Left: Unidentified Hopi carver. Mickey Mouse katsina (kachina/tithu), 1940s, Cottonwood root, acrylic paint, feathers, string; Right: Juanita (Asdzáá Tł’ogi), Diné (Navajo), Loom with Textile, 1874. Wool yarn, wooden rods

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. “Remixing,” meaning repurposing, sampling, editing, cutting up, becomes a technology of survivance.

Double Agents

“Program or be programmed,” as media theorist Douglas Rushkoff puts it, and one striking example of this native remixing is the Mickey Mouse kachina that became popular in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. This kachina is actually the ancient Hopi mouse hero Tusan Homichi dressed up as Mickey Mouse. He is famous for saving his friends and family from a vicious hawk. Now his black and white war paint helps him become Mickey Mouse, a popular symbol for America and its dream.

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 brown mouse is up against a humongous white hawk. It’s an old story, 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.

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.

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.

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.”

Another great hybrid art object and “strange tool” is this tapestry created by Juanita (Navajo, 1845–1910). Read more about it here.

Painter and Professor of Art