Part 1: Remixing
Indigenous American artists are in a particularly privileged position to spot the various effects of colonialism and U.S. Empire, and we find this especially true when surveying contemporary indigenous pop art.
Pop artists like to remix imagery from the dominant culture, but what does it mean when indigenous artists do this? There are many reasons artists remix information, but for this essay, I will focus on the work by anti-colonial Native Pop artists, specifically those that remix the American flag. The central metaphor here is “remixing,” meaning repurposing, sampling, cutting up, and remaking. As we see in the examples above, in some cases indigenous artists create by taking material from the contemporary world–a tennis shoe, a highway sign, or baseball cap–and “indigenizing” it. This is done in stereotypical ways, but often by owning the stereotypes: Brian Jungen skins Nike shoes and adds long black hair to make bird masks; James Luna indigenizes a MAGA hat by adding beads, feathers, and an apparent mis-spelling. (It’s the German spelling of America, and on a hat that already symbolizes white supremacy to many people, the comical “K” communicates many things at once.)
Indigenizing is also done in non-stereotypical ways. Take for example New York Purchased, Stolen, Reclaimed (1986), where Edgar Heap-of-Birds remixes the signs of the state, the literal state highway signs, with questions from Indian Country. He often says that street signs connote settler authority, and we read and trust them automatically, without thinking. The artist subverts that authority and trust by turning a sign about distance into a sign about resistance. There is nothing around that says this object isn’t “real,” or that it is installation art. It totally fits in! I asked Heap-of-Birds where he fabricated New York Purchased, Stolen, Reclaimed, and he told me the name of the manufacturer, and then chuckled that the same company manufactures the actual New York state highway signs. “They are almost completely identical.”
What did Picasso and Steve Jobs say? “Good artists copy, but great artists steal.” This approach to art-making and information sharing is rampant across creative platforms, now more than ever, which is why our culture has been unofficially dubbed remix culture (with a complimentary remix studies). We are “a society that allows and encourages derivative works by combining or editing existing materials to produce new products.” In his book, Remix Culture, Harvard Law professor and founder of the Creative Commons, Lawrence Lessig, relates this historical phase to the evolution of computer file sharing permissions. He says there are generally two types of files: Read Only (RO) and Read/Write (RW), and we are currently watching the older form shift into the newer as more people learn to program and become producers.
“Program or be programmed,” as media theorist Douglas Rushkoff puts it, and it appears this metaphor of sharing permissions is extremely useful when looking at Indigenous art from all over the world. Colonized people repurpose and remix the dominant culture’s materials in order to read/write them, rewrite them, and resist them. A counter-intuitive Aikido move using the power of the opponent against them, remixing also becomes a way to exercise some degree of agency and autonomy–to experience something other than “read-only.”
This is one reason multi-racial artist Merritt Johnson says she remixes objects from the dominant culture. Last month, Johnson released a new installment of her Exorcizing America DIY video series on youtube. Her calming voice describes exactly how to make a ladder out of an American flag, in both English and Spanish. Although they are released on the most popular video platform of all time, Johnson’s videos also play in art museums and prominent art galleries.
You can see one at the Nerman Museum in Kansas City right now. I asked Johnson why she remixes the flag specifically, and she made some really important points we should take time to understand:
“The US flag has been used as a symbol of settler claim, ownership and to assert the sovereignty of a settler government on Indigenous land. It’s present at borders and federal and state buildings and parks as a reminder that there is no public land, there is no acknowledgment of Indigenous connection to land alongside the US Flag, as many Indigenous nations have flags. So to make the flag into something that functions to oppose the power and sovereignty of US border enforcement makes sense to me. It’s a simple action, and it’s a form of creation through destruction which is sometimes necessary, it connects to so much of life and survival in terms of how energy is converted and how living things survive. Remixing is a form of agency as well, it makes space for multiplicity and intersectionality of voices and experiences.”
Through remixing, colonized people can encode their own histories into the dominant symbols, thus ensuring their survival. Dominant symbols, after all, have incredible staying power.
One striking example of this are the Mickey Mouse kachinas that were popular in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. This kachina, who is actually the ancient Hopi mouse hero Tusan Homichi dressed up as Mickey Mouse, is famous for saving his friends and family from a vicious hawk. Now his black and white war paint helps him become Mickey Mouse to fight colonialism, and the visual punning, or rhyming, or pinging opens up a window of hyperlinks into another world brimming with power, humor, darkness, survivance, and transmotion.
The large energizes the little as the atmosphere energizes the flame. After Mickey Mouse formally entered our collective consciousness in the late 1920s, his popularity helped sell more Hopi kachinas, aiding the survival of the artists and their families. But which is the large and which is the little; which is the atmosphere and which is the flame? Perhaps Mickey Mouse took off so fast in this country because we already had the older, larger Tusan Homichi whistling and dancing in our subconscious. Similarly, Art Deco took off so fast in the 1920s because U.S. Americans were already deep in the throws of Canastromania. Let’s remember that Walt Disney collected Native American baskets, paintings, and kachinas, and his love of Studio Style deer paintings led to the creation of one of his most famous works: Bambi.
The story of Tusan Homichi, the plucky “dirty rodent,” echoes the Hopi’s fight against the United States government: A little mouse is up against a humongous hawk. It’s David and Goliath, where the underdog wins not only by collaborating with the natural world but also by using their opponent’s gifts against them. The hawk is so large, so fast, and so confident, that he impales himself onto a hidden spear the mouse set up in the ground beforehand.
It’s important to note that hybrid and remixed native American art objects are not so much “collaborations” between two worlds, because lopsided power-relations don’t create an environment suitable for real collaboration. Hybridity here is more of a technology of survival and resistance; a strategy of survivance.
Through a visual mashup, a settler colonial symbol now reminds Hopi people of their own stories and spirituality, of their own strengths, and of home.
Hybrid, multiculturally encoded (and actively encoding) objects like the Mickey Mouse kachina are sometimes called “double objects,” like double agents, since they come from different cultures and can speak different languages. Our Lady of Guadalupe may be another example of a double agent. Arguably the most distributed image of all time, on one level she represents the quickest way to convert or assimilate a people: make the new God look like them so they can relate to it. But on another level, she represents the best way to stay connected to your indigenous roots in the face of genocide: make the new God look like you, so you are continually reminded of your own people. Is Mother Mary dressed up as a Native American, or is a Native American dressed up as Mother Mary? Or both!? Neither? Is this an entirely new, hybrid being? Which of the two cultures actually started the story of the Lady of Guadalupe doesn’t really matter, either. It was picked up and spread like a meme, like new technology, like medicine, maybe even like armor. We should remember that art and armor, arsenal, arms, and artillery are all etymologically related to the Latin root, “ars.”
There are Native American Mickey Mice, Native American Mothers of Christ, and now let’s look at Native American American Flags and how they too are agents of resistance.
Textile scholar Kate Kent calls this 19th century Navajo weaving one of the first woven pictorials. It’s not a flag; it’s a picture of a flag. Purposefully incomplete, we get to see its guts, and while half of the textile depicts a version of the American flag, the other half is a kind of “eye-dazzler,” so named for its brilliant colors and patterns. The glitches and stripes at the top reflect and integrate the bottom, and the visual glitching in the stars is oddly contemporary. This is “art for art’s sake,” meant to be displayed on a wall, not just as curio but also as conversation piece.
To the initiated, this isn’t just an American flag. Those crosses, for example, are not just “stars,” but are also symbols for the four holy mountains which demarcate the Navajo homeland, Diné Bikéyah. The cross also signifies the four directions and four holy winds, which are gods, and it is a reminder of the four worlds that emerge and unfold into ours. Navajo crosses also connote the important “whirling logs” story. Some of them are separated from their canton, forming a constellation that could be Cassiopeia, the great mother, but it could also be the tale of Scorpio or the Navajo rabbit. Also, those stripes harken back to the first-phase chief blankets. Stripes signified wisdom and power already. Like stars and crosses, they are much older than the American flag.
Each five-pointed star in the US flag symbolizes something else as well: a state in the Union. The Kansas State motto, Ad Astra per Aspera, To The Stars Through Difficulty, really meant To The Union Through Difficulty. Jenny Anne Chapoose Tylor cuts to the chase in her beaded flag, “Nations,” and literally depicts them as state abbreviations sandwiched between the years they entered the Union. Within the sky field we can read the Pledge of Allegiance and also these two indigenous prayers:
“Some day the earth will weep, she will beg for her life, she will cry with tears of blood. You will make a choice, if you will help her or let her die. And when she dies, you too will die.” John Hollow Horn, Oglala Lakota, 1932
“We are born free and united brothers, each as much a lord as the other. . . . I am the first and last of my nation . . . subject only to the Great Spirit. . . .” Huron, 1693
The blood red and bone white stripes are filled with the names of 456 tribes, similar perhaps to how the stripes in the Flag of Honor are filled with the names of victims of 9–11.
Teacher, artist, poet and blogger Velma Craig indigenizes the flag by changing the materials and by subverting the symbols to reflect important indigenous issues. She lives near Pheonix, Arizona, and says: “For the “stars” portion of my American flag, I duplicated a QR code off of a sign posted in the front yard of a home in my neighborhood that was currently in foreclosure.” (Foreclosure itself was arguably invented by the United States as a way to deal with the indigenous people. Other western nations don’t allow it). Craig says weaving is an important way to work through grief, and that the act of weaving is a “continual prayer.”
Beading and Weaving the Flag
The tradition of beading and weaving the American flag goes back at least to the mid 19th century, and by exploring the range of possible motives underlying the paradoxical use of flag imagery by oppressed peoples during this period, we get a glimpse at the complicated reasons for incorporating other non-native imagery in Native American art today.
Remixing the flag was not a geographically isolated practice. We see northeastern tribes like the Iroquois and Blackfoot selling flag whimsies to tourists at Niagara Falls–little keychains and ornaments–and we see Navajo and other tribes of the Southwest weaving flags or embellishing objects with flags to sell to white tourists. Some Navajo rugs, meant for the floor, were woven to look exactly like American flags, and people would walk on them! When does representation become presentation? When does the sign become the signified? With flags, it’s really hard to tell.
The Lakota Flag Mystery
Native artisans knew very well that European Americans loved their flags, and even worshiped them as magical objects, so the stars and stripes were used to sell whimsies and folk art. This isn’t strange; it’s just smart. The mystery in our story is the fact that some Plains Indian tribes didn’t sell their flag-embellished art objects to outsiders at all, and instead used them internally as part of their sacred, tribal arts.
Lakota mocassins, tobacco bags, vests, masks, cradleboards, bridal ornaments, …they didn’t sell them, and in fact, due to stereotypes promoted by Buffalo Bill Wild West shows which often featured Lakota people, serious collectors wanted “authentic” art from Plains Indians, the “real” American Indians–they wanted art uncontaminated by western symbols and signs. Yet, the Lakota produced more goods embellished with flags than all other tribes put together, with no economic incentive, and therefore they present a theory of iconography that will help confuse our understanding of the Native American art of “sampling the world.”
I find it perplexing that any tribe would adopt the use of the American flag, considering the government’s history of genocide, violence, and oppression towards them. I imagine it’s like a Jewish artist deciding to make swastika artwork for themselves or to sell to the Nazis, right? Given the horrors that flag represents, why would any native artist embroider it onto their sacred art objects?
These look like American Flags, but they aren’t, are they? We see the wrong number of stripes and stars, or the wrong colors. They’re “almost the same but not quite,” to use postcolonial theorist Homi Bhaba’s phrase. And it’s in this “not quite,” that we can and should read parodic maniacal rebellion. It’s an example of his idea of “strategic failure,” a strategy or technology of survivance employed by colonized people so that “mimicry is at once resemblance and menace.” In his 1994 book The Location Of Culture, Bhabha points out that colonized people all over the world will mimic the dominant culture to fit in (the camouflage helps disarm racist aggression), and they wear and display the dominant culture’s symbols ironically, to “own” them, if you will, (to exercise their right to read/write file sharing). Remixing helps indigenous people live in a liminal, fugitive place, between mimicry and mockery, between assimilation and resistance.
Stars as Crosses
Indigenous artists remix flags to blend in, to parody, and also to indigenize: They replace colonial materials and symbols with similar indigenous ones, whenever possible. Most obvious, in the case of the Lakota U.S. Flag, is the representation of the stars as crosses. For the Lakota, the polysemous cross represents the quadripartite divisions of everything: the four directions, the four seasons, the four basic elements, the four colors, as well as the medicine wheel. The cross also points to the center of the universe, the Black Hills, and to the morning star, which is addressed in prayer, in vision quests and other religious ceremonies. It’s the tiny light that heralds the larger dawn. As Venus, the cross may also symbolize White Buffalo Calf Woman (Ptastah-wi) who is an important figure in Lakota history. She appears in the sky and gifts culture to the world in the form of the chanupa or eucharistic pipe. One of my Lakota students pointed out that the popular image of White Buffalo Calf Woman standing upright and offering the long, horizontal pipe makes a cross. The cross also represents the horizon, the above and the below, the union of heaven and earth, the “red road” and the “black road,” and other culturally specific ideas.
As a way to fit in and to stand out. We see this also in the emergence of Great Lakes “floral style” embroidering patterns originally taught at the mission schools. Even entire dress designs that might appear very “colonial,” like the Cherokee tear dress, are “almost the same but not quite.” (See “Hybridity as a strategy for self-determination” by Sherry Fowler.)
Not All Natives
Let’s note that not all Plains Indians used flag imagery in their artwork. Some refused to, so the meaning of the flag is entangled with the meaning of its absence elsewhere. The Lakota’s neighbors, the Crow, with whom they shared so much material culture, produced no American flag artworks. Not one. It’s worth noting that the Crow were a nation that decided to fight with the American government, against their plains Indian neighbors. (Adapt or die, presence over absence, a strategy of survival, no judging). Maybe withholding flag imagery was a way of distinguishing themselves from the Settler Americans, as if saying “We will fight with you, but we will never wear your flag.” Or maybe it was a way to distinguish themselves from the Lakota, Arapaho, and Cheyanne tribes that embellished their artworks with flag imagery. We saw Crow representatives on the news just a few months ago, standing in their own headdresses behind President Trump at some political rally. None of my native students were surprised with that viral image. “What do you expect? They’re Crows.”
Flags also represent power. Artist Marcus Amerman (Choctaw) remixes vintage American hubcaps to make American Indian-style war shields. To the hubcaps he attaches feathers, torn flags, buttons and other samples that he finds around his home in Kooskia, Idaho. He says that the shields, like the rest of his art, aim to “bust stereotypes and mirror society itself.” Shields are made from the hubcaps of classic cars and are “sort of an Indian Mad Max.” The series of shields create “little totems of power.” Amerman says he often “feeds on the world” for artistic inspiration, but with an homage to the timeless legacy of pre-contact native expression.
In late 19th century America, there was still magic power in scalps, and animal skins, in hair, in blood, in placentas, and there was magic, real spiritual, sympathetic magic in flags. As sacrilege as European soldiers and white people appeared, they sure treated that brightly colored fabric with reverence and respect, like it was a living being, or a Native American power object.
Pledging allegiance to the flag is sort of like crossing your heart to a crucifix, or like gazing starry-eyed at a religious icon. Cultural historian Peter Sloterdjik thinks our nationalist flag cults today may derive from the ancient Egyptian ritual of parading the Pharaoh’s mummified placenta ahead of the ruler in procession. I think this cultural-historical connection is especially interesting right now, considering the rise of militant pro-life movements. We should note what Yale historian Harold Bloom observed in his 1992 study of United States religion, that the central symbols of our national theology are the flag and the fetus. As the “secular” crucifix and Christ-child, flag and fetus blend together and become one.
Another example of the important supernatural power of American flags is that they are included in some Pawnee bundles. The most famous and closest is the Pawnee bundle donated by a tribal member to the Kansas Historical Society to be preserved at the Pawnee Indian Museum State Historic Site. When x-rayed, this bundle was found to contain tiny American flags among many other sacred objects.
Multi-racial Athapascan artist Erica Lord interestingly continues this Pawnee tradition of flag-bundles in her “American Land Reclamation Project.” An ongoing project, it is an installation that explores the repetition of broken treaty agreements in US-American history. Using only the red stripes from the flag, the blood, Lord creates one prayer tie for each of these broken treaties and suspends them from the ceiling with sinew. Commonly, prayer ties are filled with tobacco, and for many indigenous traditions, tying knots is a kind of praying used for healing. Lord’s bundles are filled with dirt from reservations and tribal lands, and she installed mirrors on the ceiling, walls, and floor of the square room to further multiply the prayer ties.
I am reminded of Merritt Johnson’s ladder project, “a form of creation through destruction,” and also the Equal Justice Initiative Community Remembrance Project: a collection of glass jars filled with soil from the base of the trees where black men were lynched throughout the United States.
In some cases, the flag could indicate that the owner of the jacket, bag, or horse fought against and killed U.S. soldiers. Lakota artisans may have employed flag imagery as code–one hidden to whites but known to them–for recalling and celebrating victorious military actions against U.S. soldiers. The native men that specifically killed the 7th cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn needed to keep that a secret from revengeful settlers.
In this way, the American flag signaled anti-American, anti-colonial activism. The Lakota, the Great Sioux Nation, is the only nation to defeat the U.S. army, twice, and the flag is a reminder of their victory. After Custer was killed, and the cavalry was defeated at the Battle of Little Big Horn (exactly 100 years after the signing of the declaration of independence–can you image the centennial celebrations and flag use around this time?), the magic of the flag would flow into Lakota bodies, through moccasins and vests and tobacco bags, to remind everyone that the Lakota earned these stars and stripes on the battlefield. There are stories of warriors that used American flags to count coup, and one of my Lakota students even compared taking the flag to scalping. “Capturing the flag is like capturing a scalp.”
(By the way, Europeans probably introduced scalping to the Americas. We have early colonial accounts, especially from the Dutch and New England colonies, where a bounty was offered for Indian scalps. Mexico would famously call for Apache scalps, offering 100$ a pop.)
According to Lynn Burnette, Lakota artist and founder of the National Native American War Memorial project, Sioux warriors made a deliberate practice of capturing flags whenever the opportunity arose. After defeating a cavalry unit, warriors reportedly “took the flags and wrapped themselves in the colors.” In doing so, Burnette says, they were trying to “take the power of the United States, put it on themselves, and then use the power against their enemies.”
Flag Codes and Dances
Natives would have seen Euro-American flag protocols and taboos and understood the flag as some kind of powerful medicine, similar to the pipe, bundle, headdress, and drum. And who’s to say it wasn’t? American Flags are surrounded by extensive taboos, supernaturally, and outsiders may appreciate the robotic dance with the colorful fabric as a sort of mysterious cultural dance. I know sometimes at funerals when Taps is played and that red and white bundle is opened like a butterfly, shaken out, and then closed and returned to its fetal, triangular position, I feel some kind of poetic reenactment is going on.
Just like the placenta, flags are received with reverence, even numinous awe, and they are protected by a dozen or so magic protocols. What are some of them? (a)The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property. (b)The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise. (g)The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature. (h)The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything. (i)The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown. (j)No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart. (k)The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.
Indigenous Americans witnessed that the flag was treated as a living thing; was buried or ritually burned upon retirement like a person; was folded carefully and touched only by certain people; was presented at important moments and hosted events like a secular Eucharist.
Perhaps most intriguing is the frequency with which inverted flags appear in Plains Indian art and elsewhere. Many of these “errors” were probably not accidental. Some scholars assert that by inverting the flag, artisans were referring to Sitting Bull’s vision of an upside-down solder that foretold of Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn. The Lakota knew that “The day could not be far distant when soldiers would fall upside down into the village.” Upside down flags are also drawn in ledger accounts of the battle. We know that the U.S. soldiers would not have had time to actually flip their guidons to communicate to the Indians or to God “distress,” so the artists did it for them.
During the reservation era (around 1890–1910), the sacred flag served as a reminder of Little Big Horn, of victory over the US government, and as power object. Then, from 1917 to about 1970, the flag came to represent a couple more things: Native American veterans, and AIM’s anti-colonial activism. With the U.S.’s entry in World War I in 1917, Native peoples had a legitimate venue for exercising their warrior heritage. They weren’t fighting for the US army so much as they were fighting for their people, for their land, for their honor. Now, US flags are presented to veterans and constitute a deeply personal and highly valued affirmation of one’s status as an Indigenous warrior. The flag may even be analogous to eagle feathers or tattoos that were formerly worn to commemorate an individual’s battle exploits.
Then, in the late 1960s, when our United States’ attention shifted from Asia to back home, we see the emergence of AIM within anti-colonial activism; we see the flag take on yet another role.
AIM, who occupied Alcatraz in 1969, who occupied Wounded Knee in 1972, who infiltrated the Bureau of Indian Affairs to uncover documents that recorded how from 1973 to 1976 more than 3,400 indigenous women in the care of the U.S. Indian Health Service were sterilized without their consent, AIM, Red Power…ever since they began using the flag upside down, sometimes with the solidarity fist superimposed, there has been a pan-Indian coalition of resistance inherent in American flag imagery.
Performer Laura Ortman with The New Red Order plays in front of a projection of an upside down US flag, like a curtain or backdrop, which, remember, is a sanctioned symbol of distress. We see it also powerfully take up the entire screen at the end of Spike Lee’s film, BlacKkKlansman. It shifts from color to black and white.
The New Red Order enlists a rotating cast of “Informants,” including Erica Lord, and uses video and performance to create “a site of acknowledgment, savage pronouncements, calling out, calling in, recruitment, and cumulative interrogation to shift potential obstructions to Indigenous growth.” Their name isn’t just a nod to the mythical “New World Order,” but is a reaction to, or in contradistinction to the Improved Order of Red Men, a secret society and the oldest fraternal organization in the US; a group of men who play Indian.
In this painting by Harry Fonseca, Coyote takes the stage as Uncle Sam. Fonseca presents him as an actor and as an emblematic government figure. The glittering gold frame resembles frames used on Renaissance and baroque paintings — a reference to art history.
As part of his “future ancestral technologies,” Cannupa Hanska Luger dresses in reimagined native regalia. Here we see the flag expelled from his body, and when I asked him why he presented the flag this way, he smiled and said: “I wanted to treat it like vomit.” We see how remixed objects become a place of unexpected encounters, or, as Joe Baker says in Remix: New Modernities in a Post-indian World, “a space in between the expected.”
India-Indian artist Annu Palakunnathu Matthew photoshops herself into 19th-century American photography. Wrapped in an American flag-patterned Indian sari, the artist mirrors the image on the left, taken during the 1913 Wanamaker Expedition (which, just like Edward Curtis’s project, documented Indigenous Americans as a “vanishing race.”) The photographer and Baptist preacher, Joseph K. Dixon, whose book was called, “The Vanishing Race,” did not acknowledge the name or ethnic group of his subjects. We see this kind of anonymity in Curtis’s photographs and in objects like the Indian Head penny. This effort to save and “capture” the Native Americans just added to their erasure.
Matthew, born in India and currently a professor at the University of Rhode Island, says, “As an immigrant, I am often questioned about where I am ‘really from.’ When I say that I am Indian, I often have to clarify that I am an Indian from India. In this portfolio, I look at the other ‘Indian’. I find similarities in how Nineteenth-century photographers of Native Americans looked at what they called the primitive natives, similar to the colonial gaze of the Nineteenth century British photographers working in India. In every culture, there is the ‘other.’”
This essay was originally presented at Highland Community College as part of a STEAM Social Justice series, March 4, 2019, funded by Kansas Humanities.
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