The Dakota Indians say that in the beginning was the Spirit. Their story of creation begins here. They may individualize this sense of original being, or they may leave it undifferentiated until the story progresses, at which time sky and earth appear, waters, winds, plants, animals, and men. Always there is a universal harmony, and then something happens which appears to disrupt that harmony. The rest of the story is an account of the effort to return to the primeval bliss.
Much of this effort may be channeled through ceremony, though visionaries seem to connect directly with some sort of fundamental truth of existence. Often there are pretenders who, in the nature of things, get their just deserts, because they are not, in fact, in harmony either with themselves or with the conceived view of what is true about life.In effect, they cut themselves off.
Most people feel the need of some aid in their struggle, searching for it in whatever way they can. If they think the original creation was a one-shot affair rather than a continuum, they are apt to think in terms of lesser spirits residing in the things created, and it is to these conceptions they turn for help. Even if past, present, and future are all rolled together in a sense of "now," the human seeks some means of identifying himself with the whole. In either case, apparently, rituals are thought to provide steps up the ladder to heaven. Empty ritual will not do. There must be a real spiritual content felt by each participant.
Sometimes the ritual fails, as some American Indians discovered in the Ghost Dances of the last century and the peyote cult of this century. The forces they were designed to deal with were of another order, and so these attempts to regain wholeness failed. And then what? Annihilation? So it would seem. And yet there are survivors who, in their amazement, abandon that which was insufficient for their fellows and look for whatever it was that kept them going.
The big question is that of identity: who am I now? Do I belong to the ways of the world I came from or to the ways of the world to which I now belong? How much of each can I hold? It can be a cruel choice.
If one's spiritual heritage is erased, then what? Can it be recovered in art , or is art the result of spiritual liveliness? American Indians are not the only people to be working out responses to these questions in the 20th century, but their universal ability to visualize reminds the rest of us to think again about the importance of art.
A few years ago, an exhibition called "Sacred Circles" at the Hayward Gallery in London and the Nelson Gallery of Art/Atkins Museum of Fine Arts in Kansas City brought to public view some of the finest work of the past 2,000 years in America, provoking thought as to what must have gone before in order to produce such a high level of achievement. Such masterpieces do not spring out of the blue. More and more archaeological evidence indicates that the ancestors of the artists represented in the show had been on the North American continent far longer than anyone had imagined. There is even the suggestion now that humans evolved here and migrated to Asia, rather than the other way round!
At all stages of development, however, art played a central role. It is the precursor of the written word, since a pictograph is often a gesture pinned down visually and the gesture is often symbolic of an abstract idea. It is a way of sensing and communicating thought. And so it is not unreasonable to suppose that the consciousness of some continuity of being may be attained through making, as well as studying, works of art.
Perhaps this is the ground on which contemporary American Indians, searching for their roots, meet other contemporary artists. An understanding of the process of creation can help sort out that which is created.
A Seneca Indian painter, Peter Jemison, found his Indian roots after a thorough education away from them, including a stint at the University of Siena in Italy, where he learned to draw by studying the work of the old Italian masters. He says, "I had a white man's education, but none of my formal education had given me any understanding of Indian art and culture." And so he took it upon himself to get it, working in community programs with his tribe, learning the various crafts himself, talking with the elders who remembered the old ways. He considers himself a modernist, but his work has begun to incorporate what he learned from the elders. A New York artist, he finds he must return to the Seneca reservation from time to time "to regain my spiritual identity. . . .I'll thank the Creator for my family and for all the help I've had in this world."
George Morrison, the ojibwa Chippewa painter and sculptor, has a different view. "I'm not religious in the usual sense. My art is my religion. I've tried to unravel the fabric of my life and how it relates to my work. Certain Indian values are inherent -- an inner connection with the people and all living things, a sense of being in tune with natural phenomena, a consciousness of sea and sky, space and light, the enigma of the horizon, the color of the wind. I've never tried to prove my Indianness through my art. And yet there remains deep within some remote suggestion of the earth and the rock from which I came."
Morrison notes that the Cubist painters received inspiration from the art of tribal cultures, that his own art training was in the modern art of Europe and America, including surreal and Cubist elements, so that he, too, was having to soak up the same inspiration that stimulated these modern movements, the only difference being that much of it was already indigenous to his own culture. His sculpture, particularly, reminds one of the ancient American work. He says of this, "I'm not sure whether the influence is conscious of unconscious, but I'm excited by the idea of reincarnating an art from that existed a thousand years ago."
Not all the contemporary painters have found their sense of identity tied up quite so neatly with their Indian background. Fritz Scholder, who is one-quarter Indian (Mission/Luiseno), has always considered himself a painter, and for a long time not much of an Indian until the Rockefeller Project at the University of Arizona put him in touch with Indians, Indian art, and what he describes as the tensions and antagonisms and even the strong jealousies of Indian people. Later he established himself in Santa Fe, where he taught and watched students wrestling with "their Indian subject and not quite making it. . . . Somebody should take this subject and transcend it in paint.m So I finally succumbed. And ever since my first Indian painting, everybody screamed!" Controversy has indeed swirled around him ever after, but he maintains that the question of whether he is Indian or not is irrelevant. His subject matter is the Indian, and for him subject matter is "about third on the list of what is important about painting." He is much more concerned with, first, color, and second, image. And he is delighted that he is a painter, can live on it and do exactly what he wants, as he puts it.
An ironic comment on painters of Indians comes from Alfred Young Man, a Cree who had a four-year scholarship to study at the Slade School of Fine Arts in London. He says it all in his painting "George Catlin-Fritz Scholder, Indian Rip-Off." More moderately, he says in words, "I am an individual in this world. My work is both Indian and non-Indian. Today the line between 'our' culture and 'their' culture is almost invisible, and the influences we all feel is what my work is concerned with. Some Indian artists live for the past, others for the present. I live for the past, present, and future."
So does T. C. Cannon, who studied at the Institute of American Arts, an outgrowth of the Rockefeller Project situated in Santa Fe. Cannon, a Caddo/Kiowa from Oklahoma, says, "I dream of a great breadth of Indian art to develop that ranges through the whole region of our past, present, and future." For him, as for Fritz Scholder, Indians are subject matter. He thinks that the mature painter is one who is "interested in his medium whatever it happens to be -- without any particular interest in being an 'Indian painter.'" In other words, the Indianness of the painting, if it comes, should come naturally.
This argument about any "Indian" quality of the artist or the painting seems to come up with the work of Indians from parts of the country where they have been most displaced. There is evidence that some of the Plains Indians became such because they were pushed west by other tribes driving them from their homelands, and that long before the more settled groups were unsettled by the white man, these forced nomads has to face the questions of individual vs. group identity. On the other hand, in the Far West, California Indians were nearly wiped off the map, by successive waves of white invaders.
Plains Indian art was already individualistic -- recounting exploits or making abstract designs of significance to the artist as well as to other people -- by the time white men started pushing them around. In fact, by documentary painting, the artist signified that he was part of the group.
One of the most widely known contemporary Plains artists is Oscar Howe, a Yanktonai Sioux, who started out at The Studio, where Dorothy Dunn's ideas led to the development of the so-called Traditional style of painting. Howe went on to the University of Oklahoma, where more of the Plains Indians were working, and served in World War II in Europe before returning to get his master's degree , then to teach in his native South Dakota. He claims to be a conservative, saying, "My reason for painting is to record visually and artistically the culture of the American Indian, particularly the Dakota Indian. My reason for painting is to carry on what is traditional and conventional in art."
For someone who splashed on the art scene with powerful, Cubist-style work, that sounds anachronistic. But the very essence of modern painting is very close to the essence of Dakota painting if one considers Howe's analysis of his Indian art background. He wrote in the South Dakota Review: "The Traditional Dakota painting was called "the painting of the truth,'" which he describes as a ceremony involving the one who paints, the one who recounts events, and those who witness the way the artist interprets what is told. He discusses the relation between object and idea, and the symbolic significance of color, but then gets onto something that sounds remarkable like Wassily Kandinsky's point-to-line- top-plane thesis, or like Islamic and Far Eastern ideas of composition.
Line, according to him, depends on "esthetic points" in which writing and drawing make lines from point to point. These simple movements build the composition and give clarity of expression, -- different degrees of curvature being Dakota symbolic form. "The Dakota execution of lines was ceremonial strokes of truth," he wrote, bearing out the philosophy of esthetics in pictograph writing, sign language, and other art. He feels that "The Dakota proved a point in art that line does come from nature, and he made use of the truth-line to chronicle his environmental happenings."
Being at one with nature, the Dakota thought of "Wakan Tanka, not an image of man, [but] a supreme Spirit, God of the other spirits and the living beings." Howe concludes, "Art expresses [these ideas] better than anything else."