The Sweet Grass Lives On

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Then in 1917 Crescencio Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico came to the attention of an archaeological field unit from the Museum of New Mexico, which learned that he liked to make paintings of the dances of his pueblo. Less than two years later this pioneer of modern Indian art died of influenza, but other young Indians took up his work and gradually evolved a distinctive idiom of Puebloan art produced by self-taught artists. The most celebrated of these were Fred Kabotie, Otis Polelonema, Awa Tsireh, and Velino Herrera.

In the Santa Fe of the 1920’s, where an art community was coming to life among white settlers, people became interested in Indian art. But the repression of the native painters did not change much until 1933, when John Collier became Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The next year the Indian Reorganization Act finally lifted the ban on teaching Indians anything about their heritage or their arts. This was a help to Dorothy Dunn, a white art historian from Chicago who recently had founded a studio at the Santa Fe Indian School—one dedicated to encouraging rather than obliterating the particular artistic expression of Indian peoples. The Studio eventually became a major center of art education for Indians.

Meanwhile, the revival of Plains Indian art began about 1928, when Mrs. Susie Peters, a fieldworker on the Kiowa reservation near Anadarko, Oklahoma, became enthusiastic about the drawings of a group of talented boys. Their work was called to the attention of Oscar Jacobson of the School of Art at the University of Oklahoma, where the boys were eventually accepted as special students and became the first Indian painters officially to receive some kind of formal training. They were known variously as the Kiowa Five or the Five Kiowa Boys—though, in fact, there were more than five of them, and at one period a girl named Lois Smoky was included in their circle.

At about the same time, the Studio at the Santa Fe Indian School had opened classes for promising artists from tribes throughout the United States. From 1932 to 1937, under the direction of Dorothy Dunn, the Studio helped bring into focus a style of Indian painting that together with the works of the Kiowa Five and the drawings of the imprisoned Plains Indians epitomize what is called Traditional Indian painting.

After World War 11 Traditional Indian painting became increasingly homogenized, and most of the regional and tribal elements disappeared. A number of self-taught artists began to rise to prominence, and others who had briefly attended non-Indian schools also began to paint: Jerome Tiger, Blackbear Bosin, Ranee Hood, Rafael Medina, and Raymond Naha. Their works were largely influenced by the Traditional idiom except for a new emphasis upon motion and painted backgrounds, which probably arose from the impact of a painter named Quincy Tahoma who had studied at the Studio.

In 1962, after a series of educational experiments utilizing contemporary art trends in the instruction of Indians, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board of the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs created the Institute of American Indian Arts in the same buildings that had once housed the Studio. The intentions of the institute were quite different from Dorothy Dunn’s purposes of reviving ancient native imagery and style. The new art center examined Traditional Indian painting in the light of twentieth-century art modes. The result has been the emergence of a new school of painting called Contemporary Indian painting, which reflects the sophistication and worldliness of a new generation of Indians whose education is essentially the same as that of whites.

Studio alumnus Oscar Howe had already made major strides in the incorporation of cubistic ideas in his otherwise Traditional paintings. R. C. Gorman had studied in Mexico and brought considerable influence from the Mexican muralists. But unquestionably it is Fritz Scholder and, to a somewhat lesser degree, T. C. Cannon who have been in the forefront of Contemporary Indian painting. Scholder has established an impressive reputation in the major art markets, where Indian painters have not previously had any appreciable success. The fervent nationalism of Traditional painters has gradually given way to an ironic political viewpoint among Contemporary artists, replacing the old romantic image of Indians with a new and outspoken social consciousness.

Now wherever Indian painters concern themselves with Indians, a unique point of view and elements of a highly individual style emerge from the combination of a tribal sense of heritage and a twentieth-century grasp of technique. It is an ancient story that continually renews itself. By 1875 the last hope of survival for Indians was shaken. In those days the desperation was countered by the spread of a frantic ceremonial philosophy called the Ghost Dance, which sprang from the vision of a prophet who promised that the dead would live again. The faith in this revivalist religion was epidemic, and it ended in tragedy. A band of Ghost Dancers in their painted shirts, which they believed could magically protect them from bullets, were among the victims of the slaughter at Wounded Knee in 1890.