The Walker Reader, a magazine published by the Walker Art Center, has the transcript of a talk given recently at the Center by Paul Chaat Smith, a Comanche author and a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. Before discussing the upcoming exhibition he curated about Native imagery in American popular culture, Smith addresses the recent controversy around the Native heritage of artist Jimmie Durham. Smith states that he firmly believes Durham's claims to Cherokee lineage, and notes that Native identity in the US is far from clear-cut, given the complicated history of Native displacement and sovereignty. Read an excerpt from the talk below, or the full text here.
If the question is why the art world didn’t see all this sooner with the clarity of Durham’s critics, I’ll tell you why. It’s because for decades he’s worked closely with many Indian artists, has championed Indian art, including some of our most accomplished. These white curators and critics didn’t ignore the controversy. For the most part, they knew all about it, and saw an Indian art crowd divided on the issue. So, once again, the real blame shouldn’t be assigned to these all-powerful white curators, who in this narrative are only interested in Durham and no other Indian artist, but on people like myself, who one way or another validated him time after time for many years.
The other suggestion I would make is to maybe dial back the rhetoric about being Cherokee, enrolled or not. Everyone knows the unofficial state religion of the Oklahoma Cherokee is Southern Baptist Christianity. Everyone knows, in many ways, Oklahoma Cherokee aren’t so different than other Oklahomans. When I read the lofty sentiments about stomp grounds and sovereignty, I wonder what part of Eastern Oklahoma they’re talking about. This is a deeply red and southern place, speaking as a Comanche, we’re sort of the yang to Cherokee yin, very different yet both Oklahomans. You know, when I sometimes read the highfalutin’ rhetoric, I wish I could show the New York art world Facebook posts from my Comanche relatives. Their politics makes Fox News seem like the propaganda arm of European Social Democrats.
Image: Installation view, Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World. Pictured: Photo: Gene Pittman. Via Walker Reader.