You Can Take the Cowboy Out of the Lonesome Plains...

When I learned that Tacoma was to become the new home to hundreds of Western art pieces, via a new wing constructed at the Tacoma Art Museum, I thought about White Pass. Just south of Mount Rainier, the pass was the main trading route between tribes west of the Cascades like the Nisqually and those east of the mountains like the Yakima. The pass represented the two groups coming together, but also the separation that the mountains demanded. The cultural distinction between the two regions were exemplified by their modes of transportation. The tribes west of the mountains used canoes. The tribes east used horses.

The reason the exhibit at TAM brought this to mind was that the new collection was quite clearly trying to capture the imagery of the Western United States east of the Cascades (and mostly east of the Continental Divide ... the family who bought the art did so while living in Wyoming), while the museum itself is built hard against the bay where the Puyallup River feeds into the Puget Sound. I sensed there would be some regional incongruity with the exhibit, something like a rodeo being held in downtown Seattle. Prior to the TAM expansion, the museum was a wonderful experience on account of the hyper-regionalism curators developed, immersing visitors in a world of rivers made of feathers and totem poles suggestive of Christ--this would seem to exacerbate the feeling that a bunch of cowboy art was out of context there. 

I visited the exhibit the first weekend I could, and loved it. It has all the right classic names to bring in crowds--Russell, Remington, O'Keeffe--balanced by a satisfying number of contemporary pieces that gives hint at how the American West continues to be interpreted. There were few depictions of Pacific NW tribes, but not many. This was Wyoming art collected in Wyoming. Which I thought actually was fine, until I read the reviews.

Both the Seattle Weekly and The Stranger were deeply uncomfortable with the exhibit, so sure were the writers that it was forwarding a myth about the American West that covers up the true genocidal thrust of European expansion. The curators themselves rightfully acknowledge that some of the art in the museum was produced by men in New York and Europe who created based on what they saw at Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, and give contemporary Native academics a platform to refute ideas forwarded by the pieces in the form of small placards placed right beside those stating the name of the piece and the artist. Yet, ultimately, the curators felt the art was worth exhibiting; the critics weren't so sure. 

The Weekly was especially harsh, leaning heavily on the collectors' German roots to exhibit the Eurocentricity of the work displayed. "The whole collection is promulgated by the same German Romantic cult of the American West," Brian Miller writes. The exhibit demands rebuttal, he says, perhaps a photo exhibit showing the state of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The Stranger is a bit more exploring in its critiques, but bristles that the collection amounts to many "generic images of Plains-style Indians," the implication being that the artists weren't honestly trying to capture Native culture, but simply trying to confirm the (Eastern) public's already held notions about what cowboys and Indians look like. Which, intentionally or not, gets to the problem of taking this art out of regional context. Pacific NW viewers will be, by and large, unfamiliar with the culture of the American plains, and thus feel compelled to see it the context of cheap genre art...oil-on-canvas version of John Wayne movies. 

Which it's not. If anything, it's an oil-on-canvas version of Frank Byrd Linderman's interviews with various Plains Indian elders. These artists recognized that something was being destroyed and they tried to capture it before it was lost. They did celebrate cowboys, but contrary to popular belief, cowboys and Indians are not mutually exclusive. They saw poverty overtaking Indian peoples, but chose to focus on what made them proud rather than what was laying them low.

Perhaps they recognized that poverty, epidemic and scourge though it is, is often banal. A few years ago I recall stopping into an office building in Seattle that had a small art gallery in the foyer. At that time, it was showing an exhibition of a Seattle photographer who went to Pine Ridge and shot the desperate poverty that's there. That collection offended me. That someone would come back from a place and show only the most decrepit houses and addled humans, out of some possibly sinister but likely just misguided desire to churn up cheap and shallow emotions of white guilt. Indian poverty is always there for white artists to capture. And they do so, again and again, and nothing changes on the reservations. 

Perhaps, at The Stranger suggests, the problem is whites depicting Native Americans, period. That when Indians become the subject they, by definition, become subjugated.That's probably true. But it's also reductive, and would demand an ethic that has us all ignore a rich, proud, tragic, dramatic and important history. That would be tragic.