Sometimes it’s outrageous and sometimes it’s disguised, but often I am confronted with the attitude that an Indian appearance is as good as the real thing; that you can -- figuratively -- tie a feather on it and call it “Indian.” The CDIB issue and the “Made by American Indians” trademark notwithstanding, some presenters feel that it does not really matter much if Indians authenticate something by our own standards, as long as it “appears” genuine. In the world of art objects, there may be clearer ways of determining authenticity with trademarks, but in the per forming arts it’s a foggy endeavor.
An accomplished composer, I have spent many years studying Western European music theory and composition supplemented by independent investigation and comparative study of indigenous music. I research the language, history and lifeways of my own tribal community and maintain tribal ties that significantly affect my work. That work is performed by world renowned performers such as the Kronos Quartet at prestigious New York premieres and in cities the world-over, yet I continue to get the same message repeatedly: that performing arts presenters are more interested in the appearance of nativeness in the art they pre sent, rather than the art natives are actually making.
Last October at a popular resort in north Scottsdale, I was hired to perform Native American flute songs for one of their events. Shortly after I arrived, I realized that they were not interested in Native American flute songs, but in a Native American flute player to decorate the scene. I was not greeted as one would greet a per son, but ordered to stand in a pile of carefully landscaped rocks where I complemented the expensive southwest scenery. My music competed with automobile engines as the guests turned over their cars to a valet before entering a building. Obviously, I was not there to be heard. Later, I learned that they did not even ask my agent if I was a good flute player, they simply wanted to know if I had Indian “regalia” to wear.
What’s the point? When the appearance of being Indian be comes the overriding factor in the performing arts, all attention is diverted from what the artists are actually doing. It clouds rather than clarifies who American Indians are, and does not emphasize the Native American perspective. Only other Indians can decide who and what is “authentic.” Looking authentic and being authentic are two very different things.
I could recount many true-life stories like the one above, but in stead I will make suggestions for future consideration. Here are three important ones:
• Get Native Americans to actually create new works, not just per form them -- there is a difference. Having Native Americans “in mind,” or “featuring” a famous Indian flute player in a nonnative orchestration, does not make the composition an Indian work. Only the performing art originated by Indigenous artists can be considered to be authentic by our standards.
• Consult with Native Americans on decisions. Let us participate in decisions that may directly or indirectly affect the presentation and treatment of who we are. We’re real people, not simply commodities. We are not merely the sum of our spiritualness, culture, art work or talent -- we’re whole people. What a non-Indian may imagine from years of books can never approximate what an Indian knows from living as an Indian. Take advantage of our experience in decision-making.
• Take a lesson from the so-called Santa Fe style and market the works that Native Americans are doing, not only what is popular. Early traders in Indian rugs requested the geometric Persian designs so incessantly that weavers began to produce only those designs from demand; all other possibilities were suppressed. The Santa Fe style is a native creation distorted and forced into mass production. Individual artist’s expression is oppressed, and misunderstandings result.
Getting Native Americans to create Native American works will not only make presentations more authentic by Indian standards, but will enrich the presentations as well. What is commonly thought of as “Native American” by the majority of arts patrons in this country does not even begin to explore the wealth of diversity and complexity alive in the aboriginal population. Exciting new works are waiting for patronage in the form of commissions and promotions! If you want to promote a Native American presentation, find Native Americans to create it! Feathers and other decorations will not make it “Indian.” There are no substitutes.