Debate rages about who can create Cherokee-themed art
By WILL CHAVEZ
One constant issue in the Cherokee world is the debate about who has the right to create Indian art. Hardliners will tell you only Indian-card carrying Cherokees should make Cherokee-themed art. Moderates might say, “I’ll buy the art that pleases me the most or moves me.” Others don’t even know there’s a battle being waged in the Cherokee art world and buy art without considering the artist’s heritage. (I guess I'm a hardliner - I've bought so many Indian items over the years only to find out they were made in China and/or a Czech was selling them but boy they sure looked Indian...I ask and check now to make sure it's a legitimate Indian piece and the seller is being honest about it)
I know there’s a battle being waged because I have friends on both sides of the issue. On the surface I try to stay neutral, but in reality I can’t stay neutral because I love art, especially Cherokee-themed art.
I smile when I see paintings of little people riding a deer or a cleverly done booger mask. It makes me proud to be a part of a people who are so creative and artistic. Just go to the annual Trail of Tears Art Show in the spring or the Cherokee Homecoming Art Show in the fall and you’ll see. (oh, you must mean Roger Cain's mask's - personally I'd much rather have one of his masks - a true Cherokee Artist - than a mask that *looks Cherokee*)
Cherokee-themed artwork created by a non-Cherokee has also moved me. Although I am conflicted because a non-Cherokee artist created the art and the sale of that artwork may be diverting money from a Cherokee artist, I can’t help but like it, especially if it is authentic. As a co-worker says, “I like what I like.” (that's fine, but DON'T call it Indian or Cherokee)
What if a card-carrying Cherokee artist creates a painting and it is historically inaccurate? I have seen those paintings before and they make me cringe. On the other hand, what if a non-Indian artist paints a pieced that is so accurate you want to shake their hand? That is one of the dilemmas I have sometimes. I want to be loyal to the true Cherokee artist, but if they don’t take the time to get it right historically, how can I be? (Hmmm, something seriously wrong if a Cherokee creates an inaccurate theme - raised on White Man's history maybe? That makes it even more compelling for Cherokee's to educate their own - and if you've not been to the Cherokee History Class - coming to Tulsa soon - you're missing some really good history!)
I am sometimes invited to criticize a non-Indian artist who is making a living selling Indian artwork. But who am I to criticize them if their artwork moves people and it sells? They are likely working twice as hard to research their artwork to get it sold. Cherokee artists have cooperatives, the tribe’s gift shops and Indian-only art shows to help sell their arts and crafts, and I try to support them when I can. However, I have bought artwork and handmade crafts from non-Indian artists just because I liked it. (Non Indians can sell their art work but just not as Indian or Cherokee - most folks going into the Cherokee Gift Shop are looking for things made by an INDIAN - half of these purchasers don't know our history anyway - so they believe going into a Cherokee Gift Shop means an Indian made it - sorry there are just TOO many non Indians that can't even prove they have an Indian in the family much less what tribe they are from - but hey, they can make a few bucks calling themselves Indian - that devalues the REAL Indian Artists!)
These days, non-Indian artists are prevented from selling their art at most Indian-art competitions, so it is difficult to even have the opportunity to buy their art, which was the intent of the law passed. (Well, I'd say if you'd like to purchase non Indian Art Work, they should start their own co-op and sell it that way or have their own Art Shows or Gallery Showing if it's all that good, they shouldn't have any trouble finding buyers - look at the guy selling the Cherokee Stories he's got quite a market at Amazon.com; so in this day and age they don't need Art Shows or Galleries, just make and sell it on the web even.)
The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 is “a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in marketing of Indian arts and crafts products within the United States. It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the U.S.”
An individual violating the act the first time can face a $250,000 fine or a 5-year prison term or both. If a business violates the act, it can face civil penalties or can be prosecuted and fined up to $1 million.
With those kinds of penalties, few non-Indian artists would risk advertising themselves as Indian when they sell their art. (let's hope so, but they recently charged a man in AZ or NM with cloning, yes, cloning an Indian Artist's jewelry and selling it as the Real thing. Without this act, that would become even more pervasive by outsiders - did you know you can purchase coil baskets made in Europe that are cloned Indian Baskets - so that opens up another whole area of selling fake Indian Art Work! Most non Indians just don't tell folks they're not Indian or that they can't call their work Indian, they prey on the ignorance of the masses who believe they are purchasing Real Indian items and they just don't correct that misconception)
When I see a non-Indian’s artwork, I sometimes think about our history and how we once incorporated the knowledge we gained from other tribes. That knowledge included new ways of creating art or expressing one’s self. We are far removed from those days. Money talks now, and we put a lot of stock in who has a white or blue card. And if an Indian artist doesn’t look Indian and they are legitimately selling Indian art, they have to be prepared to produce those cards to prove they belong. (Hey, if I'm driving a car and get pulled over, I have to produce a drivers license to prove I'm qualified to drive it - proving ID is nothing new - and speaking of incorporated knowledge are you refering to the forced boarding schools or forced removal - that's forced incorporated knowledge - and even though tribes may have intermingled - they each retained their own identity. They never gave up who they were.)
>From my vantage point it gets tiresome sometimes listening to and being asked to help condemn non-Indian artists who try to get it right. The hacks who produce shoddy, dime store-type crafts and try to sell them as Indian art are to be condemned. But the “gatekeepers” of our tribe need to understand some of us like good Indian art soley because it is good, and we usually don’t have the inclination to do someone’s genealogy before we buy it. (that's fine - but some of us prefer Real Indian Art work....and most of the buying public has no other way to distinguish Indian Art work from non Indian Art work except if it's properly labeled)
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