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The Sweet Grass Lives On

July 2024
6min read

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.


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.

The dancers in their shirts painted with marvelous icons are gone, but the dance goes on … in the paintings of Indian artists in whom vision is irrepressible, in whom the warriors, the holy men, the buffalo, and the sweet grass live on. In great art everything is possible … even the vision of a future in which Indians still dance and sing in a great expanse of unspoiled land newly named America.


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