At my job there is an ongoing rub concerning non-Indian artists teaching lessons on Indian cultures.
I have had two long conversations with the Indian Education Division at the MT Office of Public Instruction (OPI) on this topic. The staff at Indian Education concern is that any statements on this topic not frighten people away from studying Indian cultures. And at the same time they are very leery of non-Indian artists teaching lessons where students are imitating tribal artwork.
Students are given assignments in class to copy the work of artists that are considered masters from United States/European art history. This is seen as a way of learning new skills.
So what’s different about assigning students to copy a Crow doll or a Salish basket? Does what the object is used for in the tribe make a difference? Can an artist assign students to copy a doll that was made for a child to play with but not a doll that was made for a religious ceremony?
What level of study and understanding of the tribe’s culture by the teaching artist is necessary for him/her to present lessons on that culture? How do we teach students to appreciate and respect cultures other than their own that takes into consideration what members of that culture feel is respectful?
I was talking to Alayne Dolson, Executive Director of VSA Montana, about these questions. (VSA Montana promotes the creative power of people with disabilities. http://www.vsamontana.org/ ) She said that there are many similarities to the disability community. People are afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing and so often do nothing or just turn a blind eye because it’s too complicated.
The disability community has many resources for the community at large – toolkits, best practices, FAQ’s etc. And there is Alayne on the ground saying, “I understand you live in a very isolated community and this is what you can do with the resources at hand.” She doesn’t demand perfection and helps folks improve accessibility for all – always working toward a vision.
I know the Indian Education Division isn’t demanding perfection. An yet here I sit as the person in state government that funds artist residencies in schools and community organizations that needs to make decisions about these questions. (I have been questioned about residencies we have funded in the past by Indian Education staff.)
I have not found the same kind of resources for this concern that exist for the disability community.
How do you make decisions on these questions?