Last summer, Gregg Deal walked onto the National Mall in Washington, D.C., wearing a cheap Indian costume and a pair of Vans painted as moccasins. "I was really nervous," he recalls. Today, the 39-year-old Pyramid Lake Paiute has brought his performance art piece, The Last American Indian on Earth, to a handful of cities and is working on a photography project and short film documenting people's reactions. Holding various signs (one reads, "My spirit animal is white guilt") with a black handprint splashed across his mouth, Deal rides the subway and visits museums wearing a giant headdress, challenging stereotypes and starting conversations about modern Native American identity.
Though the response can be cringe-inducing – one Italian tour operator bowed and said, "My people send greetings to your people" – Deal tries to maintain a sense of humor. "There are many reasons why indigenous people have endured," he says, "and one of those is humor." High Country News’ Krista Langlois caught up with him by phone in late April.
High Country News: Does the fact that you grew up without strong ties to your indigenous roots affect your perception of what it means to be Native American?
Gregg Deal: My mom was adopted and grew up in Salt Lake City. She’s full-blood, and if you were indigenous in the ’ 60s and ’70s, you were either proud or you were not. My mother was not. Living in Park City, which was predominantly white, kids would call me a “prairie nigger” and a “dirty Indian” and so I thought, “Well, that’s what I am.” (Later), when I was studying art, I gravitated toward my Indianness. It seemed like it would be simple because it was at my fingertips, but it really wasn’t. There’s a way to present your Indianness artistically and look hokey, and there’s a way to do it where it’s part of yourself and doesn’t look forced. Up to The Last American Indian on Earth, I always felt like it was forced.
I still have people questioning whether or not I’m a real Indian because of where I grew up. I don’t think I’m any less Indian than someone who grew up on a reservation. I think my experience is different, but not any more or less valid to the indigenous experience in American culture.
HCN: It must be frustrating to go out time after time and keep getting the same reactions. How do you cope with it?
Deal: When I first started, it was difficult. Like, really difficult. I almost quit. There’s something surreal about having to deal with blatant and “acceptable” racism in your face all the time, and having to just suck it up.
In order for me to do this project successfully, I’ve had to let go of defensiveness and anger and that sort of thing – to walk in and accept that the things I’m going to get are the things I’m going to get. Doing this has allowed me to own myself, which is a really strange thing to say. I am who I am, and I don’t make any apologies. And I can laugh at people who are awful.
HCN: Most of your performance art is done on the East Coast, but you also travel frequently. How do perceptions of Native Americans change in different locations?
Deal: The East Coast is diverse, but there’s almost no Indian culture. I get the romanticized commodification that you’d expect from a non-Indian who’s really into Indian stuff — the Dances With Wolves and Last of the Mohicans watchers. Where’s your long hair? Why don’t you speak in broken English? Do you live in a tipi? These are things that people have actually said to me. It’s sort of horrifying but also kind of funny.
Every city’s different. In Washington, D.C., there’s a correlation with the football team (the Redskins). In New York City, they’re not impressed by anybody. I did get some catcalls and stuff, but it was exponentially less than what I get in D.C. When I went to Santa Fe, it was totally flipped. I was just another Indian among Indians. When an Indian sees another person dressed that way walking around the city, they assume I’m some privileged hipster. People were like, “Who the hell do you think you are?”
HCN: Did it lead to conversations?
Deal: Yeah. There was an outdoor Indian market selling jewelry and handmade stuff, and they sent somebody over to see what the deal was. I explained the project, and he was like, “Oh, OK, that’s cool.” I realize that the project out of context is really awful. But in context, it makes sense. It’s ironic. It’s about me and it’s about the Indian experience and Indian culture and American culture.