Monday, December 28, 2009

Imagery And Self Image Reversals In A Post Victim Indian

When I was eight years old I worked during the summers for a man named Jack Denver. Mr. Denver owned a curio shop and motor lodge at the south end of Taos, New Mexico. Denver's Curio Shop sold fake Indian jewelry, "Real Indian Drums" which were made of metal and rubber, postcards with romantic images of Pueblo Indians, pottery, corn necklaces and war bonnets. The "Real Indian Drums" and actually everything else sold in the shop were imports from Taiwan and laid en masse waiting to be consumed by eager tourists. During the summer evenings people were invited to Mr. Denver's business for an evening show with "Real Indian Dancers" from Taos Pueblo. Obviously inspired by the Wild West shows of the late 1800s, Mr. Denver built an open arena outside the curio shop complete with wooden bleachers and French Horn speakers attached to large, upright beams. There was a fire pit in the center of the arena and by the time the last person was seated, the logs on the fire were ablaze and the wide eyed tourist was ready to be entertained.

Several young men from Taos Pueblo were employed to perform the War and Hoop Dances for the evening shows. After every dance, cowboy hats were passed through the bleachers as Mr. Denver's voice blared from the speakers, reminding the audience the dancers would appreciate a tip. My job was to model Southwestern/Native clothing designed by a local non Native seamstress. So right after the Hoop Dance and just before the finale, the Friendship Round Dance, I'd enter the arena and model velveteen pleated "Squaw Skirt" and shirts. My moccasins were made at a local sweat shop and my outfit was topped off with a turquoise, "Squash Blossom" necklace from Mrs. Denver's private collection. I was instructed to smile as I walked slowly in front of the bleachers because according to Mr. Denver, "People like cute little Indian girls that smile".

This experience informed the way I began to see myself. At eight I didn't have the cognitive skills to understand all the social and cultural underpinnings of this particular situation, but I remember sensing that Native people were somehow different, exotic maybe and in my case, a cute "little Indian girl" earned money. This was one of my first and among the most informative experience as a Native person and all I can clearly remember is that I felt exposed.

We are all influenced by one another, but what happens when perceptions of culture and self are modified because of these outside influences? And how does one navigate through these experiences while carving out an identity in a healthy manner? How does one hold onto a sense of cultural integrity? These questions became even more pressing to me when the Always Becoming crew and I spent a couple of months at the National Museum of the American Indian building the Always Becoming sculptures. During the summers in Washington D.C. the population on the Smithsonian Mall grows to enormous proportions. Thousands, possibly millions of visitors to the National Capitol visit the museums on the Mall and include a trip to the NMAI museum. While working on the sculptures, I would turn around and be amazed at the amount of people watching what we were doing. Would this experience on the Mall change the integrity of the work? What were our responsibilities as cultural liaisons? And would our presence in such a public forum actually bring some cultural information to an audience looking for the perfect photo op? At times I also worried about the Morales family and wondered how this would effect them. Of course there was curiosity and with that came questions, many, many questions on both sides of the fence.

Notable questions and comments from the visitors to the Always Becoming site:
"You don't look Indian."

"Is somebody going to live in the Tee-Pees?"

"Is this where Indian's go to the bathroom?"

"I'm 1/16th Cherokee."


Navigating through cultural and self identity is challenging enough on a daily basis however experiencing the intensity and magnitude of perceptions coming at us for those two months created a fascinating opportunity to study the ideas of community, culture and of course human beings. On the more challenging days ridiculous questions acted as a lesson in patience. However, it's these very questions that reminded me how America developed their perceptions of the American Indian. Interactions like the Jack Denver's show added to romantic notions of what a Native person should be and these perceptions persist in the American consciousness. To make matters more challenging, many of these interactions affect our sense of cultural identity, think cute little Indian girl, or the men from Taos Pueblo who sang and danced before passing a cowboy hat for tips. Strong childhood impressions remain forever. At it's worst, this kind of life experience distresses cultural identity, resulting in all sorts of social illnesses. But -- and this is what I learned that summer on the Smithsonian Mall -- at it's best, experiences like this can be grand opportunities that demand we define ourselves, not to an audience, but to ourselves. Past the romantic notions of what Natives are supposed-to-be, past feelings of being victimized by these perceptions, straight toward the portal where culture and a sense of self align creating a strong human being. I learned this from watching Don Juan who anchored himself and everyone else around him with a simple nod or smile as he worked. I watched as others entering the Always Becoming site worked together with one goal in mind and that was Creating as a community. Like the sculptures, I was being molded so that previous misconceptions were discarded and a sense of my true self was reclaimed. Anchored and empowered because of this grand opportunity I became fearless.

"We are what we imagine. Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves."
- M. Scott Momaday

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