Cultural Hunger

“There is much pain and happiness, there is success and there is failure, there is despair and there is hope for the future. Still I would live no place else because this is my home, this is where my people have come. I also know that this place, like other places, is the reality that we Indians live, this is it. This isn’t the feathers, the beads of many colors, or the mystical, spiritual glory that people who are culturally hungry want.

James A. Luna, excerpt from I’ve Always Wanted to Be an American Indian


There is a history of whitewashing and displacement of native and indigenous peoples in art history by inaccurate portrayals and imposed cultural hierarchies. When lands were being “discovered” by whites, they often used religion and personal cultural practices as a means of creating a hierarchy between themselves and native/indigenous peoples where the white man was superior in everything – dress, religion, rituals, and art.  Through these processes came the funneled image of native and indigenous art that we have today, an image focused only on bright colors, lively elements and what the “superior” race found appropriate. This is what the culturally hungry are often after, they are after the sense of exclusivity and belonging within these groups, they seek to be part of a long cultural history of rituals and family. This image they seek has been distorted from its true and accurate nature because it has been whitewashed, and is not the reality we live in.

In James A. Luna’s piece, I’ve Always Wanted to Be an American Indian, he describes an encounter where a white man came up to him and said “Gee, I’ve always wanted to be an American Indian.” He responded with a multimedia presentation of the same name composed of text and photographs that outlined what life was like on the La Jolla Indian Reservation in North County, San Diego, California where the author lives. What he presented seems a relatively universal way of life – there are births and deaths, crime and education, reasons for despair and celebration.  However, it is in contradiction with the stereotyped and largely appropriated image of the American Indian as a spiritual, colorful, and feathered individual always in ceremonial or historical clothing and practicing ancient rituals. This image of the bright and vibrant, this is what the culturally hungry are after when in reality it does not exist as such.

I myself have been guilty of cultural hunger, when I visited the Cook Islands as part of my study abroad semester to New Zealand I encountered a culture so bright, strong in family, and friendly that I was enraptured with it. It took me awhile to realize and identify the influences of whitewashing that had occurred when missionaries came to the Cook Islands, and that while still truly a lovely people, much of their art and visual expression has been changed by what was considered appropriate by white culture, and has further been influenced by white tourism. Karen Stevenson examines this issue in her essay “‘The Coming of the Light’: Privileging Indigenous Beliefs” that explores the influence of missionaries on Polynesian and Pacific Island culture, and contemporary artists response to it.  Shes states that “Today, indigenous reinterpretations of Pacific traditions are countering the dogmatic decrees of colonialism and Christianity. … Acknowledging the social consequences of migration and integration, contemporary art practice negotiates with the past.” In the same way that she discusses how contemporary artists are identifying the differing elements between white influences and indigenous culture, I experienced a visual representation of the influences of missionaries on Cook Island culture by attending the Highland dinner theater in the Cook Islands. It was there that I got to witness the importance of dress and dance as a visual element in the Cook Islands culture, and how changes throughout time and the coming of missionaries influenced how they dressed and danced – i.e., when the missionaries came, outfits changed from ancient dress to more floral prints, western clothes, and conservative dancing. Now, there is a movement back to reclaiming elements of ancient dress but making them contemporary and trying to reconcile them with the present.

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(The above slideshow shows a progression from ancient Cook Islands dress, initial influence of missionaries, influence of white dress styles by the floral prints, and the movement back to contemporary Cook Islands [ceremonial] dress more reminiscent of the ancient culture.)

Will native and indigenous art ever be free of a white influence? Probably not, because it’s part of history now. But the key element is, how will the people this culture belongs to respond, and how will their culture be reinvented in this contemporary age?

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