The Sweet Grass Lives On

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A decade ago a serious recognition of American Indian painters was rare indeed, for the simple reason that few art critics considered that there was anything about Indian painting worth knowing.

The assumption, which was not a new one, happened to be wrong, as the following pages make clear. But in the context of the dominant culture’s long-held attitudes toward native Americans it was not surprising. Conquering peoples tend to write self-serving history, and as American school books have traditionally portrayed the Indians, they have been little more than one-dimensional stereotypes: savages, warriors, torturers, or, more benignly perhaps, hunters, ritualists, and skilled horsemen. In matters as lofty as the fine arts, notice generally passed them by. Only the Indians of Mexico and Central and South America who built great cities were admired in aesthetic terms—an admiration, incidentally, that failed to spare them from near-annihilation.

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was little Indian painting to be seen in the white man’s world. Government policy, mandated by non-Indian society in the United States and ruthlessly carried out by agents, soldiers, and missionaries, was to assimilate the Indians as quickly as possible. All forms of Indian culture, including tribal art, lore, languages, and even spiritual beliefs, were discouraged and stamped out as impediments to the process of stripping the Indians of their Indianness and turning them into whites who would meld into the great American melting pot.

Indian assimilation, however, was not very successful; and when in 1934, under a partial reversal of government policy, the tribes regained many of their cultural liberties, an amazing outpouring of Indian painting began to surface, as if an artistic spring had been uncapped. It took some time for it to be recognized by the white man, but now it is accessible and is making an impact at last on those who had once very nearly destroyed the cultures from which it came.

 

No one knows for sure when Indian art began in North America. It is easier to date the artifacts of Middle and South America, because the materials in which ancient artists worked in those areas were durable. Enough, however, remains from the distant past to establish that artists of North America had been using abstract imagery for centuries—recording their iconography on rock, bone, painted hides, wood, pottery, and in sand paintings.

Scholars of the nineteenth century believed the United States to be a young land, almost entirely lacking truly aged or exceptional relics. The ancient world of the Southwest was still largely unknown, its archaeological impact not being felt fully until excavations of the 1930’s and 1940’s unearthed a wealth of painting and graphic decoration. The belated recognition that rich and complex prehistoric Indian cultures had indeed existed came almost too late. Small amounts of Indian art had been preserved by museums or private collectors, and among the most conservative and tenacious tribes, especially in the Southwest, many religious objects, murals, and symbolic images had been hidden from the white man’s sight. But a great deal more Indian art, of all types, had vanished at the hands of missionaries who regarded the Indians’ expressive works as heretical or of laymen who were simply indifferent to it.

Around 1875 the modern movement of Indian painting began on the Great Plains, where Indians still held their own against the invaders. These mounted hunters of buffalo became stronger and richer than they had ever been in their history. Their hide-covered shields, tepee linings, buffalo robes, and pictographic historical accounts were painted with horses and heroic hunters. There was hardly a man who was not a painter.

As these great warriors of the Plains were subjugated by the Army and imprisoned far from their homes they expressed their forlorn state and loneliness in pictures. Using white men’s supplies and drawing in army commissary books, traders’ ledgers, and on lengths of muslin and canvas, the prisoners, in their traditional pictographic styles, created emblems and images of the undying Indian world.

About the same time, in the Southwest, Pueblo and Navaho Indians began to experiment with pencils, crayons, and paper. Little is known about these earliest painters, but we possess some of their work, painted on wrapping paper, ends of cardboard boxes, and other scraps. Encouraged by a few anthropologists and trading-post proprietors, individuals began to emerge as “artists”—a distinction that had not previously existed among peoples for whom art was an intrinsic part of daily life and not the creation of specialists.