MUSEUM: Windows into Indian Country, a Q&A with Paul Chaat Smith

Posted on June 8th, 2010 by americanindiannews in Recent News

Paul Chaat Smith, Comanche, is a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and author of “Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong,” a 2009 collection of often-biographical essays that explore museums, politics and contemporary American Indian life.

Paul Chaat Smith. Photo courtesy of Paul Chaat Smith

Smith has curated many exhibitions including ones about two of the most prominent contemporary Native artists, as well as a permanent exhibition about the history of indigenous Americans.

In 2008, he co-curated a major retrospective of the late Luiseño abstract expressionist Fritz Scholder, titled “Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian.” Last year, Smith curated a retrospective of another provocative artist, Brian Jungen, the Dunne-za sculptor from British Columbia. Smith calls him the best Native artist of the 21st century.

Recently Paul Chaat Smith joined American Indian News Service editor Kara Briggs for a conversation.

Briggs: When did you come to the National Museum of the American Indian?

Smith: August, 2001, when the museum on the National Mall was still a very large excavation site.

Briggs: Is the National Museum of the American Indian an important institution to the Indian world?

Smith: I think in some ways it’s more important than the people who created it imagined it would be. Going back to the 1970s and some of these early conferences when people talked about a museum of our own, then to the ’80s and the actual planning of it, I think most of them would be surprised at how important the institution is within Indian Country in the U.S. It’s one of the largest and richest Indian institutions in the United States, so its importance is beyond its standing as one of the Smithsonian
museums. It is also significant in terms of indigenous issues in Latin America. It is in a lot of ways a model for Native peoples in some Latin American countries where a museum like this would be inconceivable.

Briggs: The museum has a world-class collection, containing 800,000 objects collected a century or more ago by industrialist George Gustav Heye. Yet is the National Museum of the American Indian symbolically important for Indian nations in the U.S.?

Smith: Establishing this kind of museum is one way that nations like the United States make an effort toward reconciliation. Even though the circumstances were almost accidental, it really was about the George Gustav Heye collection being up for grabs and the competition between the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Smithsonian Institution and Ross Perot to buy it. All those things were sort of coincidental and accidental to some degree. But the way it played out with the Smithsonian acquiring that collection, and then the legislation to found the museum, that was significant.

Briggs: When the museum opened in 2004, there was a message that we are still here. Some people took that as not intellectual or missing the point, but you’ve said that was a very particular and important message, considering that there are people today who think that Indians are extinct.

Smith: Some scholars think that the missing component is that visitors do not get the depth of what happened and how singular it was in human history, that the level of the biological catastrophe is greater than anything else that’s happened in recorded history. For that reason, it’s really a singular event, the two halves of the world coming together. There are a lot of scholars who really talk about how that Columbus contact created the world we live in now. The problem, though, is that this isn’t a story that Indians are comfortable with, or even think about in a personal way—the loss of an estimated 30 million people from North and South America to epidemics brought by Europeans in those 150 years after 1492. The last 200 years is a story that is part of our historical memory, when we talk about boarding schools and other particular stories that are authentically true, because we get them through our relatives. The first 150 years after European contact, we don’t. It’s not part of our collective history in an emotional way or in a personal way.


Courtesy of Ralph and Ricky Lauren “Indian With Beer Can” by Fritz Scholder, who was Luiseño, oil on canvas (1969).

Briggs: Fritz Scholder, who was one-quarter Luiseño and who resisted the label “Indian artist,” really redefined what Indian art was, moving it from anthropologic depiction to abstract expressionist paintings like “Indian with Beer Can.”

Smith: Scholder’s work is really amazing in the way that it provides a window into what’s happened in Indian Country during the last 50 years. The way you can talk about Scholder’s life is kind of a guide to how much it’s changed since the 1950s. It was something that you could resonate with because so many Indian people can remember when this was shocking, when Scholder’s work would literally stop people in their tracks. So there were a lot of things to explore in that project.

Briggs: “Strange Comfort,” the Brian Jungen retrospective, deconstructs consumer goods and reconstructs them as art that plays on some of the most ancient and traditional forms of Native art.


Photo courtesy of Debra and Dennis Scholl “Prototype for New Understanding # 23” by Brian Jungen, who is Dunne-za, made from Nike Air Jordans.

Smith: Jungen is creating Indian art without Indian artifacts. I’ve always felt that, generally speaking, Indian people have always wanted to be part of the world as it is. This idea that we really want to go back in time, that we’re against modernity, I don’t think that’s our real tradition. So I think Brian Jungen creates work from the artifacts of our time. He is doing it as an artist who came of age at the end of the 20th century, an artist who is affected by what artists are doing internationally. He went to art school in Vancouver, B.C., and he is a Native person who is totally informed by the art that he sees. His art feels very much of the moment, and also timeless.

Briggs: Jungen’s masks made from Air Jordans, totem poles from golf bags, and a whale skeleton cut from those white plastic lawn chairs, are almost a comic puzzle for someone who sees this art in its traditional form every day.

Smith: Most of these pieces were first exhibited in British Columbia, so that’s a province where it’s common in the neighborhoods of Vancouver to see people make their own totems. For non-Indian folks there, it’s such a motif, such a popular thing. And of course, Jungen’s not Salish; he’s not from the Pacific Coast. His people are at least 1,000 miles north of Vancouver, and east, and his culture has nothing to do with whales or totems or any of that. So it’s sort of nervy in a way that he’s appropriating Northwest Coast art.


By The American Indian News Service

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