Western art has been mixed in dealing with “Indian” or indigenous art. The government has been involved, using the law to define categories and punish evasion of the definitions but on the other hand intensifying the question by subsidizing some aspects to the extent of paying for institutions and specialized schools.

The Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning is a good example of the confusion. Invented during WWII as an outlet for crafts to be manufactured on the premises in a communal workroom, it was accompanied by a display of precious objects that could only be an art museum or an anthropological display, managed and interpreted by professional anthropologists and including a library and darkroom for photography. The tribal people were employed but not consulted.

“A PIECE OF THE INDIAN PIE: CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICAN ART AND THE AUTHENTICITY CONTROVERSY by Julie R. Sasse, A Thesis Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts” is a document available through as a free download. Sasse declared she would investigate how the SW art world intensified the desire for indigenous art as well as the love of all things Western. A federal law was intended to protect the arts and crafts of indigenous people. For white people who had made money from those things, it was life-changing — a huge loss — and made trouble.

There were arrests, suicides, seizure of materials, and many issues about calling crafts “art” or calling “art” crafts. “Misconceptions concerning the law reveal how artists, commercial galleries and scholarly museums have moved to protect themselves from possible litigation.” The passing of this law was what triggered Bob Scriver’s sale of his family’s collection of artifacts to the Royal Provincial Museum in Edmonton, which in turn attracted ceremonialists from Browning who cursed the Canadian curator and attempted to take a Sacred Bundle.

It also drove a wedge between Scriver himself and the People he had grown up with. He had expected the imminent seizure of the collection, an idea encouraged by the FBI, still in vengeance mode after Wounded Knee II. Until then the feeling was pride that Scriver was succeeding and bringing honor to the People.

The larger controversy has brought welcome expansion to awareness of American indigenous art, its modes and production. But it also interested the white people who operated on a boundary by encouraging them to deceptively present art as “Indian” to increase value. It also raised hot issues over who really IS “Indian” and who can be the judge of that. What are they even entitled to portray and can non-Indians do any of it?

“Salvage” ideas from anthropology contributed to the emphasis on age, authenticity, preservation and protection of examples. Also mixing in was the desire to get the “Indians” to support themselves in the way that ethnic creations like quilts or wood-carving had made money for destitute communities elsewhere. This was influenced by the idea that industrial and mechanical creations are less valuable than the organic, handmade, natural products.

Progressive white women romanticized all this to a near religious degree which justified invading ceremonies. The Taos Society of Artists and other influential people like Mary Austin became involved in controversy about whether this was good or bad.

Sasse does a good job of describing the “barren years” after WWII when everyone was recovering and expanding, to the beginning of the Sixties re-invigorating of Native American issues when progressivism insisted that white people should not define what was or was not indigenous art. “One of the most significant changes in the general attitude toward Indian art, and painting in particular, came in 1962 with the establishment of the Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA) in Santa Fe.” Many of the noted artists among Blackfeet attended or taught at this school, which supported individual vision.

In the Sixties the youth rebellion encouraged an invasion of the indigenous world. In Browning Ned Jacob was a good example of this, though he didn’t claim to be “Indian.” In terms of the school Fritz Scholder was the exemplar and politics began to be expressed. Also in this period institutions became involved in art: the Turtle Center in Niagara Falls, New York; the Philbrook Art Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona; the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, Germany; the Cultural Center for the American Indian in Dallas, Texas; the Museo del Instituto de Artes Amerindias in Santiago, Chile, the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico; and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. There were many others forming.

By now there are many cases illustrating the struggle between those who claim to be indigenous and those who insist on purity and exclusion of those who fall beneath their standards. This extends into writing and is complicated by those who think they “know” what an Indian is and try to press that identity on people they sponsor and those who really are enrolled but clearly assimilated and far more like people elsewhere than tribal life. In my experience, those who are truly and authentically indigenous tend to mind their own business and regard the whole controversy as irrelevant to the issue of survival.

The topic is full of ironies. One man accused of pretending to be indigenous was surprised when his tribal roots were announced by an early established tribe itself when it traced members down seven generations and more. Another tribally enrolled but uninvolved man painted versions of protected ceremonies and implied that they were painted when he was there, but they were only from photographs taken by anthropologists. “Indian” artists used white institutions and experts to validate their claims.

In some circles the concern has been about the value of high grade artifacts and their modern replication, even using natural materials and historical glass beads. One use of Scriver’s book, “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains”, which is a photographic record of all the pieces in the Scriver collection before they were sent to Edmonton which Scriver hoped would make everything accessible to the People, turns out to be valued by Germans looking for examples of authenticity. Their work, though “artifakes,” is almost impossible to distinguish from the old versions. Again, what people have stereotypically considered “real” has only overlap with what is actual. AIM lent even more intensity.

As time goes on and the nature of indigenous people is less defined by their ecosystem relationship to their past, becoming diluted by education and experience in the white world, the bite of this law about who is or is not Indian and what that has to do with sales, is being amended. New emphasis is more on aesthetics and individual reputation. Crafts are pulling away from fine art.

Government is turning out to be as much of a problem as the problem they are trying to addrress. For instance, the opening of adoption records reveals many indigenous people who were raised by white parents. What is their status? Something similar is happening with tribes who are reconstituting and demanding recognition.

In general, people are questioning both stigma and exaltation when it comes to Native Americans. The tribes have made enormous strides in addressing alcoholism and extending their earned expertise to the rest of the world. Mental health issues like trauma are not far behind. Art is part of a flowering of a People.




Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.

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Mary Strachan Scriver

Mary Strachan Scriver

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.

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