• Kathryn Cammell

Native Americans, Art, and Contemporary America *

Updated: Mar 9, 2019

While I was living in Austin, Texas, I visited the Bullock Texas State History Museum and saw a really interesting exhibition on the artwork of Eric Tippeconnic. Tippeconnic is a first-generation American on his mother’s side and Comanche on his father’s side [1]. The Comanche are a Native American tribe who previously occupied the southern Great Plains of the United States, with a currently estimated population of 20,000 people [2]. Through his art, Tippeconnic aims to draw attention to the ways in which the Comanche people have retained a connection to their traditional culture and customs while adapting to the challenges of contemporary America. Through the use of bold and vibrant primary colours, particularly yellow, blue, and red, Tippeconnic aims to represent the ‘very rich, vibrant, living, and breathing culture’ of Comanche people today [3]. Fundamentally, Tippeconnic sees his art as a metaphor that ‘boldly states that Indigenous American cultures, while intimately connected to their history, are in fact contemporary, alive, and constantly evolving’ [4]. The continuity of beliefs, values and tradition amongst Native American tribes is a theme which underpins much of the history of Native Americans and contemporary American society.

Tippeconnic’s art represents Comanche people maintaining their connections to their heritage and cultural traditions while also embracing elements of mainstream culture in the United States. Many Native Americans have struggled to maintain connections to their cultural heritage and traditions when living away from their reservations. The significant migration of Native Americans from Indian land into urban areas in order to join the war effort in World War II resulted in what Donald L. Fixico termed ‘the first "urban Indian" generation’ [5]. In 1952 the federal government introduced a new Relocation Program, which aimed to provide Native Americans with employment opportunities and temporarily assigned housing in urban areas so that they could escape the poverty in the reservations and rural areas. However, the policy did not achieve its desired outcomes, as the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) did not always provide an adequate level of support to Native Americans, and many found themselves in poverty again [6]. Critically, the relocation policy was part of a broader attempt made by the federal government to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American society. Assimilation policies were based on the premise that ‘the nation would be best served’ by erasing Native American culture and replacing it with Western understandings of “civilisation” and “progress” [7].

With urbanisation came many new challenges, as urban Native Americans struggled to maintain their cultural identity and traditions in a foreign environment. Many people were confronted with new, complex social challenges. A 1973 newspaper article in the Dallas Morning News boldly stated that ‘compared with other minority groups caught in the grind of urban poverty, the problems of about 300,000 American Indians who have left their reservations to live in the slums of the nation’s cities represent a new dimension in wretchedness’ [8]. Alcoholism and substance abuse, obesity, diabetes, amputations, suicide, and unprecedented environmental degradation are all named as challenges facing Native Americans in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the incredible mural Hopi Visions: Journey of the Human Spirit, which I recently viewed at the Dallas Museum of Art [9]. In a panel titled ‘The Dysfunction’ (pictured below), the artists intended to represent ‘Koyaanisqatsi, the Hopi word for “life out of balance” or “a life of grey”’, which has emerged alongside ‘civilization, big cities, and financial centres’.

Michael Kabotie and Delbridge Honanie, Journey of the Human Spirit – Rational Side: The Dysfunction (Panel E), 2001, Acrylic on canvas, Courtesy of the Museum of Northern Arizona

Neither Tippeconnic nor Kabotie and Honanie focus exclusively on these issues. Instead, a recurring theme in their artwork is the idea of resurgence. In the panel following ‘The Dysfunction’, Kabotie and Honanie represent the digital age through a computer connected to the internet, which they described as the means to ‘access all the responsible truths of all the different religions’. Meanwhile, Tippeconnic depicts Comanche men and women wearing Western-styled suits and traditional Comanche headdresses, representing the resurgence of tribal identity in urban spaces. As Tippeconnic wrote, the individuals portrayed in his art ‘exemplify the Comanche people as a living contemporary culture firmly rooted in their traditions while thriving in their modern environs’.

Powwows are one way that Native American tribes have collaborated to celebrate their diverse culture in the context of increasingly urbanised Native American populations. The Powwows represent a creative expression of the living and diverse Native American culture which varies from tribe to tribe across the United States [10]. In a brochure from the Ninth Annual Austin Powwow in 2000, the organisers wrote that the biggest challenge facing their community was the preservation of their heritage and unique cultures. They asked, ‘how do we go about preserving something without freezing it in time?’ [11]. This is the question also explored in Tippeconnic’s work: how to represent the Comanche today, recognising and celebrating their rich heritage and culture without depicting them as people living in the past.

Through their art, Tippeconnic, Kabotie and Honanie invite their audiences to reflect on the stereotypes we see and absorb about Native Americans through popular culture and the media. More broadly, this confrontation of stereotypes speaks to the conversation about how Indigenous peoples are conceptualised and written about by Western scholars. Too often Indigenous peoples are relegated to the footnotes of our history books or are isolated to the prologues of national histories. The way in which we represent Indigenous peoples in our histories matters because they impact how people perceive their place and function in contemporary society. Indigenous peoples and their voices should not be left out of our histories, and we should strive not just to include Indigenous voices, but to place them at the forefront of our histories.

--- Kathryn Cammell is the co-founder of Tahuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying Māori history in New Zealand. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.


[1] Eric Tippeconnic, ‘Artist’, retrieved from http://www.numunudansk.com/artist.html

[2] Encylopaedia Britannica, ‘Comanche People’, retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Comanche-people

[3] Eric Tippeconnic, ‘Comanche Motion: The Documentary’, Comanche Motion: The Art of Eric Tippeconnic, Bullock Texas State History Museum.

[4] Eric Tippeconnic, ‘Home’, retrieved from http://www.numunudansk.com/index.html

[5] Donald L. Fixico, American Indians in a Modern World, United Kingdom, 2006, p.xv.

[6] Grace Hansen, ‘Urban Identity: Oral History Interviews with Austin's Urban American Indian Community’, in The University of Texas at Austin Department of American Studies "Exhibiting Austin" Records (AR.2015.030), Box 1, Folder 10, p.5, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, Texas.

[7] Nicolas G. Rosenthal, ‘From Americanization to Self-Determination: The Federal Urban Relocation Program’, in idem., Reimagining Indian Country: Native American Migration and Identity in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles, North Carolina, 2012, p.50.

[8] Tony Castro, ‘Indians of Dallas: Inactive, but in Trouble’, The Dallas Morning News - Local News, March 11, 1973, 37 A, Texas Observer Records, 1952-2016, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin, Box 4Jc72.

[9] Michael Kabotie and Delbridge Honanie, Journey of the Human Spirit, 2001, Acrylic on canvas, Courtesy of the Museum of Northern Arizona.

[10] Austin Powwow, ‘About the Austin Powwow’, retrieved from https://austinpowwow.net/about-us/

[11] Ninth Annual Austin Powwow, ‘"Passing Down the Legacy": American Indian Heritage Festival, Austin Independent School District, November 4, 2000’, Retrieved from the Austin History Center, ‘American Indians/Native Americans, I0400, 1975-’.

* I would like to acknowledge the complexity of this terminology. As George L. Cornell expertly explained, ‘the term Native American refers to an enormously diverse population that resided on the North American continent for thousands of years before contact with Europeans’ (Cornell, George L., 'Native American Perceptions of the Environment', in Mark A. Lindquist and Martin Zanger, eds., Buried Roots and Indestructible Seeds: The Survival of American Indian Life in Story, History, and Spirit, Wisconsin, 1994, p.21).

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