The subversive nature of Indigenous art

These are the stories other non-Native outlets don’t dare to touch.


HCN Contributing Editor Graham Lee Brewer speaks with Gerald Cournoyer, the newly hired art director at Bacone College in Oklahoma.
Dylan Johnson for High Country News

One of the best things about working on High Country News’ Tribal Affairs Desk is the opportunity it offers to report, write and publish stories that no other non-Indigenous outlet would dare to touch. Our reporters produce amazing work, but I would argue that some of the most incendiary material we print initially appears harmless to the passing eye. From beadwork to dance, painting to film, Indigenous art is as much an expression of sovereignty and identity as it is of diplomacy and law.

Sign of Spring, an original silkscreen by Woody Crumbo, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and one of Bacone College’s most influential art directors and artists.

In the Western tradition, art has often been used to demonstrate power and wealth, regarded as merely a commodity to be consumed. From the monumental sculptures commissioned in ancient Greece to Rembrandt’s moody portraits, and from Remington’s idealized visions of the American West to Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, such works, when placed within their cultural, regional and historical contexts, provide insight into the ways white artists have traded influences and become central to understanding European worldviews.

This analysis is somewhat true of Indigenous “art,” but the role of cultural production in tribal communities often takes on deeper, more complex layers. From communicating familial and tribal relationships to a form of visual journalism and expressions of identity, Indigenous art reflects constantly evolving ideas about history, colonialism, kinship and innovation. But many viewers are too distracted by form, function — and, of course, market value — to even notice the information stored within the work.

Tristan Ahtone, associate editor
Brooke Warren/High Country News

In this issue, Contributing Editor Graham Lee Brewer takes a deep dive into the rich history and current life of Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Fewer places have influenced 20th century Native art more than Bacone, but its future is in peril: Crushing debt threatens to permanently close the institution. Brewer eloquently brings the past into the present through the presentation and explication of early art forms: “In Kiowa calendars drawn by Silver Horn,” he writes, “the goal was simply to document everyday life, everything from tornadoes and crops to battles and deaths. Using images for record-keeping and storytelling was common among the Kiowas; preserving and displaying those images as artwork was not necessarily the intention. Rembrandt may have worked well with light, but Silver Horn worked with time.” Brewer describes the school’s rich mix of art and intellectual influence: from Swedish immigrant Oscar Jacobson to Chickasaw scholar Mary “Ataloa” Stone, legendary painter Woody Crumbo, and contemporary artists like painter Gerald Cournoyer and filmmaker Sterlin Harjo. Their stories reveal that the things we do, the tiny details of our lives, have their origins in extraordinary events. These originate in times and places we may not see, but they retain influence and determine how we live in and understand the world. These are the kind of stories that other non-Native outlets don’t dare to touch, and that is what makes the work in this issue unique.

Tristan Ahtone is a member of the Kiowa Tribe and associate editor of the High Country News tribal affairs desk. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

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