Gregg Deal (Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe) took the stage as the 2023 AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo keynote speaker. Deal is a multi-disciplinary artist, activist, and “disruptor.” His work is informed by his Native identity and includes exhaustive critiques of American society, politics, popular culture and history. Through paintings, murals, performance work, filmmaking, spoken word, and more, Deal invites the viewer to confront these issues both in the present and the past tense.
Deal’s keynote is followed by a conversation with Virgil Ortiz, Artist and Indigenous Futurist; C.J. Brafford, Director of the Ute Indian Museum, (Lakota Oglala Sioux Indian Tribe); John Lukavic, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Native Arts, Denver Art Museum; and moderator, Dawn DiPrince, Executive Director & State Historic Preservation Officer, History Colorado to explore contemporary museum practice of representing the past, present, and future of Indigenous peoples.
Watch the full video or read a transcript below.
[Announcer] Good morning and welcome to today’s keynote and panel discussion at the American Alliance of Museum’s 117th annual meeting and museum expo. And now please welcome incoming AAM Board chair, Jorge Zamanillo.
– Good morning, Denver. Welcome, and today is my pleasure to introduce a 2023 annual meeting, keynote session, “Indigenous in Plain Sight” featuring Gregg Deal and multidisciplinary artist and disruptor who resides along the front range of Colorado. Gregg’s work has been formed by his native identity as a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, and includes exhaustive critiques of American society, politics, popular culture, and history. Through paintings, murals, performance work, filmmaking, spoken word and more. Gregg invites your confront theses issues both in the present and the past tense. He has exhibited his work at the Denver Art Museum, the Redline Gallery, and the Smithsonian Institution, among other institutions. Following his keynote address, he will join in conversation with a distinguished panel, including Virgil Ortiz, artist and indigenous futurist, C.J. Bradford, director of the Ute Museum, Indian Museum, and John Lukavic. Andrew W. Mellon, curator of the Native Arts at the Denver Art Museum. Dawn DiPrince, executive director and state Historic Preservation Officer at History Colorado will moderate their discussion to explore the contemporary museum practice of representing the past, present, and future of indigenous peoples. Before we begin our keynote session, our keynote sponsor, Art Processors, has a word about how you can join in support of this conversation. Thank you.
– Hello everyone. My name is Amy Scruton and I’m speaking to you from Hebart, Australia. As the Chief Financial Officer of Art Processes, a global experiential design and technology company. I’m thrilled to share with you our vision today. We believe that museums are for everyone, everywhere and not just the chosen few. That’s why we’re honored to sponsor today’s keynote featuring Gregg Deal, an artist, an activist from the Lake Paiute Tribe in Colorado. He challenges stereotypes and provides accurate representation of indigenous peoples in art and culture to make a meaningful contribution to Gregg’s cause. We’re pledging support to the Haseya Advocate Program, a native woman-led organization serving indigenous survivors of domestic and sexual abuse in Colorado Springs. We invite you to join us in making a difference. For every business card we collect today, art processes will donate $10 on your behalf. Please do stop by our table to learn more and to pledge your support.
– [Moderator] Thank you Art Processors for making a generous donation to Haseya Advocate Program. Drop off your business card or contact information with Art Processors outside of the ballroom after the keynote to support a $10 donation and enter a raffle for a gift certificate to Gregg Deal’s web shop. Business cards will only be used for the purposes of the raffle and will not be used for solicitation. The raffle winner will be announced at the Art Processor’s presentation today at 1:30 PM in the Museum Expo Solutions Theater two. And now without further ado, please welcome to the stage Gregg Deal.
– Thanks for supporting us today as an organization that I’ve done a lot of work with, they’re the only Indigenous-led domestic abuse organization in the state of Colorado. So every bit of help that they get goes to to good things.
That is to say that my name is Gregg Deal. I’m a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe. I am an artist, sometimes activist, always a disruptor, and a husband and a father. I’m grateful to be here and I’m grateful to see a lot of faces. There’s a lot of you here.
When I was asked to do this, I legitimately said like, are you, are you sure? Do you know me? Do you know what I do? I’ve been told that my work can sometimes be confrontational. I don’t really see it, but I’m told that that’s the situation. Please prepare for the possibility of feelings being hurt. I do it with love.
I have to make mention to this. I do always. And that is that my family is at the center of everything that I do. We have five children on purpose. My wife and I have been together for 25 years. If you’re curious what it’s like to have five children, this is the best metaphor I could come up with. Someone’s always crying.
I want to give you guys a little bit of context to who I am. I am an artist. I recognize that there are museums of every type in this room, and all of this will tie into something that’s a little more inclusive to the array of organizations that are represented here. But I wanted to let you know a little bit about what I do. I came into this work mostly as an artist and activist doing work that was speaking with a collective voice of Native people. As I moved through these things and through the really the understanding of the collective voice of equality and understanding and consideration for Native people, I began to find more of myself in the work and the representation that exists sort of in public spaces.
This mural is in Colorado Springs. It’s 80 feet tall, which you don’t know how big that is until you’re 80 feet up in the air doing a mural for this. It does represent Native people and it does make mention of missing and murdered Indigenous relatives. The red hand print on the face of the figure, this is in downtown Colorado Springs, the second most politically conservative city in the country. And good allies made this happen. And this is possible in terms of that representation and the geographical locations of those representations, and it matters everywhere. But disrupting spaces is something that I do.
This is in Five Points, the RiNO District of Denver. It is about reappropriating old comic book images from the forties and fifties, replacing the dialogue with lyrics from punk music. So these words, “I’m so bored with the USA,” are the words of The Clash, not the words of Gregg Deal, although it feels, it feels right, but disrupting spaces through the power of things like street art ends up becoming sort of an important tool and important process of confronting things that are happening or things that are not seen or not understood.
These signs you will find along the front range and hopefully one day across the country, recognition that we are on the homelands of this nation’s first peoples. But I come through art with performance art, with conceptual work, with paintings and performance art is something that I came to accidentally through a mentorship with the Smithsonian, working with James Luna. And that’s really where this comes from.
And this is my very first performance piece. It was called “The Last American Indian on Earth.” For those of you that are wondering, this is not a contrived image. This happened in real life. This gentleman wanted to take a picture with me. He wanted to point at his Cleveland Indians hat. There is something about the presence of art in public spaces that can work not just as a social mirror, but can also work as a means of education and storytelling. And that is very much what is happening with a lot of this work. This work was actually done with a pop-up show with the Smithsonian in 2016 through the Asian Pacific American Center. We took over the arts and industry building, which is right next to the Smithsonian Castle, and it was as diverse as the world we live in. In that space, I had an opportunity to do this piece with my friend, Anta Yo Ali, who is the Muslim lady who is represented in her space surrounded by American flags. And if you remember in 2016, there was a certain candidate running and a certain discussion about Muslims taking place. But we found a commonality in being surrounded by American flags, the historical references to Native people with the current discussion of patriotism and Muslim Americans. And that’s how this piece was born.
Some of these pieces work in forms of metaphors. The young person in this image is my oldest kid’s age, who has been a collaborator and somebody that I’ve been able to work with who really wants to be in the arts, and I’m trying to give as many opportunities as possible. We did this piece called “Invisible Loss Movement,” which is kind of a metaphor. It’s like we exist, but we don’t exist. We’re here, but we’re not here. We’re visible, but we’re invisible. Hence this piece that is informed by powwow culture with elements of it taken out. Visually you can see that there’s no color in the outfits. Generally speaking, color exists within these outfits because it amplifies the movement of the dances and of the ceremony. But in this case, I’ve taken everything out, black beadwork, black ribbon work, black leather work, all culminating into this outfit that even in the sunlight we look like a silhouette.
In my process, I’m thinking about space and time. I’m thinking about things that exist within my own community, things that exist within the grander sort of inter tribal community. And I’m looking at things like textile patterns. How can I recreate textile patterns in a way that’s new and exciting? But there’s something more exciting about that than just using textile patterns. These are patterns that have existed for thousands of years and they’re being manifested in a medium that’s not been done. And so it’s not just a statement of culture and not just a statement of presence of culture and being informed by culture.
It’s also a statement of time that something can exist for that long and then manifests itself into something completely new and completely exciting. This piece is called “Never Forget.” It’s 25 feet long and eight feet tall. I was able to show it in a solo exhibition at UC Colorado Springs last year. It’s titled “Never Forget,” not because of 9/11, but because I believe that there is, as we progress forward, a need to recognize that the progression that we are shooting for started somewhere else. So painted in a matte black on this series of abstract works infused with textile patterns and repeated over and over again are these images that sort of pop out images from forties and fifties literature illustrations that exist of white children in headdresses hitting their faces, the lone ranger in “Tanto,” even a Chief Motel, which was a real motel that was in Colorado Springs until recently, but the sign’s still intact. I’ve seen it in a wrecking yard in Colorado Springs. So somebody is trying to preserve these things. But all of these pieces ultimately culminate into this place and into this space that is meant to inform, make recognition of, make sure that we don’t forget where these things come from, how we’ve gotten to where we are, and how we can also move forward in a good way.
This piece is called the “Blood Quantum Color Chart.” It is in reference to the idea that we are supposed to look a certain color, look a certain way, dress a certain way, speak a certain way, all of which is informed by the perception of our existence and not the reality of our existence. And using something that exists that is simple and recognizable. These plastic little Indian toys that are colored according to the chart that they’re sitting in front of. It’s adorned with bullet casings and horse hair and has basket patterns infused on the doors of this cabinet. It’s a clear indication of me also trying to go into a place and thinking harder about what does this look like? It doesn’t have to be so on the nose. It can be something that someone can look at and they can think about, they can internalize, they can figure out what the heck is this guy saying? But there’s some pieces there that end up informing not only our own prejudices, but also what we don’t know.
Last piece I wanna show you guys. It’s called “The Place Where Spirits Get Eaten.” This is a boarding school piece. It’s the idea that through the boarding school process that this simple tool, a chair, was weaponized in order to force assimilate children in the late 1800s all the way up to—well boarding schools, I think, finally closed down in the early two thousands, the official final boarding schools. These schools are where kids were forced to sit in chairs, have their hair cut. They were forced to sit in chairs and have their names taken away so that they could choose a good Christian name. These chairs were used to force them to sit in uncomfortable clothes and learn western languages and abandon their own language and to abandon their own sense of identity and culture. And I had been thinking through this, what is the best way to represent that? I chose these chairs. Each of the legs of the chairs are sharpened to points. It sits on a spangled round rug with wood chips based around it. And the most important aspect of this, in my mind, is that at the center point of the chair are braids of hair, human hair. My son and my oldest kid, Sage and myself, all cut our hair in October 2021, specifically for this piece. We’ve had multiple installations of it. We’ve been able to have the hair be present in those spaces. It’s such a small thing, but also just such a massive thing. And this is really something that is become important to me in terms of articulating information, articulating history, articulating my own experience as a Native person and what my relatives have gone through, what I’ve gone through, how it all makes sense.
Native people are in a unique position to tell stories. Native artists are oftentimes considered medicine people. And we are able to tell stories and tell and express ideas through visual art, through filmmaking, through writing, through poetry, through performance art. All of these things end up being vehicles for the storytelling process. And history is so much a part of what we do. It’s actually a tool of survival. We have to know our history so that we can counter the things that you’re saying in a classroom and so that we can maintain our own dignity in our understanding.
It frequently also makes us the expert in the room. There are institutions that are trying to figure out ways to implement this history. Colorado is doing an incredible job right now. They have this new exhibition with Virgil Ortiz, my friend, an incredible artist and storyteller. And they’ve figured out a way to implement visual art into a history museum, to inform history and the stories that are there. And it’s pretty incredible.
So I’m standing here as somebody who’s had an opportunity to be in several different institutions, not just professionally, but right outta college. I worked at the National Museum of American Indians. I was there during the inaugural year of its opening in September 2004, and was part of an all-Native staff that was working on the ground floor that worked as docents, that worked as cultural interpreters that were there to inform the spaces we’re in sometimes to tell people where the bathrooms were. That building is interesting because when it opened in September 2004, by April 2005 a million people had been through those doors. And I can tell you that being a Native person on the ground floor with that many Americans and people from other countries that are visiting to walk through those doors, that there’s some pretty horrific things that can happen and happen pretty quickly. We would hear in a week what a Native person might hear in a lifetime, racially.
I bring this up and it’s not even to throw the National Museum of American Indians under the bus, but I bring it up because even an institution that is putting their best foot forward, an institution that is informed on the importance of representation, there can be pitfalls that come up. One of the pitfalls that we suffered as the visitor services and cultural interpreter staff was the way that people were talking to us and how difficult it was to deal with that. I could tell you most of the staff that was there did not last a year because of how difficult that it was. Those pitfalls, those blind spots that exist, become amplified in a place that is not specifically centered around a specific marginal group. And that becomes a really difficult thing because I hope, I believe, as educated folks, we are putting our best foot forward. We are trying to be progressive. We are trying to be understanding and acknowledge where these blind spots are. Especially, you know, 2020 shined a light on some pretty significant things that are happening in this country. And I have seen just from my perspective, a lot of change and a lot of effort to change, which I think is absolutely incredible. That isn’t to say that you’re devoid of obligation to continue to change.
Several years ago I was talking with an institution and working with a few curators and in the process of talking about my project and the concept, I made mention of something that was part of what I was working on and the mention was actually about firearms. That I had a performance piece that was gonna have firearms attached to it in some way. And one of the curators had this reaction, a visceral reaction to what I was saying, these firearms are not AK-47s and they’re not AR-15s. They are weapons from the 1800s. Lever action rifle, six shooters, things of that nature. But this main curator, he had a reaction that was just his entire disposition changed as we were talking about it. And I suddenly found myself in a position to defend what I was saying and what I was doing. Now listen, his reaction was not wrong. There is an issue of guns in this country. I don’t know if you heard. And his reaction as a liberal white man is correct, but there’s a cultural context to these things. As Native people, we have connection to different things and different ideas. There’s warrior culture, weapons exist in ceremony and in dance sometimes there, there is a cultural context to these things that this man would not be privy to and that’s okay. But his reaction places upon me the emotional labor to justify my existence to him. So even in the most progressive way, he’s inviting me to the table. He knows what I do. He has a blind spot that has put me into a difficult position to have to justify where I am and what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.
This can be a loss opportunity for an organization. If you’re going to invite marginalized people to the table, marginalized problems come with them. To be open to that is not just incredibly important, but is paramount to building a relationship with any group, whether it’s Indigenous, or Black, or brown, or LGBTQ, or whatever. Because there are issues that exist whether you like it or not. Statistically speaking, if you’re gonna invite ten Native people to the table, there’s a few of them that might have some money troubles and you’re gonna have to deal with that. It’s not something to shame somebody on. That’s something to work with somebody on. What needs to happen in these spaces. And what needs to happen as museums are having a discussion with marginalized groups is there has to be a level of equality that exists. We all have to be on the same page at the same table. We all have to be on the same footing at the same level. With your education comes debt with Native education, there’s payment that’s happening there as well. There has to be a level of respect and understanding that as we are having these discussions, that we are having these discussions equally. And equality is gonna manifest itself in the way that you treat somebody. The amount of respect that you give them.
It’s also gonna happen with money as well. Making sure that the person who is there is being paid for their time and is being given the resources needed to be able to participate with a level of equality. We’re in an interesting time in this country. I don’t think it’s an accident that even as a creative person, I somehow made my entrance into this work as an artist, an activist. I kind of reject activist a little bit ’cause I do think that what one person calls an activist another might call an adult with an opinion. So I will take disruptor because I can do that for free all day long.
I feel fortunate to be here. I feel fortunate to do what I’m doing. I can also tell you it’s been a hard road figuring out the work and finding quarter for my work. The first major exhibition that I did, I was working in DC, I lived in DC for almost 17 years before moving here in 2015. I was doing this work and I bring the work and the curator I was working with says, can you make your work less Indian? Because he wanted to be able to sell it. And it’s hard to sell it because it’s very specific and it’s very nuanced.
I believe a major reason for this difficult path is not just being an artist, but is being a Native person in America. The lack of context that Americans have for the existence of Native people is significant, if not formidable. You know, 40% of American citizens believe that Native people don’t exist, that we’re extinct. Why is that? There is significant amounts of entities that are aligned with this thinking. We are a country that is built on slavery and genocide. And the institutions, the origins of museums, whether you like it or not, are rooted in that. And I recognize that there is an effort to change that, that there is a significant effort to shift the knowledge and the understanding and the way that these things are being presented. We don’t see as many dioramas as we used to, but if an institution has those roots, if Americans and people around the world have a specific understanding of what a Native person is, if they believe that we don’t exist anymore, do you think that that doesn’t affect the relationship that you have with Native people? Do you think that that doesn’t somehow inform either on their end or on your end how difficult this may be to have a relationship?
It’s not impossible. But again, there’s pitfalls. There’s things that we need to be able to do to get beyond that. So of course it does. Hopefully right now you have some knowledge, not just in yourselves, but hopefully through this talk. And certainly within the second half of this program we’re about to have, you’re being given information, you’re beholden to this information. Anybody in this room, you’re not allowed to say, well I didn’t know, you know, and you’re beholden to that. You can’t claim you don’t know anymore. So what are you gonna do with that? What are you gonna do with that information? What are you gonna do with that obligation? Because you are obligated now if you weren’t before. We have to put aside ego and belief that we are so educated as to skirt responsibility. We have to put our best foot forward, even the small things, because culturally, the small things from my people have amounted to very big things. How are you gonna move forward in a way that isn’t just good, but beholden is the responsibility this country has to its original inhabitants to our people. The people who inform where you are and how you got here. The people who came to define how you came to be and where your family came from. What are you going to do? Thank you.
– [Announcer] And now please join us in welcoming to the stage to join in conversation with Gregg, Virgil Ortiz, C.J. Brafford, John Lukavic, and moderator of today’s discussion, Dawn DiPrince.
– Good morning everyone. I have to collect my emotions a little bit, Gregg.
– Beautiful. Beautifully done just now. And I just also feeling emotional to be up here with such great collaborators and friends and colleagues and then with all of you as well. So we are here to have a pretty serious conversation. And you know, we’re here at an industry conference and the issues around indigenous representation within museums in our larger culture are certainly not just inside the museum world. The issues that we’ve been having as museums and with indigenous representation have been in the headlines recently. This is not just like insider industry news. Just this week one of our local giant museums, Denver Museum of Nature and Science wisely and vulnerably announced that they would be closing their Native American Hall. ProPublica has just had some pretty serious hard-hitting reporting on the misinterpretation and abuses of nag policy. Also here in Colorado, we finally, after many years, have forced schools to get rid of indigenous mascots. And so we’re seeing this outside of an insular museum world that storytelling, cultural representation matters. And it feels like, depending on your positionality, that things are moving fast or maybe not moving fast enough. So I would like to just start this conversation with all of you as artists, curators, tribal members, what do you see museums still not getting right? What do you see maybe museums are getting right? Are there examples of good intentions that aren’t hitting the way that people intended them to? That just feels like a good place to start this conversation. I don’t know if anyone’s eager to be the first. Do you wanna start, Gregg?
– Sure. Yeah I see it a definite shift. Other artists and sort of native story providers. I’ve noticed a kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like it’s like, this is not going to last, but every time I think that, History of Colorado does something cool, the Denver Art Museum does something cool. That really shows that it’s not just something that’s happening, but it’s sustainable. I had an opportunity, I got a call from Longmont Museum, which is just outta town and curated a show for that. And I wasn’t expecting that. They sort of said, this is what we want to do. What can we do to enable you. Enablers is, yeah, that’s a good product in these fields to allow us to sort of run with our ideas and with our concepts.
– Great Virgil, do you wanna add to that?
– Sure. Like all my whole life I’ve been working with clay. So I’m a potter at heart, but I dabble in all different types of mediums and like having the chance to work with a lot of galleries and museums. I really want to encourage all of the artists and indigenous artists that are coming up to open have, make sure that the line of communication is open with people like you guys at History Colorado, like our show that just opened during this week. Like to really, that communication was there because you guys gave me a chance to really design the whole show. And you guys listening to me and having that line of communication open led everything to go really smooth. And I love that and it’s important to have that. So any other artists that are, are working with bigger venues like that I think is just really important. ‘Cause a lot of the artists are really shy and scared to have that communication. But I want, I mean, to make them feel as comfortable as possible and that helps a lot.
– Yeah, great. Enabling good communication. So from inside the museum realm, I’ll start with you C.J., you have been in museum doing museum work as a Lakota woman since the seventies, right? So that’s a number of decades. We don’t need to count them. What have you seen change over that time from your lens? And you know, I appreciate Gregg’s comment, like kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Does this feel different than the changes you’ve seen?
– Well, beginning it was a taboo. Back in the late seventies, I started with schooling with a museum, studies and anthropology. We didn’t even know what anthropology was. I don’t even think, I didn’t even know how to spell it for a while. It was my grandmother who had concerns, but she was a different generation. The best I could begin to share was that I am from a different generation. I am that caretaker for the belongings of our peoples. The things that are into museums, first thing must understand, we have faced genocide, we have faced whitewash and there are times that museums portrayed we as savages behind glass exhibits. There was a time when our voice had been silenced, a time when our identity has been silenced. But moving forward today, what is very powerful in my language our breath. Our breath is our voice today, our voice as indigenous people has become very bold and very loud and we’ve become very resilient. And one thing I will say that where I see, I know we talk about how do we move to the past, present, and future with indigenous and museums. And as I see it, you know, the past was our ancestors. The present is our elders and our future, our children is the generations as we keep always talking about moving forward. And we need to come together today, now and work on that process as museums, indigenous people to, there’s that partnership that we connect and we connect without fear opening up and doing daring things like with the exhibit that Virgil has created.
– Thank you C.J. and John, from your unique perspective, what have you seen change over the years?
– One of the great things that I’ve been seeing is much more engagement. You know, I’m sure if I ask everyone in the audience, I mean, does your museum have a land acknowledgement? I’m sure most of you probably do now, but the challenge to that then is, but what does that mean to you? I mean, if you acknowledge your indigenous land, does your institution intend to give it back, the land back? Well, probably not. So the question then is what will you do? Land acknowledgements are not performative. They should not be performative. And unfortunately it’s sometimes they are. But the sustained engagement with communities at multiple touchpoints across the institution is probably the most important part of how museums can move forward. You cannot expect one person in your institution to be represent your entire museum in all of native North America. You need to have representation at your board level, at your museum administration, in finance and accounting, in marketing and development, in curatorial and learning and engagement in frontline staff. You need in indigenous people represented at every phase. But you also need to understand that you need to understand their needs and also protect them. One of the biggest challenges that we even have at the Denver Art Museum is as progressive as we are with exhibitions and really pushing the envelope and addressing really important meaningful themes that are impacting indigenous people today. The reality is that as a curator and educators in our museum, we can work on something and sit back in our office, but it’s our frontline staff or visitor operations who are experiencing the microtraumas that Gregg talks about. And they’re being put in harm’s way. So understanding that even as you move forward in very progressive ways, it’s you can’t go so blind. You can’t be blind. You need to understand to support your staff, especially if you have indigenous staff in just to create a, I dunno a sense of understanding. I don’t think any of us have solutions because we can’t control what visitors say when they come into the museum. But we can at least do the best that we can to support the staff that we have.
– Yeah, I think there’s something else too. And because I think the way I’m hearing you say it, there needs to be a mindset in these institutions that you are obligated to us. You’re on our homelands, you are in our spaces, you are obligated to us, we are not obligated to you. And once that shift happens, we’re gonna be looking at a completely different set of engagements, mindsets, understandings, and that information that starts, that’s a top down situation. if that happens at the top levels of a major museum and it works its way down, it’s gonna absolutely affect the community that’s in there in positive ways.
– If the easiest way to actually understand it, if this is new to you, if you were to decide to throw a dinner party at your next door neighbor’s house, but don’t invite them, don’t include them in any of the planning of it and you know, just leave a mess after you’re done. You wouldn’t do that. Well you have that same responsibility. You’re on indigenous land. Indigenous people need to be part of the conversation in everything that you do.
– Yes. I think that’s very important. When you say always part of the conversation, we’re bringing the voices coming in for so long the voice wasn’t there. One of the things is that is the trust we’ve been lied to so much throughout the history. A very painful history. So listening to the people themselves and what you listen, that’s one of the greatest gifts our creator gave to us is how we’re taught up to listen sometimes not so much speak first, then listen and then to observe. And I think we are doing that in a lot of our institution is now listening, observing to the people because it’s that trust you so much need to start the engagement and start as we move forward. We may not ever all have the answers, but it’s a new beginning for all of us.
– I was struck in your talk, Gregg, of the statistic you cited, where 40% of Americans don’t think native people exist today. And I think we can very safely say that museums have been complicit in the storytelling that leads people to believe that indigenous people are only of the past and not of the present. And of course, you know, by extension not part of our future. That’s one of the things I have loved so much about Virgil’s work is this look at not just current day existence but this imagining what the future that centers indigenous people could be like. Can you speak a little bit Virgil about how you think about that and why that storytelling is important?
– Yeah, definitely. ‘Cause like all of my work is based on educating globally about the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. And most people have not heard about that ’cause it’s not taught in our schools or in our textbooks and basically being swept under the carpet because of the genocide and the atrocities blood shed that happened to the Pueblo people. So this is two reasons why I’m here on this earth, is to make sure that the tradition of using age old materials and methods in and it’s a dying art form. So I loved like sci-fi when I was a kid, so seeing “Star Wars” for the first time when I was six years old, I was able to like learn all the characters what they did. And then that always stuck with me also just thinking about going home and watching “Star Trek” or “Battle Star Galactic” stuff like that. So I started writing a script about the Pueblo revolts happening simultaneously and two different time dimensions in 1680 and 2180. And I really wanted to focus in on that demographic of all the, like what’s happening in the movies now, like “Avengers” or “Black Panther”, people of color are coming into the frontline. So now when you create these characters that are also from the future and they’re us in the future and what they’re doing, what you’ll see at the History of Colorado is like you’ll see a lot of futuristic characters, but these are us coming from 2180 to the present time, the historic time and collecting artifacts, our songs, our traditions, our prayers, taking them to 2180, storing them or protecting them so that when we get to that timeline all of our traditions and language are still all intact. But definitely using different types of presentations like including photography, a 3D mapping projection room, the costuming that you see on these characters. And then also using augmented reality as well. So you could look at those exhibition just as is, and I think it’s pretty cool and I’m proud of how it turned out. But then also you could go back in there and take your smartphone and click on the QR codes and then you’ll see these 10 foot tall photographs or different pieces that will come alive in it. So I think like Gregg, you’re saying your daughter would resonate with it because she loves “Star Wars” as well.
– [Gregg] Yeah.
– So I hope like all of the students that I worked with at MSU here, instead of the design students went to go see a behind the scenes story and they really got it. So I think, I guess again, like on that part of having that communication open with these venues is really important again.
– Yeah, great. To this ancestral technology of clay all the way to technology. I don’t even quite understand yet, but it’s great. As you were talking, I was really thinking about your piece, Gregg, that says existence is protest. And it feels like that is part of this conversation around how the American storytelling within museums has shown, you know, this like trope of the vanishing Indian. Can you explain the concept of existence as protest?
– Yeah, I mean it’s really just looking critically at the way history’s taught. It’s like, man, they’re always winning. Like what is, like, how is that possible? And then you realize of course that you know, the person who’s in control controls the narrative. And that narrative I think especially in this country is important because there’s these series of, sort of patriotic cliches that exists like that you know, that this is the greatest country, you know, in the world or the American dream. Like these are concepts and ideas that are undermined by the way that this country in its origins have treated and engaged native people. Freedom of religion. Yeah not for native people until 1978. With an act of congress and looking at freedoms, looking at opportunities like you, you start to begin to see that that does not necessarily apply to everyone existence as protest is meant to be a statement of recognition. That there are policies that were created in this country specifically to eliminate native people. A lot of policies that were based on everything from bounties that were on the heads of native people during westward progression to boarding schools, to forced sterilization. I mean the list goes on and on and on. And that our existence stands as a protest to the policies that were meant to to erase us. It didn’t work and we’re still here so.
– Well, and you know, representation matters and language matters. One of the things that C.J. has helped me to learn over the years is even around how we talk about our collections of indigenous pieces, she has taught me to say belongings. Do you wanna share a little bit about that?
– Well, it’d be something more from my, we shared and taught through my grandmother, we hear the word artifacts and it was something she never felt comfortable with and that’s where the word belongings, because they belong to either someone individually or belong collaboratively to a group of people. And so that’s how I refer to as belongings. Something that I did wanna share as well too is that we always say we’re still here today. Just as Gregg has has shared and when we redid the new museum, we had dioramas and that was something very much the elders were very much against to remove the dioramas because what they depicted was that, you know, you only talk about 200 years ago, but again it’s that we are here today. So those are the changes. I’m thinking some that are being made in museums. They were nice dioramas. They were popular in the times in the seventies. But again, it was frozen in time.
– Yes. Yeah, we’re seeing a shift away from that, but not everywhere. It’s part of that transition.
– Yeah, at the Denver Art Museum, we have a painting by a Canadian Cree artist named Kent Monkman, that’s titled “History is Painted by the Victors” in which he appropriates a lot of western canon paintings and infuses them not only with native people, but specifically two-spirit, gay, lesbian, trans individuals to really reinfuse this identity that has always existed back into art history. But in terms of representation and of the invisibility, the last time we reinstalled our permanent galleries at DAM in 2011, the New York Times wrote a whole big cover story about how groundbreaking it was that we were identifying native artists in the galleries.
– [Dawn] Wow.
– When people came to indigenous art galleries, they expected to see cultures, not people. You go to European Gallery, you see Van Gogh, Monet, you might see in other galleries, you know, Agnes Martin or George O’Keefe. But when you went to in indigenous Art Gallery, you expected to see Cheyenne, Navajo, Lakota or just more generally Sioux, but they didn’t see name people. So the fact that we named people in our galleries was considered groundbreaking. We’re talking 12 years ago. I mean, that should not have even happened there. So in terms of how things have shifted in the field, that is now the norm. You see this everywhere. You may, and even if you don’t know an artist’s name, like we use say like Cheyenne artist or someone may say unrecorded Cheyenne artist or something along those lines, putting the burden on the collector and the people who traded in the material who were at fault for not maintaining the cultural knowledge of who actually made something. But just to see even just like the identity and names. Gregg, you often talk about how, or go ahead and talk more about, but like, you know, when Columbus came over, we know Columbus’s name, but we don’t know, not most people don’t know the name of the people he met much less the actual physical person that he was in charge.
– [Gregg] Right.
– Like why don’t we know those kind of things?
– Right. Yeah when I had my residency at the Denver Art Museum in 2015, that one little thing in the gallery blew me away. Like, it just didn’t even dawn on me. Like we know that the past, the present, and the future for our people all exist in the same space. That there is no definition between those things. There isn’t old and new. There just is. And you presented in a western art museum a way that a viewer doesn’t have to be told that this is it, but that they can see by presentation that that’s what it is. That you can see a modern potter next to a piece of pottery from, the mid 1800s and that they’re sharing space together as they should be. And that seems like a simple thing, but it is incredibly powerful. And that always struck me, you know, ’cause I wanna be mad at the Western institution. But then you’re doing something right and I’m like, well damn it, you know, like… But what a good object lesson for something that is simple. Like and this is where those blind spots come in, right? Because there’s these things that exist that are very simple to us that we understand. We understand that these things take up the same space. How do we explain that nuance to somebody else in the Denver Art Museum figured it out with that one small thing.
– One of the most insidious problems is the presentation of static culture. I mean, the fact that you use a stereotypical plains, male warrior outfit in your performance is when your tribe didn’t wear anything like that. Just to reiterate that the notion, the image that most people have in America of native people is of this like male plains warrior from the 1870s, 1880s, like kind of this moment in time. When in reality, like what we try to do in our galleries is we don’t separate historical and contemporary arts because we show the continuum of artistic production. And by doing so, you show not only that artists are still producing and by extension indigenous people still exist, but you also, the contemporary art can, well the historical arts can sometimes contextualize the contemporary art, but the contemporary art also helps to activate the historical arts in ways that museums are always struggling to make historical works meaningful to people’s lives today. And by merging the two, you actually expand the dialogue in the conversation to allow for people to understand more of a, not just in depth time, but also this very contemporary aspect of indigenous experience.
– Which you guys are doing.
– Yes. Yeah well and I mean, I was thinking about that. We’ve got artists up here, we’ve got a curator from an art museum. Of course C.J. and I are both from the history realm, and in fact C.J. has Gregg Deal’s show at her museum right now. I think there is a place though, regardless of what kind of institution, if your history, if you’re science, if you’re art, if you’re a zoo, if you’re a garden, there is a role for contemporary indigenous art in storytelling. It isn’t just around belonging historic belongings. There’s something important about the current storytelling that sometimes feels like can only be done through contemporary art. The two artists here, you wanna speak to that Virgil, you wanna.
– I mean, just being able to talk with students and get that and they’re used to seeing this and using social networks, I mean that helps a lot. And once you’re interacting with them, they get it and they feel comfortable. So I think that’s the part where I enjoy most, I learn a lot from the students when the workshops that I do. I know I’m teaching them something, but I’m learning a lot more than they are I think. But just to have that trust again and like open up the conversation and just be really comfortable with everybody. And that’s how I hope like people view the exhibition at HC. So you’re able to really, and now like interact with the pieces because like when I did work with , in Santa Fe, I was forced to think of how the public will interact with it, like selfies or even like touching the pieces and stuff. ‘Cause normally all of the pieces are behind the trees, right? So now to have the a more an experience where you’re interacting with it. And I think that, I mean, watching all the kids that were at the opening was really awesome too. I mean, had their attention, they loved the mapping projection room and all. But.
– Yeah, so art becomes a better way for people to engage in maybe even difficult material like the Pueblo, you know, the aftermath of the Pueblo Revolt. Your piece in Longmont telling the story of Indian boarding schools, you know, sometimes art becomes a better way to articulate the horrors of these sorts of chapters.
– Yeah well it’s interesting too because I’ve been asked like, “Oh, your work, you’re trying to like educate.” Like I’m not trying to educate anybody. These are stories, these are histories that are just a part of who we are. And as we speak, as we make, as we create, they are articulated through these mediums. It’s not my goal to speak ever for Indian country. I speak for myself. If someone resonates with that, like I accept that as part of the work. And it really comes down to, you know, even beyond work shopping. And I wouldn’t even consider myself really to be a street artist. But like the thing that draws me to the model is accessibility. Because what it creates is it puts something in the most democratic way in public and you can see it and you can access it and that rabbit hole can get you through the door of a museum as you ask more questions. But it’s not, it ends up not really being about me teaching somebody something. It becomes about seeing what’s possible. The mural that’s in Colorado Springs, I think is a great example of that because Sage is the subject, my oldest and the hand print on their face is something that’s really important, especially just in talking about missing and murdered indigenous relatives. And I found out that one of our state senators saw that didn’t know anything about it, looked it up, Googled it themselves, nobody told him, Googled it, educated himself and ended up becoming a proponent of legislation in the state of Colorado to create more resources for missing and murdered indigenous relatives. These things have power because they exist, not because I’m telling you what’s what, but because they exist. And so that presence ends up I think, being just a really important part of that. But that’s complicated, right? Because you wanna get people in the doors, you wanna sell tickets, you wanna make sure your gift shop is, you know, moving stuff, and there’s all these different components to it, but it ends up being about convincing the masses, convincing any power structure that our work has inherent value even if you can’t touch it.
– Gregg, one thing you said in there about how you speak for yourself, that’s something that all of us need to understand is that you can always find someone who will support the narrative that you’ve already pre-established.
– [Dawn] Yes.
– But that doesn’t necessarily mean it speaks for everyone. ‘Cause no one can speak for their entire people with 574 federally recognized tribes in the US and another 600 plus in Canada and all the state recognized tribes. You’re never going to find consensus, but you can always find someone to support your pre-established narrative. So to recognize that people that you work with are only speaking for themselves and can bring your messages to their community and they can bring feedback back, that’s something really too important because you can’t just assume that someone can speak for all of Native North America.
– Yes, amen. So I was way too involved in this conversation that I did not elegantly find a way to wrap this up. But we are unfortunately out of time, couldn’t you spend all day having this conversation with these great folks? So that concludes our conversation. But I know these great artists and curators will be here for the duration and we look forward to communicating with all of you.
– [Announcer] Thank you for joining us for this morning’s keynote and panel discussion.