Terese Mailhot

Quality and Control: How Native Artists Have Failed to Criticize Each Other

Quality and Control: How Native Artists Have Failed to Criticize Each Other

“Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.” Paul Valéry, ‘The Conquest of Ubiquity’, 1928.

What’s familiar and nostalgic can be dangerous to a people already treated as relics or tokens. As a Native author, or artist, I feel some responsibility in saying we should be more publicly discerning with each other’s work.

I cringe when I see articles like “Ten Types of Rez Moms,” or when I run across yet another Native male comedy troupe, which uses women like props, if we’re represented at all. I’ve done the work of justifying bad Native art for long enough, because who wants to be caught criticizing another fellow Native artist publicly? It’s practically forbidden; better we keep to criticizing the millions of non-Natives appropriating our work than to engage in the equally taxing effort of questioning ourselves.

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The vacant work of some Native art is so lacking I’ve felt ashamed for staying quiet. I mean, do we need more Photoshopped images of old photos of unnamed Native men in regalia within some contemporary setting. Do we really need another piece of work juxtaposing the ‘traditional’ against the contemporary? It’s enough to leave me asking who we’re doing this for. Somehow this work never gets old, and continues being novel, relevant, overexposed and under criticized.

The listicles, my god, the lists reducing Native people, or ‘rez life’—it seems to be what Big Bang Theory is for people who pride themselves on being nerds, a bunch of familiar things to no avail, with no real message or remark—it’s a thoughtless waste that goes viral, infecting the very nature of our social media interactions. We become less substantive the more garbage floods our eyes, leaving us unable to discern ‘good’ from ‘bad,’ and, yeah, I know that good art is subjective, and I’m familiar with the commodification of art, and aesthetic, but there’s literally nothing that could convince me to buy into these familiar, boring, limited efforts, from what seems like people who could genuinely do better.

What made me consider the exact danger in supporting bad art, bad comedy, or bad writing, is when Donnelly Rose Eaglestick was mauled by dogs on her rez—I thought, How much did I contribute or perpetuate the trope of the rez dog: lovable, a symbol of country life, or poverty, or the way in which we regard or disregard the animals in our world, in comparison to the white majority. Has refusing to engage with the truth contributed to the disarray and chaos within our communities?

It’s as if we’re so desperate for representation that we latch onto what we can get, like that line by Sherman Alexie, “The only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV is Indians watching Indians on TV.”

I shudder to think of how all this has helped white people mine us for material to produce an even more reductive image for mass markets. When I look at literature, theory, activism, and discourse—it seems to often engage in the same type of shenanigans, where ubiquity takes precedence over what’s substantive. Slogans like, “We’re Still Here,” which, granted is beautiful, has been perpetuated without a clear message, beyond one that simply says, “Not all of us died.” I mean, maybe something more interesting could be, “You people are still here? Well, this is awkward.”

Resilience has become a word so overused it has lost its potency, along with ‘resist,’ and, ‘decolonization,’ and I don’t blame our most formidable activists and authors as much as I blame the people who latched onto a movement without a message or intention to elevate the discourse, and push us into new thought and action. I’m no different. I’ve done my share of perpetuating bad work, bad art, without much thought to the repercussions, but I have no problem changing my opinions to form better ones and I think we need more of that right now.

Intergenerational Trauma: Understanding Natives’ Inherited Pain

Download our free report, Intergenerational Trauma: Understanding Natives’ Inherited Pain, to understand this fascinating concept..

It is a type of cultural reproduction we engage in, and I think of Walter Benjamin when I say this, that the desire for ubiquity in our work—its ability to be shared, liked and seen—has become more valuable to our artists and great minds than the art itself, and what’s happened is that every poignant thing we do is only as valuable as its ability to become a conference or a catchphrase—and it’s lowered the quality of our work. It’s made us so digestible we’ve digested ourselves, and we keep regurgitating the same things, images, ideas, and to what end?

I think it’s time that we start talking about quality, and control, and what part we’re playing as consumers, supporters, and ‘arbiters’ of Native art. It feels like we all have to get along when the stakes are so high, and so many are attacking things we hold dear.

This is only the tip of an iceberg knocking within me concerning ubiquity and representation within Native art, but it’s a start. I’ve been disturbed lately at the lack of representation Native women have in the mainstream Native and non-Native media. Yesterday I was clicking around, and regretfully watched a comedy skit by Native men that garnered thousands of likes, where one of the jokes is a Benny Hill-esque scene where the only woman in the skit is one being ‘snagged.’ I thought, Jesus. I tried to convince myself to have a sense of humor, but video after video it didn’t get better—just more reductive and less inclusive. So I acquiesced to the aching and pressing need I have to say, “This is stupid.” I’ve never known the art of avoidance. Salish women don’t do that, and it’s Western ideology and construct that seems to have us playing nice with one another instead of calling bull and having the tough conversations that will inevitably make us better.

Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island. Her work has been featured in Carve Magazine and Yellow Medicine Review. She is Saturday Editor at The Rumpus and she’s a proud IAIA graduate.

  • Nama D.

    All of this yes! When I look at the breadth of work that is produced in Canada it completely blows US indigenous content out of the water. I really love the concept of Mohawk girls (likened to a Native Sex and the City) but even when I was able to watch an episode of that I found myself cringing at their representation of Rez girls. For one Sex and the City was entertaining but it was still garbage. Following this example, I feel, has led Mohawk girls down a ridiculous path. From what I could gather from the first season it looked incredible. Showing a group of Native women who looked somewhat successful who actually enjoyed having sex. Although there are definitely some issues I have with the rest of their content, I genuinely appreciated that Native women finally had a space of agency instead of all sexual encounters involving them being contextualized in abuse. This is the main reason why I push the content that I use on stage. Most of my comedic content is sexual in nature, cause it is my fav subject, but I toe the line for a few reasons. First, I perform predominantly for Native communities and many request a clean show. I have been called out for being too dirty. Secondly, I worry that the content is too adult and the paradigm will be shifted into the other direction of hyper sexuality which could also be dangerous. Will the jokes I make about our men be equally as dismissing? And at times, yeah it probably will be. But roads need to be made. I am highly critical of mostly American made Native movies. Most of them are shit. But the main reason for that is we do not have Native people writing these stories. My biggest love to hate movie is Crooked Arrows. In my Haudenosaunee community that movie is beloved! And its a complete piece of shit. Yes they used our young men as talent but the two main characters were non-native, Brandon Roth seriously? Also in an attempt to not have to use accuracy a fictitious tribe was created, the Senequot. Which is Seneca + Pequot. The movie was mediocre enough, bad acting and unrealistic dialogue. But the push into bullshit territory came with the fucking shameless and expected ceremony scene. Where every young man received his spirit animal. Please go fuck yourselves writers. And you know its always coming, some silly shit like this will appear in a Native film. It’s just like the unabashed use of pow wows in every fucking movie. What I want to see is realistic, contemporary representations. Something that is nuanced. We need it.

  • Summer P.

    This article reeks of ignorance. Native artists have failed to criticize each other?? Are you actually involved in the Native art circuit because if you were, you would see plain as day, the amount of unending criticism we have to endure on a daily basis from each other & the public. I am a beadwork artist. I have endured harsh criticism for my work. I pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars for booth space at art shows to make a small fraction of my invested money back. I ask myself, “Why????” quite often. But my answer always is, “Because I love it.” I love creating, I grew up in a family of artists, it’s in my blood. So to tell us Native artists that we need to shit on each other more often is really uncalled for. I’ll juxtapose the traditional design of my tribe with the contemporary all day long and in the end, anybody’s opinion (yours included) doesn’t matter. I’m thankful for my Native art family, as we often pursue our art careers with little support, at least there is somebody who understands. We will continue to pour our hearts & souls into our artwork knowing full well that there is going to be people just waiting to criticize our vision. The art police is always on patrol. The artist’s work that you criticize in your piece is already used to it, does he care? No, he doesn’t. Because in the end, who are you to set the standard for Native art? I’d like to encourage my fellow artists to keep creating, to keep experimenting, to keep pushing the envelope & to keep evolving despite the noise.

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Quality and Control: How Native Artists Have Failed to Criticize Each Other

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