Student Art in the Library: Native American Culture

"You Don't Know How to Be A Real Indian" painting by Kendra Iringan  "Wahoo" (Indian headress) by Kendra Iringan

  • (photo 1) "You don't Know How to Be a Real Indian", Oil on Canvas, 2009
  • (photo 2) "Wahoo", Mixed Media, 2009

Have you seen the beautiful art in the library by student Kendra Iringan? Kendra is part Navajo and shares some of her culture in an independent study project.  She tells us: "The headdresses are made from scratch. The caps are old cowboy hats I found at thrift stores and the turkey feathers on the back of the tall piece are from an old feather duster! They're just examples of the ingenuity of many Natives. I'm forever in the debt of my professor, Elise Richman, for being there every step of the way, and for being the kind of artist and person I want to be when I'm out in the real world. I'm also honored that the library, Jane and everyone, allowed me to show these pieces. I want to thank my family and friends (especially Angelina Nockai for allowing me to paint her into the piece) for their love and support. These pieces belong to them, always have."

Artist Statement

From 1979-1992 the suicide rate for Native Americans on reservations was 1.5 times higher than the national average. For young Natives, ages 10-30, suicide was 5-6 times higher than the national average. Among young Native men, ages 10-34, suicide was the leading cause of death. For young Native women, ages 15-34, it was the 3rd leading cause. The Surgeon General is still observing and recording the numbers, but it doesn’t look good. Why? It’s because Kocoum, despite being a stoic brave was killed. It’s because Pocahontas was modeled after Christy Turlington: a white super model. It’s because, even when I’m walking in the Student Union Building, Chief Wahoo grins at me from his perch atop a baseball cap. My work is about how Natives have been represented by the dominant culture versus how we represent ourselves. Throughout history our agency has been taken away—replaced with ghastly, red-faced ghouls and scantily clad tribal princesses. We are stunning and diverse. Our skin mocks the red color society associates with us. We’re streaks of auburn, gold, and caramel in the fading moonlight—dancing out our memories. Our story has been told wrong for centuries, it’s my turn.

Natives, even the “breeds” are waiting for change to happen, or for things to go back to the way it used to be. We cannot continue to do that. Culture is not a bus stop. It’s a series of geometric shapes expanding outward with each row of gleaming beads. It follows a pattern, but there are so many colors, textures, and shapes added over the years. We’ve got to stand up and protect tradition while accepting modernity. Our boys—young men need to learn their value and their agency so when they’re faced with a red faced cartoon or war whooping white mascot they’d don’t hide. Our young women need to find resilient strength in order to recognize, love, and honor their dark beauty. We’re beautiful and varied—no one can pigeon hole us. The image of these three Natives, standing, sitting, and staring is every single one of us. They’re broken, beautiful, and changing. 

We’re always creating. We’re the hermit crabs of the Americas; we’ll use just about everything. Whether it’s the lid to a tobacco can curled into a jingle for a dress or a silver dollar acting as a rosette for a headdress. Tradition can always be modified. Beauty is in the everyday objects and rituals we take for granted. Beading; a process that takes hours of patience is a practice that allows us to connect. Stories, thoughts, and history weave themselves into the contemplative loop of the thread and precision of picking up the tiny sparkling gems. There’s a piece of myself in those colorful mosaics adorning my work; and pieces of my father, grandmother, great grandmother...those beads connect us. There’s no time or distance between us as long as there are loops of memories tying us together through the past, present, and future.  

Out of sight and out of mind; that’s what Natives have become to the greater American public. We’re ghosts; haunting gymnasiums and used as chilling logos of stoic strength. Ghosts are the vestiges of truths we’ve forgotten. They are cautionary and beautiful; living long after the apparition melts away into the morning sunlight. They pass from one generation to another offering protection. You can’t out run them or hide from them. They are our shadows. Flickering in and out of our minds; tapping into our souls for a drink of our history. These pieces are my ghosts. 

- Kendra Iringan

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