Yesterday was a double-fisted art day…worked on a watercolor/gouache piece and then switched to digital while waiting for the accursed pigment to dry. I got the Real World piece done, and the digital one is coming along niftily, although a bit slower. Ironically, given my recent moping on originals and me, I was rather pleased with the result–I was never happy with my ability to do fur in watercolor, since it requires so much advance planning and I’m really more of a slather-and-improvise type. But with a little white casein, which is more opaque than even gouache, I just lay down a base coat in some darker color and then glaze in fur patterns over the top. Another great victory of technology over planning! Woohoo!
Furry art is positively lousy with native american stuff, I know, but I’ve noticed that with rare exceptions, it’s usually a psuedo-Plains Indian kinda thing, heavy on the dreamcatchers and the eagle feathers, light on actual research. There are exceptions, of course–I remember J.C. Amberlyn doing a fabulous piece with cottontail bunnies in Navajo dress–but generally it all seems to be drawn from people looking at other furry art for reference. Which may well be the case. My little badger guy, however, is the best I can do without actually visiting Third Mesa during the Plaza Dances–he’s wearing an approximation of the dance gear of a Honan, or Badger Kachina (sans mask and boots.) There are other native cultures than the Lakota, people! If you wanna do Native American furries, more power to ya, but there’s tons of ’em! The Hopi kachinas are just mind-blowing, and the Pacific Northwest has some crazy stuff, and the Seminole do amazing things with fabric and…well, you get the idea, and that’s just off the top of my head.
Now, I tell you now that my feelings on the subject are Deeply Ambiguous. Because while I mean nothing but aesthetic appreciation for the Hopi culture, I freely confess that I am also in the position to be making money secondhand off their culture by selling prints and the original, which, while it does not exactly trip the warning wires in my soul, definitely plucks ’em like a harp string. However, I’m mostly okay with that. I’m not competing with any native artisans, and anyway, kachina dolls are a tourist gold-mine in Arizona, so I don’t sweat it. In fact, I don’t sweat it sufficiently that there’s a fox kachina painting currently drying on my coffee table.
However, I would like to state now, categorically, from the rooftops, that I have absolutely No Spiritual Connection to these things. I don’t claim one, I don’t deserve one, I’m a white chick from the suburbs with a coupla neat books, and that does not make me an authority or give me any right whatsoever to claim any kind of connection to anybody’s ancestral spirits. I don’t speak Hopi. I’ve never lived there. I might recognize a totemic spirit if it did the hula on my keyboard, but recognition does not mean that I get to call myself a chosen paw of the Wombat Totem. I have a great respect for native beliefs, but my art is mostly just meant to look cool, because frankly, people who read one book by Carlos Casteneda or worse, one of his spiritual descendants who couldn’t get a peyote hook-up, and decide they’re children of the earth and want to go howl in the woods make me want to go on a vision quest simply to find someone to apologize to. It’s not enough to think your totem is the wolf! Wolf what? From what culture? Many, perhaps most, tribes didn’t even have personal totems–who are you to attract the attention of a god? Totems were the spirits invoked by lodges and moities, collective cultural groupings that defined themselves partially in relation to a totemic spirit, be it animal, vegetable, mineral, mythical, or undefinable–a totem is as likely to be the “Shooting Star” or “Proud War Spirit” or “That Damn Jumping Cactus With The Little Spiky Bits That Always Grab Your Ankles” as it is anything as fuzzy and charismatic as Wolf or Coyote or Bear.
My standard operating principle, for the most part, is that you don’t get to claim ANY kind of mastery or deep connection to a native culture’s spirituality if you don’t speak the language. Otherwise a little “poser” light clicks on in the dashboard of my brain. You may like a culture, you may think it’s nifty, but if you haven’t bothered to learn the language, what makes you think their gods are gonna bother to learn your name?
And yet…and yet…this is where I sink deeper into general ambiguity, because tied up with my profound disgust for anyone who would selectively mine a culture they know only from thumbing through a copy of “Black Elk Speaks,” in service of their own spirituality is a belief that people really do have to find what works for them, and that beliefs should evolve to fit the situation. To quote “The Art of Peace” by Morihei Ueshiba (whose writings I greatly admire) “Contemplate the workings of this world, listen to the words of the wise, and take all that is good as your own…Even though our path is completely different from the warrior arts of the past, it is not necessary to abandon totally the old ways. Absorb venerable traditions into this new Art by clothing them with fresh garments, and build on the classic styles to create better forms.” And I cannot disagree with that, either. I mean, hell, it’s easy for the anthropologist in me to get infuriated about people taking easily-digested chunks of Plains Indian culture, but were I to cast it in other terms–suppose someone wants to believe in heaven and angels and being nice to your neighbor, but not in all those nasty footnotes about women speaking in church and stoning people to death–I choke. Because I have absolutely no problem with that. You want to take the good bits of Christianity and practice those? Knock yourself out, there’s some good stuff there, and if you want to sift it out of the dross and make it shine, more power to ya. And yet, now I’m saying that it’s okay to dig through my culture, or other major world religions, for spare parts that make your spirituality work, but it’s not okay to dig through other, smaller cultures. And I don’t have a right to do THAT, either.
It seems like I always end these rants by saying “I don’t know.” And in this case, yet again, I don’t know. I feel, fundamentally, that it is Not Okay to transform a native culture into a sort’ve white-bread carictature of itself, stripped of history and context and replete with huggable mammals and eagle feathers. Maybe if people would simply acknowledge that they are NOT practicing a historically authentic spirituality and just say “I believe in totemic spirits, but, y’know, it’s not really based on anything specific. I’m not some kind of mystic shaman or anything, and this is something I cobbled together that made sense to me, not something traditional,” such moral conflicts wouldn’t arise. I could respect a statement like that. Perhaps I’m only defensive of native cultures because they seem fragile, and easily lost–I can all too easily see the real thing vanishing, and leaving us with nothing but faux eagle feathers and mass-produced dream catchers left.