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Further Reflections On Native American Art

Back to Native American art and attribution (please see here and here, if you are new to this subject):

I was interested in this topic because I do think that attaching the name of an individual artist to an Indian “specimen” or “artifact” will elevate it squarely into “art.” As Kate C. Duncan, a professor at Arizona State University said, “if a museum says it’s art, it’s art.”


Part of our reluctance, over the years, to call Native American objects “art” can be explained this way: “We tend to think that if you’re a true artist, you do what no one else does,” Duncan said. “With Native Americans, the common cultural system functions differently. It’s not the individual, it’s the individual within the group. What’s important is the group’s survival.” Some contemporary Indian artists prefer to call themselves “a maker,” rather than “an artist,” Duncan added. “Artist is a European construct.”



And of course, I knew that, as a few commenters here and on The New York Times website have done, some would raise the issue of whether it is appropriate to attribute individual names to these works — whether we were simply, and wrongly, applying today’s individualism to ancient peoples.


Duncan, a former head of the Native American Art Studies Association who does attribution research, agreed that it is problematic: “It is trying to put a Western construct on a different culture,” she said. 


Yet others told me that the prevalent view that Indian culture is a collective culture, not about the individual, is overdrawn. Some tribes had artist “classes,” even artists guilds. They and their skills were valued.  

Then, too, as Valerie Verzuh, a curator at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, told me, regarding attribution, “It’s part of humanizing the collection. These are not just abstract objects; they are the work of individuals, of members of a family, of members of a pueblo.”

At the end of the day, I decided that this is the right thing to do — now.

Interestingly, I focused on museums for the article, but late Sunday I received an email from John Molloy, a dealer who advises Christie’s on Native American art.

I agree with you that identifying the artists by name is part of the process whereby the western world identifies the work as art. In the Native American auction at Christie’s two weeks ago, we made a conscious effort to identify and write about the individual artists.


He pointed me to the catalogue of Jan. 18 sale, and sure enough, inside are attributions to, and short items about, Wahnomkot (also known as Maggie Aida Icho), who died in 1964; Wilson Tewaquaptewa, 1871-1960; Iris Nampeyo, 1860-1942, plus several more recent Native American artists that sign their work. 


Molloy also provided me with an idea for the image I’ve used above. He wrote: 

[It] is currently on view in the exhibition at the DenverArt Museum. Dating to the first part of the eighteenth century, it is the only extant example of its type.It showed up about twenty years ago in a general antique auction without any history, much less any reference to its maker which highlights some of the difficulties inherent.After spending some 250 years who-knows-where in France, it now will be housed in American museums hopefully at least as long. But we will never know who made it more than a tentative tribal attribution.

2_ManTorturingWitch.jpgThe description in the catalogue is “Painted Hide Shirt, Great Lakes Region, First Half 18th Century.” The image here doesn’t do it justice, btw. Estimated at $250,000 to $300,000, it fetched $362,500, including the buyer’s premium.


Now is a time for throwing out another wrinkle in the story. I kept wondering why so few people have paid attention to attribution work, and why so few have done it. I know it’s tedious, but wouldn’t it be fun to discover “new” artists, to find a name to match a “master of…”?

One theory I heard was this: just as attribution research was gathering steam 30-plus years ago, along came what, for better or for worse, people call the politicization of art history. It was suddenly ok to connect art to social history, to view art through a gender lens, or through a political lens, and so on. And that was much more popular, more fun, extinguishing enthusiasm for attribution research.

True? I don’t know — I tried that out on a couple of other people and they disagreed, blaming the lack of interest more on the need for patience and years of work.

And, maybe, on subsequent corrections — as information in this area changes and revisions are required. One example: The Denver museum has owned a headdress, acquired in 1948, that was originally identified as a Tlingit or Bella Coola (now Nuxalk) piece. Twenty years later, it was relabeled as a Haida work and later still attributed to Albert Edward Edenshaw. So it changed over the course of 30 years from being attributed to the wrong tribe, to the right tribe, and finally to an artist.

Here’s another example, from the Hearst Museum at Berkeley, about Man Torturing A Witch (above):

Art historian Bill Holm has pioneered the attribution of otherwise anonymous Haida artifacts. This carving and the two masks were originally attributed by Holm to John Gwaytihl (ca. 1822-1912), but based on further information, his student Robin Wright has attributed them to Simeon Stilthda. Possibly related, the two artists lived in the same community and must have worked together.

Finally, one observation, which I believe to be true, from dealer Donald Ellis: Advances in computer technology, which allows the superimposition of images, has helped attribution research recently. 

And it will do more so in the future. I hope.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Christie’s (top); Hearst Museum (bottom).   


  1. It is perhaps true as a very broad generalization that the term “artist” is a European construct, but it would be a mistake to think this can be applied to Native Americans in any sort of simplistic, monolithic manner in terms of their history or current values.
    Concepts about the relationship between the artist and community vary greatly from tribe to tribe. We should also avoid the ‘John Wayne Syndrome” that locks Native Americans into idealized, romantic concept of historical authenticity – as if they were all supposed to be living in teepees, chasing buffalo, and eschewing individuality. Native Americans possess living cultures that are still evolving, so it is only natural that their concepts of the artist and their history continue to evolve.
    And finally, we should remember that Native Americans very often live in two worlds: the modern world of the dominant culture, and the traditional world of their tribal communities. They often apply different standards according to the community with which they are dealing.
    Most tribes now recognize the validity of the artist as an individual, and on many different levels. For one thing, there a many native artists who make their living from their work, so they need name recognition to run their businesses. This is also changing both their and our conceptions of historical analysis and native artwork.
    As one example of this, take a look at the website for the Taos Pueblo which contains a page devoted to listing their artists by name – a tradition that has long existed in the Southwest:
    Our social theories always turn actual people into mere stick figures. There is no single truth about the Native American concept of the what an artist is or their relationship to tribal community.

  2. Let’s acknowledge that the postmodern demise of the “author” is part of what’s going on here. As we see that the European genius/creator paradigm is not useful anymore, we can be more understanding of other models for how art comes to be.

  3. All too often Indigenous Art has been passed from artist to merchant to museum with little attention to the artist’s name. I don’t know whether it is negligence, the excitement of finding some handmade beadwork or quillwork, or maybe it is an accepted practice to identify Native American, African and sometimes Southeast Asian art by the region, nation, type of skill or “tribe” represented. This does a disservice to the families of the artist because a relative of the artist years later is in danger of seeing and enjoying a work of art in a museum that is made by a relative without knowing it.
    Imagine if Gaugin’s great grandchild could not identify the works of her great granddaddy. This is how disenfranchisment occurs. In this practice commercialization of the art compromises our ability to trace it’s true origin, meaning and function, which thwarts our ability to completely grasp who we are.
    Of course, it does hone our ability to discern aspects of the object through our imagination by “vibing it out”. That is what can be exciting about doing dances from your ancestry. Sometimes this can help to connct the dots for some people who may have lost conscious touch with ways of relating to the group or feeling of family that certain dances bring.
    As a member of The Thunderbird American Indian Dancers doing the stomp dances of the Cherokee and Iroquois and doing Inuit dances like th Caarabou dance reconnects me with a way of being an individual within a group. Having danced with Folk Dance and Native American dance companies for years, there is an inherent wisdom from each culture that lives in the moves of a dance, when you do it with passion over time.

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