Response to Changing Horizons: A Reflection On Native American Art, Identity and Belonging

Introduction: Changing Horizons, 1/8th Dakota & Beginnings

“Surrealist Landscape – Automatic Variation” by George Morrison

In Fall of 2019 I participated in the “Changing Horizons” exhibit at All My Relations Arts and Two Rivers Gallery in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The show’s concept challenges the popular notion that art by Natives should conform to stereotyped ideas about what Native American art is. The submission guidelines indicated the show was open to all indigenous artists living on Turtle Island (or North America). Being partly Dakota, I decided to submit a few pieces from my “Coagulation Studies” series. However, I did not want to misrepresent myself; By “blood quantum,” I am 1/8th Dakota, and I did not grow up on a reservation or within any appreciable Dakota community. There are two tribes associated with my Dakota heritage, but I am not enrolled in either. As such, I felt obliged to indicate in my submission that I am not an enrolled tribal member and have a mixed background, 12.5% of which happens to be indigenous.

A few weeks after my submission to “Changing Horizons,” I was notified that all three of my submissions were accepted. I was excited for the opportunity to participate in a show with such a salient theme and hear what other artists had to say about how their heritage shapes their work. I had conversations with curators Angela Two Stars (of All My Relations Arts) and Tamara Aupaumut (of Two Rivers Gallery) about how awkward it felt to quantify my Dakota blood in my application. Why did I assume it would be an issue? Interestingly, this question reflected somewhat on Changing Horizons’ central theme: the complexity of “Nativeness” in art, and how it impacts the work of Native artists. I agreed to participate in an artist talk about the show in late October, which prompted me to write this essay as a way to organize my thoughts. For years, questions and insecurities related to my Dakota ancestry have been swirling in my head. Changing Horizons gave me a tangible reason to examine these thoughts and explore my Dakota heritage as it pertains to identity, belonging, and how I think about Native art.

Great Grandparents Ephraim P. Taylor and Rose Taylor with children at Pipestone, MN

Let’s start from the beginning: my ancestors were either already here in Minnesota, living in villages along the lower Minnesota River or came to North America from Norway and Finland by various means. The Scandinavians eventually settled in Minnesota and later South Dakota. On the Scandinavian side, my forerunners were farmers, shipwrights, pastors, doctors and nurses. They came to the Midwest seeking prosperity, just as many European settlers did during that time. Along the way, my great-grandmother Rose Taylor (née Niemela) married a full-blood Dakota by the name of Ephraim Phillip Taylor (Dakota name: Looking Eagle). On the Dakota side, my ancestors were hunters, warriors, spiritual workers, pipestone quarriers and artisans. My father is enrolled in the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe (FSST) near Pipestone, MN where my great- and great-great-grandfathers carved traditional ceremonial pipes in the pipestone quarry. Their works of art and labor to preserve the sacred quarry site are enshrined at the Pipestone National Monument. The families belonging to FSST originally came from a Minnesota band called the Mdewakanton (Dwellers at the Spirit Lake), whose ancestral territory included the river banks, woodlands and prairies of Southern Minnesota. Some of the Mdewakanton Dakota resettled in Flandreau, SD after being exiled from Minnesota in the events following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The present day Mdewakanton Dakota are represented by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC), located in Prior Lake, Minnesota.

Great Grandfather Ephraim P. Taylor (Looking Eagle) with a ceremonial pipe quarried at Pipestone, MN

Generational research has helped me engage with and take pride in both my European and Dakota heritage. I am interested in finding patterns within our heritage, learning about what was important to my ancestors and how this relates to my family and community today. For example, I was not aware until recently that I could trace my Dakota heritage back to the Twin Cities area, where I have made my adult home. Having moved here at the age of nineteen, and having purchased my first home near the sacred Dakota site of Bdote (Meeting of the Waters), I am in wonder at the irony that my sister and I unknowingly retraced our Dakota ancestors’ steps backwards, from resettlement in Flandreau to genesis in present-day Minneapolis. In another example: the fact that both Dakota and European ancestors had deep spiritual lives helps me understand my natural curiosity about metaphysical frameworks for understanding the universe. Finally, as an artist and a nurse, I am fascinated by the amount of health workers and artisans in our family history. Without always knowing it, I have followed in their footsteps in more ways than one. The stories of individuals and family groups illustrate our narrative and inform our understanding of ourselves. These same stories, placed within the context of history and global events, help us understand the story of humans on a longer arc of time and space. This journey of self-discovery through generational research has been fascinating and enlightening, and continues to keep me engaged.

The Experience of Heritage

Growing up, we had no lack of opportunities to engage with our Scandinavian heritage. We went to a Lutheran church with predominantly other white Scandinavian families, who also mostly populated our western Sioux Falls, South Dakota neighborhood. At Christmas, we ate lefse, lutefisk and krumkake. Mom told us fairy tales and ghost stories drawn from Norwegian folklore. I read and re-read a large picture book detailing the Norse mythologies and all the capricious gods in their endless conniving. My parents made sure we engaged with our Native American heritage as well. My parents took us to indigenous craft fairs. We went to powwows, and my sister and I ate heaping fry bread tacos with ground bison and participated in hoop dances. We attended the Hiawatha Pageant at Pipestone, MN with our Dakota relatives a few times. When we were born, my parents had our umbilical cords sewn into beaded animals, a Lakota tradition. Mine was a snake, and my sister Stephanie’s a turtle. These amulets symbolize the link between phases of existence – before and after birth – and are thought to encourage long life.

For multiple reasons during my childhood and early adulthood, my Dakota heritage was infinitely more interesting to me than my European heritage. For one, we were surrounded by other Christian, Scandinavian families, and those traditions and stories permeated our lives. As an alternative story, our Dakota history was more interesting, more wild and unique. Admittedly, this was a child’s fascination with the plains Indian caricature created by Hollywood (read: Dances With Wolves) and popular media. As an adult, I have come to appreciate and revere the aspects of our shared European and Native heritage that are based in reality: my ancestors’ stories of migration, exile and resilience, rich spiritual tradition, and relationship to the land which we occupy and depend on.

Under Two Heavens by Wes Dakota

The evolution of my spiritual life has also encouraged me to identify more with our Dakota heritage than our Scandinavian background. As a young teenager in confirmation, I was told by a Lutheran church leader that being gay was not compatible with the bible’s teachings. With my rebellious phase in full swing and little patience for intolerance, I found zero ways to reconcile this. Instead of suppressing my sexual orientation, I dropped out of confirmation, gave up on Christianity and began exploring different spiritual systems. Since then, I have become familiar with principles from Universalism, Buddhism and indigenous philosophies – something that may account for my pride in our Native heritage today. Like my blood, my spiritual constitution is mixed, incorporating bits and pieces from here and there. Interestingly, my great-great-grandpa Joseph C. Taylor had a similar experience with spirituality. His life is chronicled in the historical-fiction novel Under Two Heavens by Wes Dakota. Born into the local mayhem of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, he was brought up and trained as an Episcopal missionary. During the course of his life, Joseph tried to bring Christianity to bands of Natives throughout the Great Plains, but ultimately gave up missionary work, returned to Pipestone, MN and began answering a “different spiritual calling” as a Pipestone quarrier and artisan. My grandpa’s experiences resonate with me: his spiritual journey echoes my own in some ways; his life of navigating the space between Native and white cultures is related to the ambiguity I write about here, and the confusing space many Natives find themselves in today.

“You Lost It In Your First Nosebleed” – Mixed Blood, Tribelessness and Identity Complexity

Intermittently, I have met resistance to the assertion that I am part Native. Usually, this has been based on assumptions about how Natives are supposed to physically look. From time to time, others will say “I can see it!” remarking on the subtle ways my sister and I  “look Native” based on these assumptions. My father and I share a somewhat darker skin tone than my mother and sister and many other Scandinavians. We have high cheekbones, strong nose bridges, dark hair. Aside from this, we don’t physically read as Native people by popular opinion. My sister, also 1/8th Dakota, ended up with wholly Scandinavian physical traits – fair skin, white-blond hair and bright blue eyes. Not looking Native enough to satisfy others, or not “passing” as Native, generates an insecurity of identity and poses several interesting questions about identity and appearance on its own.

In other conversations, the reactions of others have seemed to reject our Dakota heritage based on our lived experience. Yes, we may be genetically Native, but we did not grow up on a reservation or immersed in an indigenous community. The experiences of my sister and I have largely been of white European privilege, and we certainly owe a lot to this fact. The result is a feeling of disconnect between our Native heritage and a lived “Native experience,” but again, in a country with over 500 federally recognized tribes, with hundreds of thousands of full-bloods, half-bloods, one-fourths, one-eights, one-sixteenths, one-thirty-seconds, in year 2019, what does a “Native experience” really mean? My research into the lives of my ancestors on both sides, Native and European, has revealed experiences that are far from privilege. Their struggles have brought about our privilege in surprising ways. I choose to honor them through generational research and celebration of multifaceted heritage.

All this complexity, and we haven’t even gotten to the topic of blood. “You probably lost it in your first nosebleed,” one Native acquaintance told me as a teen, referring to the apparently minuscule fraction of blood in my body that qualified as indigenous.  Blood quantum rules, or the system of quantifying Indian blood imposed on Native populations by the federal government, overlays yet more identity complexity on Natives of mixed ancestry. It’s incredibly easy to feel “not Native enough” when a system of exclusivity turns your living blood into a pie chart that others use to decide things about you. The highly controversial tool of blood quantum is used by many tribes to determine membership, and sometimes poses a significant conundrum for those of mixed-blood status. The FSST of South Dakota maintains a blood quantum rule. One must have at least one quarter Dakota blood to be an enrolled member. Because the Dakota in Flandreau, SD originally came from the Prior Lake, MN area, I suspected and confirmed through research that we can trace our Dakota lineage back to Prior Lake, the geographic center of the SMSC. SMSC’s rule indicates anyone, regardless of blood quantum, can be enrolled as long as they can prove lineage back to a tribal member on their books (called lineal descent). Our ancestor, Oceti Duta (Place of Red Fire) was Mdewakanton, and was sentenced to hang at Mankato, MN for participating in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. This event ended up being the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Ultimately, he was spared. Despite our familial trace back to the Mdewakanton, we have been unable to petition for enrollment in SMSC. For the last several years there has been a moratorium on new enrollment claims. Phone calls and emails to inquire why have not been returned.

In summary, at several junctures, I’ve encountered an assertion that my Dakota heritage is simply “not Native enough.” Not Native enough to identify with our ancestry, and certainly not Native enough to belong to a tribe. A question that comes to mind: to what degree have blood quantum policies resulted in a crisis of identity and belonging among all Native people, and how have they inadvertently stifled or damaged families and communities because of it? The double standard here is interesting to me – it has never mattered to anyone that we are not 100% Norwegian or Finnish either. We are not 100% white, Native, or anything. Who is really 100% anything in the larger picture of human existence on planet Earth?

Shifting the Focus: Identity Versus Belonging

So here we stand –  mixed Norwegian-Finnish-Dakota people, tribeless, living in the heart of ancestral Dakota homelands. As I have asked myself many times, why does any of this matter? The identity question is messy, fraught with complexity. So much of the above ambiguity is based on how others view us, what they decide about us. What kind of recognition or acknowledgment are we looking for, and what difference would it make? Why are identities so fragile? I believe that identity is a construction of the mind – one’s own mind and the minds of others. As such, the constructed identity or ego becomes a distraction from who we really are, a distraction from the deep understanding of our true being which is separate from names, labels, and artifices. Still, at times I have been frustrated, especially that we are unable to be formally acknowledged by either tribe as belonging to their story. What would tribal membership even mean for us? The ultimate benefits of enrollment remain unclear. Nonetheless, there exists a persistent inner discomfort that comes from this “tribelessness.” As I write, it becomes clear that this uneasiness is not necessarily based on the precarious construction of identity, but rather on the deeply human need for belonging. Belonging to something larger than ourselves.

I am learning: what matters more than identity validation is seeking belonging where it counts. Formal membership in a tribe is not necessary to cultivate belonging, to honor and experience our heritage. What does it even mean to honor and experience our heritage, or even to cultivate belonging? Perhaps it means contributing to our community in whatever ways we can, participating, forming bonds with others, learning a language, carrying on meaningful traditions, spending time in the places where our family story unfolded, or allowing our ancestors’ stories to teach us something about ourselves. These are all things that can be done without anyone else’s allowance or recognition. Indigenous people in North America have survived through war, famine, smallpox blankets, systematic destruction,  and exile. Our ancestors’ struggles and resilience made our own lives possible. In Tommy Orange’s 2018 novel There There, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield explains to her grandson: “Don’t ever let anyone tell you what being Indian means. Too many of us died to get just a little bit of us here, right now … You, me. Every part of our people that made it is precious … You’re Indian because you’re Indian because you’re Indian.” Opal’s point here is that acknowledging one’s Native heritage is almost a duty, not to validate ourselves, but to respect our ancestors’ fight for survival – even the survival of just a little bit, even 1/8th of a little bit. Ultimately, the reasons identity and belonging matter to each of us are complex, and cannot be resolved in a single essay. Rather, these questions are explored through a lifetime and the “answers” evolve with each new phase of the journey.

Changing Horizons: An Exploration of “Native American Art”

As I have stated above, the search for identity and belonging are lifelong explorations. As an artist, I see the creative process as a similar exploration. Generally, the themes and ideas contained in my paintings actively explore concepts rather than seek to make a statement or resolve a question – especially the more abstract pieces. My art practice is a journey which brings discovery, poses questions and challenges, and leaves the viewer with something to consider as well. The “Changing Horizons” exhibit at All My Relations Arts and Two Rivers Gallery exhibit gave me a platform to use my art to explore questions about Native art as well as my own story with Native identity and belonging.

First, what does “Native American Art” mean? To me, this category can be described as art by and of Native Americans, usually reflecting culture, values, beliefs or stories that are unique to the indigenous experience. Often, viewers seem to expect a more historical or cliched experience to be reflected – these are the experiences of colonization, conquer and dispossession. Indeed, the Encyclopedia Britannica’s definition of “Native American Art” offers an almost anthropological characterization using the past-tense. It’s no wonder “Native American Art” from a colonizer’s perspective has not flourished in the mainstream – it would be too depressing.

By contrast, today’s Native art often reflects a living contemporary experience – an important counterpoint to the popular notion that indigenous culture and communities have been erased. Native communities exist today, in urban environments as well as in rural communities. Likewise, “Native American Art” does not exist only in the context of history. Today’s indigenous painters, poets, novelists, sculptors, actors, rappers, dancers, craft workers, journalists, weavers, animators, designers, artists of all stripes are here to stay, and they have a different story to tell. These stories are messy, complicated, beautiful, funny, tragic, nuanced, uncomfortable, transformative. Theirs are generational stories of strength, pride, staying power, even stories that don’t have anything “Native” to say at all.

George Morrison

Through my participation with Changing Horizons, I learned about George Morrison, a celebrated artist whose avant garde artwork was often labeled “Native American,” though not much of his work actually contained any overt “Native American” themes. In fact, the majority of Morrison’s work can be described as abstract, modernist and decorative with only subtly recognizable forms, such as landscapes, horizons, water or other organic shapes. It is argued that Morrison’s categorization as a “Native American” niche artist may have limited his exposure in the larger art world. Contemporaries and acquaintances Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning all experienced celebrity while Morrison remained relatively obscure. It is possible that critics and art enthusiasts excluded Morrison’s work from the contemporary cutting edge due to the assumption that “Native-ness” belongs to uncomfortable, misunderstood narratives of the past. The stereotyped images of Native Americans and “Native American Art” seem to have no place in the metropolitan, sophisticated and nuanced world of visual art.

This leads us to the question – what do non-native folks and the public expect about “Native American Art?” Must it be generated by a physically Native-looking artist, depict traditional dress or ceremony, include animals, landscape, feathers, or other stereotypically “Native American” elements? Viewers are so comfortable with this narrative and its symbols that they will go out of their way to participate in it. For example, the “Coagulation Study” pieces I submitted to Changing Horizons were purely abstract with colorful, vaguely organic shapes connected by an underlying network of geometric marks. During the opening reception, one viewer remarked on a blob of red paint in the center of my composition: “Perhaps it’s just because I’m here, but I can almost certainly make out a painted horse or a buffalo right there!” In this exchange, it became clear that the viewer was striving to connect with familiar images that have persisted in popular media – visions of buffalo, horses on the prairie, Indians fighting cowboys. They also revealed that their perception was biased by the setting – a gallery dedicated to Native art. Now, I’m not saying there was anything really wrong with this association – only that it’s fascinating how desperately people want to connect with the comfortable, popular symbols of “Native-ness,” rather than search for something unique.

Coagulation Study (Golden Ratio). Mixed media. 12
Coagulation Study (Golden Ratio). Mixed media. 12″ x 16″

Participation in the Changing Horizons artist talk, I was asked to explore how my artwork relates to ideas about “Native-ness.” As I said above, the pieces I submitted are mostly abstract. They include tiny chips of paint scraped from pallets over the years, which are layered into a mixed media matrix arranged in a somewhat geometric and organic-looking shape. As I work, I try to maintain a balance between planning and intuition – the underlying grid has been designed to be mostly symmetrical or aesthetically formatted, however decisions about placement of certain elements are made with a flowing, “stream-of-consciousness” sensibility. This tension between defined aesthetic frameworks and intuitive “play” is key – I view it as an extension of creative processes found in nature such as growth, development, iteration, accident and mutation. The use of old, dried paint simultaneously with new, shiny and supple paint juxtaposes similar materials at different “life stages,” and explores the idea of salvage or regeneration of refuse, dead material. The connections between the mixed media elements recall food chains, thought webs, family trees, ecosystems, and remind the viewer how all the elements of the composition are connected to the others. Mitakuye oyasin, Dakota for “all my relations,” is a concept in Dakota philosophy which underscores the relationships connecting all living things. While I was not explicitly thinking about this during the creation of these pieces, its reflection in the work is fascinating to me. George Morrison maintained that there was nothing particularly Native American about his art practice: “I have never tried to prove that I was Indian through my art. Yet there may remain, deeply hidden, some remote suggestion of the rock whence I was hewn,” he said. Here, Morrison illustrates the idea that we all have a deep inner nature passed down from generations before us. Certainly these inner natures carry the energies of our ancestors, their history and memories and perhaps also their dreams, their trauma. I suspect there are many other ways my ancestry, Dakota or European, subconsciously affects my life and art practice.

For indigenous artists and art appreciators, know that there is not one single story of Native Americans that defines us. The perspective and voice of each and every individual is precious beyond value and contains within a gift that only that perspective can offer. When engaging with Native art, try to look deeper and avoid the clichés of the past – these Hollywood silhouettes of conquered people. Search for the universal – what is being shared in the context of global human experience, human consciousness, human vitality and survival. Open your mind to the story of Today, and consider what looking forward, toward the changing horizon, may offer.

Thank you. Takk. Kiitos. Pidamaya.

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