Earth Dusted

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for the New Yorker, responded to a question on whether the art world was broken with,

"Franz Kafka once said there is infinite hope, but not for us. I guess that would depend on whether you include yourself in that us or not. There's infinite hope. People get up in the morning and make art, look at art, think about art, and sell it. No, the art world isn't broken".

The world of the Lakota Sioux, indeed of all the Native tribes that once rode over the North American Plains on horses bred from those originally stolen from the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico (who in turn had acquired them from the Spanish at the very end of the sixteenth century) was very thoroughly broken by 1890, when the last of their tribe was massacred by the U.S. cavalry. Examples of the art produced in those two hundred years by this nomadic Plains culture - or rather the housewares, clothing, weapons, tipis and ceremonial costumes, that are now considered as art - is on display at the Museum of Metropolitan Art in New York in a show that originated in the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris.

The American military, newly practiced at and equipped for industrial scale killing, effectively eliminated Native Americans from the Plains between the end of the Civil War and the close of the nineteenth century. Their art is now enshrined in a bastion of New York's institutional establishment (originally funded by those railway magnates, land barons and nascent industrial magnates whose lust for profit doomed the very existence of its makers), lauded in Paris, and critiqued in the New Yorker (Moving Pictures, Mar 16, 2015). Their lives taken, now their culture is consumed by Western Imperialist, running dog capitalists and fetishized by their cultural storm troops, the art elite.

How else to interpret Schjeldahl's crass dismissal of the Native American genocide with the bland "what ensued is a story of reservations........But there's an ameliorating epilogue of revivals and transformations of Plains heritage"? Huh? Whatever mannerist reflections still bubble up from those genetically related to the people of these once vibrant cultures in no way absolves the epic criminality that attended their original, nineteenth century, pre-meditated destruction.

Karl Ove Knausguaard asks in My Saga, NYT, March 8, 15, "....the Vikings... discovered America, but they left it, almost without a trace. What if Columbus had done the same?" What if, he conjectures, " the Europeans had said simply, "Let's leave the New World in peace, out of respect for the people there and their way of life," what would the continent look like now?"

The answer, of course, is little different from then, if the land and its peoples had truly been left isolated from the rest of the world. As a thought experiment it reveals a deeply disquieting question: the Met warehouses artifacts from dead and dying pre-modern cultures of the world - what, if anything, makes our one global mono-culture of greater value than these myriad expressions of being? In submitting to the urge to expunge the primitive (retaining only the mute testimony of its surviving artifacts) what damage has been done to our psychic karma? How wounded are we, as Americans, by our close temporal, geographic and cultural links to those whose genocidal impulse erased the cultures of the land we know as the United States? Now, our Imperial blood-lust dominates our relationships with other nations of the world - a lust weaponized with the frightening capability of terminating the entirety of Earth's human cultures; leaving perhaps, a few carbonized and radioactive artifacts for alien beings to eventually collect and fetishize.

In California, some history runs a little deeper than it does on the Great Plains. Local Indians were confronted by the colonial power of Spain, manifested in the form of Junipero Serra and his Franciscan brothers, in 1769. The Missions built along El Camino Real were the forward positions of a religious and military coalition whose goal was the subjugation and Christianization of the indigenous people who then, it was thought, would become serfs in a feudal system of estate agriculture. In the event, the Missions became charnal houses - ground zero in the entirely deliberate extermination of indigenous cultures - architecturally expressed in crude renditions of the provincial Spanish style.

The material culture of the local Southern California bands was highly developed in the realms of basketry and canoe construction but was limited in its decorative impact. Clothing was minimal, a buckskin skirt for women and a simple skin blanket for the men. Sea otter furs were highly prized. Sandals of yucca fiber were worn in rough country but otherwise the people went barefoot. California casual has been in style for ten thousand years or more.

This modest level of personal adornment and the typical utilitarian shelters of reed thatch and brush stand in contrast to the elaborately decorated clothing, painted buffalo hide tipis and feathered head dresses of the Plains Indians; but the bands of Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche and Blackfoot, who immediately bedizened their dress with glass beads after contact, had formerly lived modest lives as small scale agriculturalists or hunter gatherers.

It was their acquisition of the horse and their adoption of a nomadic culture centered on the hunting of buffalo that has, ironically now become the standard perception of Indian life. The multi-colored, intricately worked artifacts, the buckskin, feathers and red cloth sashes that characterize this short-lived metamorphosis, and that has so entranced us (and the French), was doomed from the start: Anglo-Americans were determined to take the Natives’ range lands and were simultaneously engaged in the mass slaughter of their primary means of material support, the Buffalo.

California Indians endured a slow death well away from this country’s or the world’s attention. It was not until the conclusion of the Mexican America War in 1848, the discovery of gold at Sutters Mill in the same year, the granting of Statehood, and a little later, the establishment of a rail link across the country that some attention was given to the condition of the Native peoples.

Her report on the appalling conditions of Indians in Southern California ignored by Congress, Helen Hunt Jackson resolved to write a novel dramatizing their plight. Ramona was published in 1884 and was immediately popular but largely misinterpreted as a ‘Romance of the Ranchos’ and spawned a small industry devoted to the romanticization of the Mexican-American Ranchero lifestyle. The impoverished, malnourished and spiritless Indians were no match, in the popular imagination, for the dashing caballeros and senoritas that shared space with them in the novel.

Thus it is that fifteen thousand years of supremely sustainable human habitation, of low-impact, largely peaceable existence and congeries of finely tuned socio-spiritual awareness, have entirely failed to impact the consciousness of their usurpers. For this we should be grateful. The funeral sticks, solstice stones, mano and metate of the Chumash, and before them of the Oak Grove peoples have yet to be collected in global art-world exhibitions. These self-effacing communities of earth-dusted people, clothing, basketry, and thatch, bathed in the warm Californian light and spiritually consoled by an inclusivist pantheism are honored instead by the preservation of their environment – the dour, doughty and drought resistant chaparral: their most un-glamorous companion eco-system, a land that endures so little different from then.

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