Let's say you're watching a documentary about Native Americans, or reading a book about Native Americans, or attending an art exhibit about Native Americans. Here's what you likely won't be doing: Laughing out loud. Traditional narratives of Native American history are steeped in tragedy.
But something funny happened in the 21st century: A new generation began articulating a more irreverent view of its position in a contemporary society that treated Native Americans with contempt and awe.
Paul Chaat Smith, associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, makes this evident throughout his 2009 book, Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong. "We take pride in westerns that make us look gorgeous (which we are!) and have good production values," Smith writes.
This same kind of levity is — in small but significant doses — sprinkled throughout "N.D.N.: Native Diaspora Now," an exhibit that reinterprets central motifs of Native American life. Take the subject of tobacco. Since their recorded history, Native Americans have venerated the leaves as a sacred crop, to be used in ceremonies and smoked in pipes that are beautiful works of art. In Sacred Pipe, Richard Bluecloud Castaneda arranges Natural American Spirit cigarette packs — the U.S. brand featuring a pipe-smoking Native American in feathered headdress — into a cross pattern. Six crow feathers hang from the edges of the Christian symbol, held there by Pepsi bottle caps. There's dark humor here about commercial exploitation of Native American heritage, but also themes of death, religion, transformation — and cigarettes.
"Most people look at [Sacred Pipe] and smile," says Castaneda. "I want people to ask, 'Why am I looking at an Indian on a cigarette box?' and 'Why do they use "Cherokee" Jeeps?' There's so much of that out there that it erases the real Indians that exist today."
The most amusing work at "N.D.N.: Native Diaspora Now" is Spencer Keeton Cunningham's Chief Ramen Heart, which incorporates acrylic and spray paints, a pack of American Spirits, and, yes, ramen noodles to portray a cartoonish Native American. X-ray style, we see the figure has a hamburger in his brain, cigarettes by his throat, and ramen over his heart. With his spindly (almost monstrous) fingers, he appears to be plucking a black arrow that has pierced his head and the burger. It's gross and amusing.
Cunningham and Castaneda are members of the Indigenous Arts Coalition, a Bay Area organization started in 2008 that advocates for Native American artists and provided the work at Galería de la Raza. Other highlights at "N.D.N.: Native Diaspora Now" include Nizhoni Ellenwood's Pop Zack Rabbit, a dignified painting of Ellenwood's recently deceased father; Geri Montano's Unveiled Valor, a dramatic vision of a naked, pigtailed girl in high heels who, with an arrow, seems to have fended off a sex attacker; and Castaneda's Double Speak, a video where young Native Americans talk about the daily pressures they face, from non-Native Americans (racism is a central theme), their own tribespeople (elitism based on skin color and tribal affiliation is a theme), and their own expectations of what it means to be Native American.
Pain is evident in the voices of many who speak in Castaneda's video. A few people scream in frustration. The humor that Castaneda infuses in Sacred Pipe is nowhere to be found in Double Speak. Neither Castaneda, who describes himself as "an urban Indian," nor Smith glosses over the trauma embedded in the past and present of Native American life. It's as if the trauma is a given — that everyone knows how hard it can be to be Native American. Not everyone knows about the lighter side of native life. It's unusual to experience that side in an art gallery, but if a primary purpose of art is to explore surprising truths, then "N.D.N.: Native Diaspora Now" is an unmitigated success, pointing people in a direction that's the right balance of dead serious and ha-ha funny. Even Geronimo, the Apache warrior who was taken prisoner by the U.S. government, liked to laugh a lot. Sometimes that's all you can do to keep from crying.