What is (Native) cultural authenticity?
Within the context of the curatorial world you frequently encounter questions of what defines cultural authenticity. In art emerging from cultures that are foreign to most people, in this case the hundreds of nations that constitute American Indian culture, this question can be complicated. In the course of my work as an agent (and personally), I have both intuitive and explicit standards that I hold people to with regards to Native authenticity. This guides me regarding the people that I represent and people that I refer others to. This is the process that I have developed after much thought and reflection from friends, colleagues and elders that I have connected with over the years.
First, when I encounter anyone who claims enrollment or ancestry, I listen to their story.
This is the most important. How do they characterize their connection to their Native ancestry? What do they have to say about their family? Their Tribe? Their culture? How do they stay connected? In my opinion the connection starts culturally and that is just as important to factors such as blood quantum. If someone starts talking about a distant ancestor who may have been “Native American” and they don’t have a tribe, this sends up a yellow flag for me. If they can mention the tribe but not tell me anything about it, this is also a yellow flag. The key for me (and I am only speaking for myself) is connection to culture. Even in an era where tribes were scattered (google Native American Relocation Act of 1956), you still end up connecting to your Indigenous culture in a myriad of different ways. Many of my friends connect through elders of tribes that are not their own (and this is good), as urban Native community is formed from dozens of tribes, cultures and traditions and many Native youth are raised in adoption (a direct result from hundreds of years of genocidal policy by the US government). To me, Tribal identity is as much connection to community and culture as it is blood – although both are essential. This is why genetic testing for Native DNA is so problematic. The first peoples of this land are more than bloodlines – we are distinct cultures with rich and ancient traditions. Connection with the culture is important.
My next step is pretty simple. All art made by a person who passes the first test, to me at least, is authentic and is ‘Native art’. The influence of culture, if the person has a connection to it, will come through in subtle or sublime fashion. It might be a lens from which a story is told, a rhythm in a song or the way in which the performer takes the stage. Indigenous culture manifests itself in a manifold of ways which are not obvious to the inexperienced. Whether or not the performance is made through a medium that is recognizable as culturally American Indian is immaterial to me, it is in nuance, framing and delivery that I find connection to Indigenaity. The lived experience of Indigenous people in the United States is different from others, including other people of color.
It is important to note the mutability of these terms: Indigenous and Native – because they do mean different things to different people and they frequently don’t mean ‘of the Tribes and Nations of Turtle Island’ (as the term Native American or First Nations has become synonymous for.) There are Indigenous people all across the world, the result of centuries of colonialism, and migration has mixed us so that we are in part colonized and colonizer. There are important distinctions between the First Peoples of Turtle Island (North American) and Indigenous people who have since come here as un-inivited guests but were not, in effect, colonists. Personally, I greet Indigenous people from other parts of the world as brothers and sisters and we can share stories of survival.
When at all possible, I look for specificity when understanding authenticity. What Tribe does the Indigenous artist belong to? How do they call this out? What part of their culture is of influence to their art? If they are adapting traditional artform ideas, have they gotten elder(s) to give them approval? The specificity is key to knowing they have done the work mindfully and it is key to understanding appropriation - the flip side to authenticity. It helps if you slow down and listen and approach these things with an open mind (humility is a good value to hold in your heart.) If all else fails, ask someone wiser and more knowledgeable than you.