statement to be disappointingly true. Most of my students and many of my colleagues display a profound lack of understanding of contemporary or historic Native American realities. Upon arriving in New England to teach at an elite women’s college, I would often introduce myself by explaining that I had transferred from a tribal college in New Mexico. While most politely asked what a tribal college was, some actually laughed out loud. Apparently American Indians were such an anachronism that it was unimaginable that they should be capable of running a college!
Given the great sacrifices that have been made by Native Americans since contact to ensure that future generations would survive, what can be done to address the sting of racism, the continued oppression of invisibility, or, worse, misappropriation and distortion of Native American identity? While many excellent scholars and educators have traced the path of Indian imagery in the White imagination and chartered hopeful directions for new educational mandates, I have chosen a different route. My story concerns the orientation, thoughts, and desires of Native American people, specifically Native American women artists.
The Native arts world is a place that I have occupied for twenty years - as a student, museum director, curator, professor of museum studies, non-profit chair, researcher, daughter-in-law, wife, friend, and mother. Like many other hard-working people in Native arts, I have tended the soul of Native arts students, friends, and family. I was fortunate in the mid 1980s to attend the tribal college where I later taught - The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This pan-tribal urban arts college is the only tribal college devoted to the verbal, visual, and dramatic arts of Native North America. I have also been privileged to be a part of the conversation surrounding the establishment of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian as a consultant, friend, and occasional critic. Key mentors, native and non-Native have kindly aided me by providing internships and commenting on my work.
These experiences in Native arts weigh heavily in how I interpret the research I present here. The personal and political significance of the issues I debate in this manuscript cannot be separated from the academic findings I engage, nor have I attempted to separate them. While I exercise the right to speak from where I stand, I also recognize the responsibility of such a position. Consequently, I have chosen not to expose individuals in ways that may endanger their integrity or privacy. My work with seven pivotal artists over a fifteen-year time frame provides the basic framework of my analysis. The interviews I present have been reviewed by the authors and when a conflict has arisen, components have either been deleted or the individual has remained or become anonymous. Due to the public nature of the Native arts world, completely anonymous citations would lead only to speculation and possibly inappropriate attributions. Although they may not agree with all of my conclusions, I hope that I have rendered the artists’ words accurately. Likewise, any mistakes in interpretation are my own.
A close colleague at the National Museum of the American Indian tells of how school groups regularly arrive at the entrance of the museum wearing paper-feathered war bonnets. The floor personnel at the museum (an all-Indian staff) consistently explain to the teachers that the war bonnets are inappropriate and ask to have the children remove them. The teachers dutifully follow this request, and the class tours the exhibits. At the end of their visits however, the kids place the paper feathered bonnets right back on their heads and go out the door yelling war chants. This uphill struggle for accurate representation of Native American realities cannot be addressed by only one institution or by only one methodology. I hope the words and thoughts of the Native women artists featured here, as image producers, can help rectify the sting of racist behaviors, however innocently enacted.