New money – and tough questions – for native arts

The Ford Foundation recently announced that it is endowing the first permanent arts foundation for the art and culture of American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native artists. 

“This,” says Saybrook psychology faculty member Stanley Krippner, “can be a bonanza for indigenous arts.”

Krippner is just one of Saybrook’s many community members who have done extensive work with America’s native peoples, and many of them are thrilled the prospect of native artists finally receiving ongoing support and recognition. 

But they also warn that there’s a big difference between “appreciating” native works of art that are preserved behind glass, and supporting the living, breathing, cultures that create today’s native traditions. 

The first is easy, they say.  The second is far more complex and challenging. 

Denise Scatena, a member of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts and a supporter of native American communities and colleges, comments “The noteworthiness of this recognition of native arts and cultures belies the history that precedes it.   Its noteworthiness, more than 100 years following the ‘end of the Indian Wars’, is a reflection of how little has been done in the way of reconciliation with or reparation made to native communities to date.”

“This foundation’s support of native arts is all for the good,” Scatena says.  “But native cultures are far more than their arts alone, and they still face multiple plights as a result of colonization.”

“What of the devastation to native communities forced off native lands by legal agreements later to be broken, the communities that remain plagued with poverty, lack of basic resources such as adequate education, medical care and employment opportunities?” she asks.  “The communities with family and social networks torn by the loss of culture and identity, and resulting drug and alcohol abuse that further ruptures the fabric of community in urban and reservation life?  Will the Foundation for Native Arts and Cultures support native cultures in these areas that go beyond the arts, as implied in its name?””

Krippner suggests that the conception of “art” among many native people’s could also be at odd with the way American foundations traditionally support “the arts.”

“Many native groups will not want art objects displayed that, in their opinion, should be buried with their owners,” Krippner says. “Other native groups will differ on time lines. When in history did an artistic style cease being ‘indigenous’ and start becoming ‘Westernized?’ Will re-created works of art be considered?”
Carl Hild, an Organizational Systems alumni and Director of the Health Services Administration Program at Alaska Pacific University, says that even the term “native Alaskan” is a misnomer, “in the same way that if you just use the term European you understand the values, behaviors, and language and cultural roots of the various nations.” 

But Hild holds out hope that the program “may be applied to passing on the stories that have maintained the indigenous peoples of Alaska,” and empowering the storytellers, which could be a significant cultural benefit.   

So while there’s no question that the native arts foundation presents challenges, they’re the kind that come with great opportunity.  “If these issues can be handled diplomatically,” Krippner says, “the Ford Foundation initiative can inspire Native Americans of all ages to engage in creative work, and to honor a remarkable heritage, one that has been devalued and destroyed for too long.”     



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