Indians Irony and Identity: cultural appropriation beyond the hipster-headdress | TheUnion.com
Dave Brooksher
Staff Writer

Indians Irony and Identity: cultural appropriation beyond the hipster-headdress

Stereotypes, especially those that appear in marketing materials, have a way of reducing complex cultures down to their simplest and most conveniently sellable representations.

Under different circumstances that might be difficult to explain, but local artist Judith Lowry has curated an exhibit of advertising, merchandising and other kitsch to drive the point home.

"It can hurt people," Lowry said. "Especially at a time when Indian people didn't have a voice."

"But Indian people have become more articulate, vocal and educated, and now they can fend for themselves," she said.

"I'm an Indian person, and I'm educated, and I'm having this show to give people a lighthearted look at a serious subject."

There's a darkness to it, but Lowry hopes that those who come to see her exhibit will be mostly entertained.

"I want them to have fun and I want it to be thought-provoking," she said. "But we think a lot of this is hysterically funny."

She eschews the language of guilt, however, since it can alienate people rather than promote understanding of one another.

The exhibit includes hundreds of liquor bottles, figurines, product labels and book covers that exploit inaccurate and culturally insensitive images of Native Americans. Lowry calls most of it kitsch, or knickknacks.

There's a whole panel of romance novels with hypersexualized images of Indian people, and they're some of Lowry's favorites.

"There's a whole genre where it's just Indian men and white women, but the Indian men are never full-blooded," Lowry said. "It's like they have to have a little human blood. That's the objectification and the sexualization of the Native American male."

"Indian women have taken issue with this because they're just guys, like any other guys," she added. "We see them in their shorts in the morning."

That particular form of distortion, however, is in no way limited to Native American men. Indians Irony and Identity also features a whole stand-alone display focusing on misrepresentations of Pocahontas.

"What we're talking about here is the rampant mass-production of her image, and really the story is so different from the beautiful animated film," Lowry said.

"The truth is that Pocahontas was about 10 years old when she saved John Smith," said Lindy Schasiepen, event coordinator for the exhibit.

"This whole thing is just all wrong," Schasiepen said. "It's just a made up story, almost like an urban legend that got out of control. And then Disney got a hold of it."

There are a number of movie posters from the mid-20th century. Most of them depict white actors in bad costumes.

"Not too many Indians played Indians in the old films," Lowry said.

Each piece in the exhibit has something in common. Each one is an artifact from an era in America when it was permissible to exploit the cultures of oppressed peoples as a marketing strategy, then use that strategy to market anything and everything.

Some of the pieces in Lowry's exhibit focus on misrepresentations and stereotypes of California Indians in particular. One of the installations features photographs of the local native population's elders and their descendants here in this community today, like Shelly Covert, Nisenan tribal secretary.

Indians and Irony will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Sept. 3, in the Powell House at 203 Spring St., in Nevada City. After its run at the Powell House, the exhibit will move to Maidu Museum and Historic Site, 1970 Johnson Ranch Drive, in Roseville.

That will not be the first time Lowry's work appears in a museum, however. As a painter, her work has been featured in Sacramento's Crocker Art Museum, the Wheelright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the George Gustav Heye Center in New York. Her painting, "Weh-Pom and the Star Sisters" was purchased by the Smithsonian in 2009.

To contact Staff Writer Dave Brooksher, email dbrooksher@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.

Get cultured

What: Nisenan Heritage Days

When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 6

Where: 250 Sierra College Drive, Grass Valley