As ordinary human beings, we live in duality, multiplicity and paradox. In the United States, people of white and European descent constitute the dominant culture, and this domination is based on a history of repression and genocide of indigenous peoples. But although genocidal tactics and attempts at cultural erasure continue today — through government and individuals — Native Americans are far from gone. There are 6,4 million in the United States, representing 574 tribes, and many more belonging to groups not recognized by the federal government. Yet I find in conversations with North American and European Buddhists that there is sometimes unawareness, ignorance and even disinterest in the original peoples of North America.
In the mainstream culture, discrimination, continued cultural appropriation, and violence against Native Americans persists, especially women and children. It is imperative to reverse these trends, which can only happen through the empowerment of Indigenous peoples and an honest assessment of the history of oppression in the United States. The expressive arts are a form of agency and voice for Indigenous artists. Art has power!
Allying with Native Americans to support their well-being – as they see it – is a key point of activism and compassion in action. On this continent, we live with the duality of who we are now, who our white ancestors were, and the complex impact that has on Indigenous cultures. Indigenous peoples, both individually and collectively, were hard hit by European colonization of North America. One way, among others, to address this fact is to educate ourselves and support the arts as meaningful expressions of historically oppressed people.
Since living in Boulder, Colorado, I have had the great good fortune to encounter the art of Gregg Deal, a prolific multimedia artist who, in his own words, "honors Indigenous experiences, challenges stereotypes, and push for accurate depictions of Indigenous peoples in art. Deal, from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Nation in Utah, uses multiple languages for self-preservation and self-expression. Deal expresses herself as a contemporary artist through the "voice" of painting, sculpture, film, photography, found object art and her literal voice (storytelling, storytelling, TEDx talks ):
Deal's work is influenced by his Indigenous identity and includes extensive critiques of American society, politics, popular culture, and history. Through paintings, murals, performances, films, spoken word, and more, Deal invites the viewer to confront these issues in both the present and the past.
The last sentence is the most appropriate, present and past. I find that his work sparks a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions that make me ask more questions – about myself and our culture – and make me want more: more immersion, more education and more. exposure to Indigenous voices through the arts. Deal's work also leaves me asking questions about the future and what it holds for healing, deeper expression, and that healing means different things to each of us.
Deal curated a recent group exhibition at the Longmont Museum titled Duality, bringing together diverse voices of Indigenous artists working in many styles and media, traditional and modern. This exhibition stages resilience, rupture, tension, truth, beauty, paradox. As an educator, I really enjoyed the Connected Exhibit of Denver-area student artwork in which Indigenous children express themselves: their pain, their confusion, their celebration, their anger, their resilience, their grief and their challenge to erasure and discrimination.
For two years I worked for a small non-profit organization that supported Standing Rock's efforts to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that runs through the Standing Rock Sioux Nation. The DAPL continues to threaten to interfere with tribal sovereignty, their health, and their rights to land and water. This experience was a revelation for me. It is a privilege to support these efforts, which continue, not just in the Dakotas, but in so many places across the United States, where various oil and gas pipelines and projects denigrate and destroy Indigenous peoples and lands.
Partly because I have lived in New Mexico as an artist and educator and have been exposed to a multitude of Indigenous art forms, it is impossible for me to ignore the vitality of art American Indian. Music, visual arts, performance art, sculpture, mixed media, spoken word, writing, or hard-to-categorize arts are not just expressions of Indigenous peoples, but a mode of cultural survival and non-erasure. Art is its own kind of language, and language is essential to cultural and personal preservation. Indigenous languages are also essential for survival and thriving, and for this reason many tribal nations strive to preserve their languages, in schools and in digital tool formats – dictionaries, histories, databases. data, curricula, collection/documentation of oral histories. Much of the work in Duality joined traditional methods and modern styles and materials in exciting, moving and innovative ways.
I had the pleasure of viewing one of Gregg's ongoing murals in Boulder, Colorado, and saw his work in Santa Fe, Denver, and Longmont, Colorado. His films and performances, visible online, have an incredible impact. He works with elements ranging from pop culture to comics, film, photography, punk rock, sculpture, painting, mixed media and printmaking to reclaim the negative images of our culture. ongoing collective colonialism based on the denigration of indigenous peoples. Deal's live work sometimes conveys fear, rage and grief, as well as joy, humor and complexity, which I imagine is rather exhausting for an artist to embody. The material is vulnerable and very authentic. Deal's art has real impact and enriches our world.
As a white Westerner, doing the work of confronting racism, prejudice, and violence in the United States is necessary spiritual work. The more I learn and unlearn, the more there is to learn/unlearn. Although art is symbolic/metaphorical/dreamlike, it is also a more direct language to the heart and mind than conversation. The misrepresentation and erasure of Native America from our school curricula is sadly familiar. I grew up with the mythical tale of "Friendly Pilgrims and Indians" in Massachusetts. Becoming a teacher meant studying and redeveloping programs for students that were more inclusive and honest – work that continues to this day. With a conservative and ignorant backlash, we now see inclusive and accurate curricula themselves a battleground of information (mis) in courts and school boards. This too greatly affects the well-being of Aboriginal students.
Gregg Deal's art goes straight to the heart of the matter with pathos and humor. Much of his art conveys the brutality of what it is like to live under the constant threat of belittlement, aggressive behavior and violence, while forcing the viewer to do more. The work is intense, but one is drawn into it, a marker of great art. In his TEDx talks, films and other video projects, Deal strongly challenges the viewer to stay in touch with him. He has a way through his own presence, voice and expression to engender empathy even alongside difficult topics. There are many layers to his film The Last American Indian, which documents the reactions of others as he walks around Washington, D.C., in stereotypical "Indian" attire. The reactions range from awkward and disconcerting to downright absurd, heartbreaking and deeply disturbing. The average American just doesn't know what to do when meeting a "real" (or "fake") Indian, but seems to think he knows what qualifies and finds ways to dominate, erase, to degrade or deny.
Deal gives viewers the same dignity anyone would want and lets the works speak for themselves. Even his bold cartoon-based paintings are and aren't pushing a point like a hammer on a nailhead. Deal's work is detailed and well crafted, with vibrant colors and beautiful design, layered with meaning and messages. Even with his static art, there is a conversation developing, showing the complexity and maturity of his art. Deal's art looks back to the present, et forward, leaving as many questions to ponder as “a-ha” moments to live, and leaves one wondering how these questions will evolve, be resolved, change or stagnate?
In my opinion, awareness + empathy = compassionate action. Without action, we are part of the problem. Yet to take action, we need to understand a problem, empathize with those who are harmed, and even those who abuse it, while preventing further harm. Especially if we have a part in evil. Watching yourself is the hardest and most necessary work.
We hear a lot about truth and reconciliation commissions, but there has to be listening and acknowledgment before reconciliation or healing can begin. It is also committed Buddhism: to engage with the world as it is and to walk towards suffering with an open heart, if we intend to respect our vow that the path is for the liberation of all sentient beings, not just the privileged or dominant. Liberation begins with the willingness to listen, to feel discomfort, to continue to listen, to dialogue, to show respect and care, to do the hard work of examining ourselves, past and here. Then to act for the welfare and welfare of those in distress, or to whom reparations are owed. Let this then be our meditation in action, the focal point of a spiritual life.