An Argument For Decolonization

Swan Plankhouse and Canoes on the Cowlitz 1840s

Its an amazing thing to be able to put your opinion into the world! Few countries enjoy full rights for what I believe is a human right. Its a sacred right and contributes to our communities in meaningful ways. Art and craft is another way to comment on the world. Its an amazing thing to produce something that is a visual and physical representation of what you believe the world is like, what you wish to see in the world, and how people should interact with one another. Poetry, song, writing are all art forms that do just this and more. They resonate with our inner human beings in ways that are difficult to describe, we feel it.

Art that derives from Native cultures does just this to native people.  Its a special relationship, one based on mutual respect and responsibility. Public art forms are meant for the community and represent the community’s relationship to the world around them. What do such art forms mean when created by people who are not from the culture. Clearly that must mean that this is the relationship of the community to the world around them. But Native peoples take exception to the theft of such art forms. Theft is what has happened to Native peoples throughout the world for centuries.

First through our knowledge. Native peoples created many of the world’s foods that are now revered in many world cuisines. Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, corn, squashes, beans and the list goes on.  What does it mean to say Swiss Chocolate, as we all know that chocolate comes from South America and the Swiss part of that is only a new technique for preparing this wonder food.

Department of Anthropology Baskets
Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology Baskets, photo David Lewis 2014

Native ideas of how to govern society came from the Americas. In fact, the Six Nations Confederacy inspired if not directly contributed ideas to how to run a democracy, and its said that Benjamin Franklin may have borrow ideas from the confederacy liberally.  In addition, Native people have been managing their lands for over 15,000 years and for many centuries the colonial countries ignored this fact. But in the last 20 years we have seen an amazing change in understanding of how to manage our vast forest lands. Forest managers are now trying to learn what Native peoples did to keep their forest lands safe, healthy and prosperous. It turns out that Smokey Bear was wrong, that we should let fires burn to eliminate the possibility of huge destructive fires. These huge fires we have seen as late as this last year.

It turns out that much of the history of modern, post-modern and contemporary art took ideas from native peoples.  Africa and Asia and native America provided models of new art forms to borrow ideas from. Picasso is well known to have taken ideas from African art forms.  This is how art changes and remains relevant to the people in our societies every generation, taking ideas, borrowing inspiration and make something new.

Then there is direct appropriation of art. Direct appropriation takes the exact art forms that have spiritual meaning in Tribal Nations. These motifs and images have meaning and the theft of such imagery is not what tribal nations want. I have stated elsewhere that this sort of theft confuses people. But it does more.

"Story Pole" from OCR Newsletter March 2016
“Story Pole” from OCR Newsletter March 2016

Theft in this vein, like recreating a Totem pole, is a lie to the community. It represents theft and will be a constant symbol of the lie of a diverse and respectful society. It is not inclusive nor respectful to take an art form from another people and rename it as a Story Pole. It is not simply folk art but a Native American Sacred Art form that is actually protected by federal law. Its illegal to make or sell Native American art if its not made by a registered Native person (Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990).  The story pole that is being erected at the Oregon Country Fair is going to serve an as attraction to the fair, in order to sell tickets.  This may be in clear violation of that law.

The Federal laws regarding Native American arts and crafts began in the early 20th century when it was noticed that pot hunters and scavengers were stealing artifacts and arts from reservations across the nation. Much of this artwork ended up in museums who wished to complete their collections of huge expressive Native art before the tribal people died and their art form went extinct. In this period people were practicing Social Darwinism and because native populations were collapsing, and many were assimilating into American cultures, they  thought that they were less socially and culturally competitive. The practice of collecting all of this culture was part of the practice of colonization of Native lands and cultures and contributed directly to assimilating Native peoples.  Even anthropologists contributed to this and in many ways drove the market for Native American curios, making deals to get the larger totem poles from reservations and shipping them to worldwide museums. Today, nearly every old museum has one or more totems in their entryways. These sculptures stand as representations of their approval of thievery from Native cultures.

The original laws were to protect the art from thieves (also protected by federal laws) but now there are folks directly appropriating their art forms. In comparison the model is the same, there is no responsibility towards the people, or the culture in either case. Doing something to honor a people without their approval is not honoring them, especially if its a sacred art form and comes from their spirituality.

And…. Regarding tribal religions, a colleague reminded me about the fight against Native religion. In the 19th and 20th centuries the Bureau of Indian Affairs was so committed to assimilating Natives, that they outlawed Native Peoples’ freedom to practice their own religions and spiritualities. Its was illegal to have potlatches, and longhouses were burnt down. Many of the remaining totems, those not stolen from reservations of the First Nations, were burnt down. We all take freedom of religion for granted in the USA, but it wasn’t until 1978 that the right to practice Native religion was guaranteed under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. So for over 100 years Native people had to practice their religions in secret meetings in people’s barns, houses or in secret forest gathering sites.  The only expression of the religion allowed to be practiced was the Pow wow which was an attractive Native gathering for white people. Part of the contemporary pow wow was borne from Plains Indian ceremonies, part born from the “Buffalo Bill Wild West Shows” and part from Indian Boarding schools, and a large part from Universities where Native students from many nations came together. The approval of the Pow wow helped it spread through Indian Country and it has become the dominant event today.

The OCF effort to communicate with local tribes is commendable. However its akin to asking French people if African Art is alright to copy. The local tribes cannot give approval to the art form from another tribe. Native people are not all of the same tribal nation, we are different  nations, over 500 different nations and cultures, and the local tribes cannot be a stand in, to give token approval to a project and art form that is not theirs to approve.

SWORP Team, UO Oregon’s Tribal nations, 2001 Potlatch event commemorating the give-away of 100,000+ pages of cultural knowedge to the Oregon tribes

I again urge the OCF to consider a different direction for accepting the donation of this Story Pole from the Donor.  Think deeply about what was taken and think about reversing that, to decolonize the process of taking from Native nations. I strongly suggest to instead give away the pole as a gift to the Haida nation. This would be an amazing project to complete as it would recognize what was taken from these people so long ago, show respect for the people that suffered so much, and in return the Eugene community will see great goodwill, respect and perhaps an in-kind gift from that Native community. That is how Native communities do things. This action of goodwill and faith would recreate and restore the spirit of the Potlatch in the region.  It would be so much better for everyone in Eugene to someday have a real Haida Totem Pole as a symbol of respect. This sort of project would be an inspiration for so many in the community, especially Native people.


Follow up article: Playing Indian by Alex Ronan

5 thoughts on “An Argument For Decolonization

  1. Thank you so much for your continuing attention to the OCF “story pole” issue. I believe the motive behind contacting local tribes was to show respect by asking people’s opinion about raising the pole on traditional Kalapuya land, and disturbing an archaeological site in the process, not to ask for approval of the design itself. I love your suggestion of offering to pole to the Haida people. I hope people at Ritz Sauna give it some consideration.

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