Balance and Liminality:
Walking the Path between Creative License and Cultural Tradition
[this essay was also accompanied by images of several of my tapestries with illustrative descriptions]
“Culture can be seen as a tapestry; pull on any thread and eventually
one is connected to every other.” ~Arlene Goldbard (102)
As I have been revisiting weaving Navajo-inspired tapestries, a question arose that has fueled much of the research and discussion of this semester: What are the ethical implications of non-Native artists producing Native style art? While there may not be a clear or tidy answer, as my faculty advisor Cynthia Ross has indicted, it is still a question worth holding. As artists, we need to take full responsibility for our work and its social, cultural, and political significance. In this essay, I will explore thoughts, concerns, and insights that have arisen around this question from my readings and personal reflection.
When I first started Navajo weaving classes with Fran Potter, just after I had turned 13, learning a Native art form had not appeared a controversial issue at all. Madison (a progressive university center) was, granted, a bit removed from any reservation or its people. All the other women in the group (so far as I knew) were of Euro-American ethnicity. Fran connected our work from its original culture—telling us the Navajo story of how Spider Woman taught the Navajo to weave, the meaning of spirit lines, and vegetal dye practices. She brought in vintage Navajo tapestries that she had restored (or that were part of her own collection), and showed us special aspect of how they had been made, where they had come from, and the story of how they had come to her for restoration. The yarns we wove came directly from the Navajo reservation, and Fran liked to give us updates about her latest visit to Hubble Trading Post in Arizona. It felt like we had a link with the Navajo people, even though we never met or talked with any of them.
It was when my family and I moved to rural northern Wisconsin that my perspective began to change. Our homestead is about 10 miles from the Lac Court Oreilles Ojibwa reservation (between us and Hayward, our postal address). There is great polarity between more prejudiced locals (who often have little good to say about “the Indians”), more tolerant transplants (who would rather ignore the problems and pretend all was well), and the various strata of the Native population (the dichotomy being between those who live on or off the reservation). Relations are often strained, with ill feelings on both sides. Recreationists fume over Native spear fishing rights (both used and misused), and Natives continue to hold anti-white hatred engendered by years of broken treaties and discrimination.
I had grown up reading Native stories and myths. They seemed a balanced, earth-loving people. But seeing life on a real reservation (and hearing my mother’s inside stories from working at their medical clinic) began punching major holes in that perspective. With rampant business corruption, inner-city style crime, roadside and home-site litter, sexual abuse, drug abuse, and semi-wild free-roving dogs that add to the danger of even stepping outside your car on reservation land, I kept finding myself wondering What happened to these people? Has some ethic from their stories been lost? I wanted to look at these issues without falling into the attitude of the bitter Euro-American neighbors related in a story from A Forest of Time by Peter Nabokov:
The folklorist Richard Dorson was assured by Anglo residents of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that he had come a half-century too late to learn anything from their Chippewa neighbors, whom they derided as mostly drunks and freeloaders anyway. But when Dorson made his respectful interest in their traditions known to these same Indians, they invited him over and regaled him night after night, filling his notebooks with reputable legends, unique versions of trickster tales, storytelling contests, their takes on local history, and even humorous responses to the prejudice that surrounded them. (20)
Was the local cultural dynamic situation really as bad as it seemed, or were there openings for people to cross ethnic boundaries with compassion and sensitivity, like Dorson had?
The Native/non-Native question began to arise with regard to my tapestry artwork when my former art teacher, Madeline Sattler, asked me to weave my first commissioned piece. She had purchased a house in Arizona, hoping to move there soon, and had wanted a Navajo weaving for it. She had pondered buying one from the reservation, then remembered that I made them as well. To her, it had more personal significance to have a piece of art from one of her own students, and she had direct influence on its design. For me, I began to wonder about my art’s significance within the greater Navajo tapestry market. Would my work be seen as being in competition with theirs? I hoped not. While I had been trained in the Navajo tapestry tradition, and while I was using Southwest motifs, I felt that my work still carried my own interpretation of that style and Lucy Lippard, in her book Mixed Blessings, has cautionary feelings about borrowing imagery from other cultures:
While it is difficult not to be moved by the antimaterialism, spirituality, formal success, and principled communal values of much traditional art, there is no “proper” or “politically correct” response by white artists that does not leave something out. But there is a difference between homage and robbery, between mutual exchange and rape. I am not suggesting that every European and Euro-American artist influenced by the power of cultures other than their own should be overwhelmed with guilt at every touch. But a certain humility, an awareness of the other cultures’ boundaries and context, wouldn’t hurt. (9)
And her quote of Lowry Stokes Sims argues that “Appropriation may be, when all is said and done, voyeurism at its most blatant” (Lippard 25). Lippard also grapples with the sticky connotations of labels like primitive art for the beautiful and meaningful works produced by Native artists. By primitive, do we mean less advanced? Do we mean less cultured? Placing Native arts in polarity with Euro-style arts brings up hierarchies and stereotypes that should no longer apply for enlightened art enthusiasts. Because a style of art (like baskets) might have a useful purpose, does that make it a lesser art form? I think this is a very frivolous argument.
I agree with Lippard that the best way to approach the creation of Native-inspired art is with respect and understanding. As part of my last packet, I explored the history of the Navajo weaving tradition with authors Alice Kaufman and Christopher Selser, which they describe as “An artistic manifestation of the turbulent history of the Navajos—and of the Southwest itself” (2). Several hundred years old, weaving has been a Navajo women’s tradition that was greatly disturbed by the enforced relocation to Bosque Redondo and later molded by the wishes of trading post owners. Such powerful Anglos on the reservation as Juan Lorenzo Hubbell and John B. Moore drastically influenced the design and colors of whole genres of weavings that are now considered part of Navajo traditional imagery—such as Red Ganado and Two Gray Hills, respectively. These men were working in the interest of selling Navajo weavings to Euro-American tourists, influenced by the popularity of Oriental carpets. Their pressures were not entirely negative to the tradition, as Kaufman and Selser show through comments like, “Hubbell encouraged the weavers who lived in the Ganado area to produce high-quality weaving in a very effective way: he refused to buy any weaving that did not meet his standards” (67).
Today it seems that the Navajos have fully reclaimed their weaving tradition, utilizing both older traditional, banded, borderless designs as well as the newer multi-bordered with a strong central motif designs. Kaufman and Selser beautifully describe the ongoing tradition:
Rather like poets working within the strict confines of the sonnet style, Navajo weavers give free rein to their creative energies to produce something distinctively original within clearly defined limits. When Daisy Taugelchee, the prize-winning Two Gray Hills weaver, sits down at her loom, she will use almost exclusively natural shades of wool—white, black, brown, and carded tans and grays. She is bound by tradition—merely decades old but firmly rooted nonetheless—to create a multibordered geometric design dominated by a strong central element. … The ability to transcend form and function is basic to Navajo weaving and has been since the Navajos started to weave some two hundred years ago. (3)
But what happens when Native artists step outside of the tradition? Or when a non-Native attempts to step into it?
At least in northern Wisconsin (and this likely applies to other areas), there is great pressure on reservation youth from within their culture not to branch into non-traditional art forms. Kevin McMullin is familiar with this in the world of classical music and the difficulties in keeping Native students, which sparked his multicultural project “One Nation.” But derogatory proddings like What, you’re not Native anymore? or terms like apple (red on the outside, white on the inside) are common local methods of peer pressure that keep Natives from exploring other expressive forms. Jaune Quick-To-See Smith adamantly disagrees that Native artists who integrate modernity into their work are impure, saying that “Dying cultures do not make art. Cultures that do not change with the time will die” (Lippard 28). In essence, strict tradition seeks to keep its adherents within its box (and others out of it), while artists (notorious for ignoring boundaries) keep running into the insides and the outsides of the walls of these boxes.
The walls of these boxes became starkly apparent last autumn when I was trying to start Navajo tapestry weaving classes at a local yarn store (much like Fran’s classes in Madison). I was circulating posters at area businesses and wanted to share my ideas (and a poster) with the shop that sells Native artwork on Main Street. I walked in, smiling, and started talking to the Ojibwa lady working the desk. She interrupted me abruptly with “are you Navajo?”
“No,” I replied, honestly.  She turned away and would not talk or listen to me anymore, and I left the store feeling a bit shaken. It was quite apparent from her voice and body language that there was no room for conversation in her mind about this issue. Had I said something wrong? Had I said it the wrong way? Was the local Native art world going to hold a grudge against me for infringing on their cultural space unauthorized? Unfortunately, in part due to the economic slump that made people wary of spending money on learning to make art, the classes never came together.
Certainly, there have been people from one culture who have interpreted material from another culture without much respect for the original intent and meaning. Robert Graves in The White Goddess draws an example between the ancient bards and the troubadours:
The Norman French trouveres and Malory who collected and collated their Arthurian romances had no knowledge of, or interest in, the historical and religious meaning of the myths that they handled. They felt themselves free to improve the narrative in accordance with their new gospel of chivalry fetched from Provence—breaking up the old mythic patterns and taking liberties of every sort that the Welsh minstrels had never dared to take. (60)
And this type of treatment has been felt by Native cultures across the Americas. Nabokov tells of protective and defensive walls that have been erected by Native cultures to preserve their histories from Anglo misrepresentation:
Not sharing history as a form of active persistence, because it contains crucial guidelines for group survival, and not revealing it as a form of passive resistance, because it has become a token in psychological tussles between whites and Indians, are often merged motivations. The shift from “you’ll make fun of what we tell you” to “what you don’t know won’t hurt us” to “what we don’t tell you makes you crazy” reflects the ever-changing and always subtle interplay of intercultural relations. (56)
Does the world of traditional arts grapple with these same situations? It seems so. This reminds me of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof and the song “Tradition!” that is followed by a decay of his known world as his children break from the old way of life. He is torn between making them stay within the traditional box (and therefore keeping them close) or letting them follow their love (therefore losing part of his stability). Yet if tradition is not allowed to encompass the new—like Navajo weavers embracing the Two Gray Hills design—then we are left with misplaced residuals like American Scandinavians still eating lutefisk during the holiday season (even though they no longer eat it at all in the Old Country).
I realize that, because I am not of Native descent, that I will forever be an outsider (at least to some degree) to that world. Neither am I a puristic traditionalist; instead, I seek to learn the wisdoms inherent within traditions and give them my own interpretive twist. It is a place of balance and liminality, imbedded with respect for the old ways yet open to the new. Perhaps the path of walking between these worlds—between past and present, between Native and European—is not unlike the spirit line in traditional Navajo tapestry. It is believed by the Navajos that perfection is not meant for mortals, just as multiple borders were contrary to their original tapestry aesthetic. So they always left an imperfection in their weavings that allowed their artistic spirit to exit from that tapestry so it could make another. They weave a path (several strands of the background color) through the border, the wall of the box. Maybe that is what we should all do; leave doorways in the boxes so we can have conversations about intercultural issues, share ideas, and create beautiful works of art from our hearts. In that wonderfully liminal space between (around, over, under, through) our cultures, we can hold difficult questions and learn to see with compassion and understanding.
Goldbard, Arlene. New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development. Oakland, CA: New Village Press, 2006.
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. Amended and Enlarged Edition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.
Kaufman, Alice and Christopher Selser. The Navajo Weaving Tradition: 1650 to the Present. Tulsa and San Francisco: Council Oak Books, 1999.
Lippard, Lucy R. Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America. New York: The New Press, 1990.
Nabokov, Peter. A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
 I actually had a Euro-American fellow vendor at the farmer’s market say, “You should have said yes, you could pass for Navajo.” Can you imagine! What an incredibly cruel lie. How would someone ever keep such a front with someone from a Native culture? The hypocrisy would be glaring.
 Lutefisk is cod preserved in a lye solution, which leaves it semi-translucent and very slimy. I tried it once, out of politeness, and cannot understand why—since it is no longer the necessary way to preserve fish—anyone would delight in eating it.