walking a fine line

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?

basketball hoop and ball with white silhouette  hand

Two Eagle River School photography residency with David J. Spear - Photo by Charlene Conko

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2 thoughts on “walking a fine line

  1. Hello. I’m a non-Native art specialist who has lived on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation for 33 years and has taught art for 28 years. I have immersed myself into learning and sharing lifeways, values and world views by attending gatherings and visiting within the community. My advice is to learn as much as you can about the artworks as windows into the heart and soul of individuals reflecting their culture and spirit ways. For indiginous peoples throughout the globe, art is often social, religious, and personal simultaneously. I challenge all art educators to look deeper than the object itself into its meaning from an anthropological point of view. Stay humble and respectful and always show honor to the represented culture, the artist and the viewer/appreciator, and be open and willing to be transformed. Remember, the power of creativity and art transcends barriers and builds bridges! Haho!

  2. One of the problems that I have seen in art classrooms or in art projects introduced by non-native, non-art teachers is that the true craft behind the project is completely ignored.

    For example, making brown paper bag “parfleches” does NOT teach the students anything about the time, labor, creativity, and symbolism that are involved in making real parfleches. How can any student truly learn from such a project. The process of turning the paper into workable material teaches nothing about skinning an animal and choosing pieces to be tanned and pieces to be used as rawhide. And that is just the beginning of the real process of making a parfleche. The paints, like everything else, are made by hand.

    Many art classes today have a “recreational” aspect to them. It has become fluff, a place where kids can kill time and/or goof off with their friends.

    I go into schools as a visiting artist, I have also taught art in several rural schools and as a substitute teacher. I create most of my own class room projects to show kids, from kindergarten up, how “art” is applied on the job in the real world.

    In other countries, the craftsmen who are considered “Masters” are people who started learning their craft as a child…….. actually learning to do what the adults were doing. So, that’s the way I teach.

    I am not interested in applying a shot-gun effect so that I can cover 10,000 years of art history, techniques and developments. I am more concerned about the students understanding the processes by which something beautiful is created out of almost nothing.

    I am also interested in pulling something up out of each student’s gut that is an instinctual, (gut-level), connection to the act of creating and to all other artists. I push those students hard, no matter the age level and I rarely have a student that is not genuinely and rightfully proud of their work by the end of the project.

    So, in relation to our classrooms and how non-native teachers can use art to teach kids about First Peoples cultures….. bring real tribal craftsmen into the classroom to give demonstrations.

    Then follow up with an art project that is a smaller version of what the craftsman was demonstrating. Don’t use fake, replacement materials, use the real thing.

    If this is economically or geographically difficult, then find decent dvd’s that demonstrate the original craft.

    It is about respect for the culture but also for the craft, itself.

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