Until recently, most people had a certain expectation of American Indian art – and it didn’t include images familiar to people in and around Cherokee County.
“A lot of times, when people think about Native art, they immediately think of Plains art or Southwestern art,” said Roy Boney (Cherokee), Tahlequah artist and moderator of the panel discussion “Southeastern Indian Art: Building Community and Raising Awareness,” held Friday, April 11, at the NSU Symposium on the American Indian.
Boney and the other panelists are frustrated by the divide between mainstream expectations of Native American art and their need for genuine self-expression.
“I grew up in Locust Grove. Where I’m from, the big artists were Bill Rabbit, Bill Glass and Willard Stone, and [I grew up] seeing what they did versus what a lot of the popular imagination was,” he said. “I took a lot of art classes when I was in school, and people would encourage me to enter competitions and art shows, but they would give me these images of stereotypical Plains Indian art and say, ‘You’re Indian. You should do this,’ but that type of art never spoke to me because that’s not my experience. As a Cherokee, which is part of the Southeastern tribal group, we have a distinct visual culture and approach to things, and trying to find a way to express myself using those motifs is very important to me as an artist.”
According to the panelists, stereotypes of Native art are rapidly dissolving, creating recognition for southeastern art, and Tahlequah is one of the places at the heart of the change.
“We’ve always been an artsy community, but we’ve never had the ability to support artists,” said panelist Bobby Martin (Muscogee Creek), artist and professor at John Brown University in Siloam Springs. “But I see that changing. That’s very exciting, and I hope we can keep that momentum going.”
He said growing recognition of Southeastern art has helped reinvigorate the local Native arts community.
“I’ve been here for 52 years of my life, and in the last two years there has been evidence of a growing art community,” said Martin. “There have always been tons and tons of excellent artists in this area, but there are a lot of people who are doing things in this community that are lifting the whole level of art [with] opportunities like the Cherokee Art Center and other organizations that are giving artists the opportunity to make art, venues to show art and sell art. There are a lot of folks who are not artists, who are in on the business side of things and want to see tangible value given to art.”
Southeastern art is defined historically and geographically as art produced and influenced by the tribes that formerly or currently lived in the southeastern U.S., from those who were largely forced to move to Oklahoma in the 19th century, such as the Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek) to those who remain in the Southeast, such as the Tunica-Biloxi of Mississippi or Cawtawba of South Carolina.
“The world of Native American art is quite tribally organized, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it is a reality that tribal affiliation puts you in certain categories,” said Martin. “Southeastern artists for a long time have not been recognized, especially when you think about how the northern and southern plains tribes and Southwestern art have dominated the discussion of Native art.”
That is one reason the panelists and other southeastern artists have formed the Southeastern Indian Artists Association, which meets the second Tuesday of every month at the Cherokee Arts Center, 212 S. Water Ave., for a potluck meal and discussion of art.
“The Southeastern Artists Association has really been an organizing force behind putting southeastern art on the map,” said America Meredith (Cherokee/ Swedish), New Mexico artist and owner/editor of First American Art Magazine.
Meredith said the divide between “contemporary” and “traditional” art in the wider Native American art scene is one struggle that southeastern artists are taking on as well.
“Every living artist is a contemporary artist. If it’s the 21st century, and I’m making stone marbles by hand, then that is a 21st century artistic expression,” said Meredith. “This notion that Western art is new, and Native art is old as poison.”
To combat this and other stereotypes, Southeastern artists are becoming writers and curators, promoting the art and culture of their tribes.
Panelist Tony Tiger (Sac and Fox/Seminole/Muscogee Creek), artist and director of art at Bacone College, agreed.
“We can’t wait for a curator at a museum to exhibit our work. We might be dead by then,” he said.
According to all the panelists, mentorship and education is the key to continuing tradition and innovation in Southeastern art.
“We have so many young Native people who have abilities and have desires to achieve something in their lives,” said Tiger. “So many people miss out on that opportunity. It’s something that I think about a lot as I work at Bacone with students. [I want] to help them see the importance of their time spent studying. It’s a challenge at times, but it’s very rewarding to see a young person take some raw talent and produce something that can change their life.”
The panelists agree this generation of Southeastern artists is already challenging stereotypes.
Tiger said that changing attitudes about Native American art help fuel the energy of current artists.
“As artists in this time period, we really have the opportunity to create art about our time,” said Tiger. “The previous generation was creating art about a time before them, but right now, we are able to create things that concern us right now as native people, and I think that’s very fascinating. Seeing the creativity of young people taking contemporary materials and producing something cultural is very interesting, and that’s what some of our successful young people are doing.”
The panelists agreed Southeastern artists have a responsibility to their art, communities, and themselves.
“The general public has a certain expectation of what Indian art looks like, and that’s something that we need to challenge and talk about and educate people about,” said Martin.