The sphere is wide when it comes to the misuse of Native American culture; appropriation can be seen in sports mascots, fashion and design, product logos; the list goes on and on. The problem with this current mainstream model is that it denies Indigenous people the right to represent their own lifeways and worldview.
The show “Scott Seekins, the New Eden” at the Douglas Flanders and Associates Art Gallery, is being touted as Seekins response to the “Great Sioux Uprising of 1862.” Seekins’s “body of work as an alternative to Minnesota’s tepid 2012 150-year remembrance,” as the gallery touts on its website, is problematic in its interpretation, as it reeks of Native appropriation, and lacks a Native voice.
Scott Seekins, a mainstay of the Minneapolis art scene, is best known for his eccentric dress and demeanor as opposed to the quality of his work. This particular collection of Seekins’s work imitates historic Plains style of drawing (erroneously referred to as ledger art), where he replicates scenes, moves the images around, and inserts himself in a sort of Forrest Gump manner. To be clear, Plains style drawings were a warrior’s record of bravery against the enemy, hunting scenes, courtship, and ceremonial life, these accounts were drawn in accountant ledgers and sketchbooks.
Seekins’s work is the quintessential example of cultural appropriation.
In Seekins’s painting, a clear replica of John Casper Wild’s “Watercolor Painting of Fort Snelling,” (1884), Seekins portrays himself guiding a non-Native woman holding a baby, in the background there are tipis and the fort on the bluff. In another drawing created in the historic Plains graphic style, a Native man has defeated an enemy Calvary, while Seekins, wearing his iconic suit, stands with his arms raised. By placing himself in these historical scenes he positions himself as a mediator and witness. By doing this he disregards the Native American narrative. Considering that this is one of the worst tragedies between the United States Government and American Indians, the U.S. Dakota War of 1862 and its aftermath has had a long lasting impact on the descendants of the Dakota that died. Many Dakota died at Fort Snelling and on the gallows in Mankato, their descendants carry the spirit of their Ancestors with them, they live among us, they are part of us, they are an important part of the Minnesota narrative.
Seekins’s use of these drawings and recreation of the events therein are particularly disrespectful considering his attempt at making a tragic event into something amusing and playful. His primary goal here was and is self-promotion of the worst kind. Seekins is not alone in this; he has been empowered to create this type of work. In 2012, the Minneapolis Central Library hosted Seekins’s work where he presented his own personal interpretation of the U.S-Dakota War, rather than actual Dakota artists who have created their own bodies of work that address the lives and experience of their Ancestors.
It is time for the mainstream to insist that Native artists be given the opportunity to present their own narrative, the time of relying on “self-described interpreters” is a thing of the past.
There are a few who have moved to create this new paradigm; Minneapolis’s two Native own and operated Native American art galleries, “All My Relations” and “Two Rivers” Art recently hosted exhibits such as “Re-Riding History: Southern Plains to Matanzas,” an exhibition that focused on the contemporary American Indian artist’s response to the Native Americans that were imprisoned at Fort Marion, Florida.
As Minnesotans, we want the truth; we seek and honor voices that speak from the depths of their soul. There is honor in hearing the voices of Indigenous people of this land. We deserve it.
Joe D. Horse Capture (A’aninin) was the Associate Curator of Native American Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for 15 years, and is currently an Associate Curator of Research and Documentation, at the National Museum of the American Indian-Smithsonian Institution. The views expressed here are his own.