Tomahawks and Tipis: Native American Representations in Commercial Culture

Political Cartoon at Agua Caliente Cultural Museum -Where Are the Tipis.jpg

"Are there still Indians here in Palm Springs?" Yes. "So, where are all the tipis?"

According to the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum's Executive Director, Dr. Michael Hammond, inquiries about the Palm Springs area Indians, who are mostly of historical Cahuilla origins, and how to find tipis in Palm Springs, are the two most frequently asked questions museum staff and interpreters receive from the thousands of international visitors who stop by this small, but fierce, downtown Palm Springs museum. A new exhibition, "Where are the Tipis? Changing Perceptions About Indians" is a quirky, first-of-its-kind art show at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum that was created in response to the oft-asked questions.

The goal of the exhibition, according to former museum curator Dawn Wellman, who helped research and curate the show, was simple. "We wanted to answer tourists' questions, to dispel some of that and let people know that not all Indians are Plains Indians and wear feathered headdresses, ride horses or carry tomahawks," says Dawn Wellman. "It is an exhibition that is rich in humor and optimism, as well as historical fact."

Cartoon at Agua Caliente Cultural Museum exhibition. | Photo: Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.

As a key feature of the exhibition, the museum commissioned the renowned artist Gerald C. Clarke, Jr., of the Cahuilla Band of Cahuilla Indians near Anza, who is also Chairman of his tribal council's board and Chair of the Idyllwild School for the Arts, to create art for the exhibition. Clarke's finished piece for the exhibit is comprised of two, life-sized cutout dolls of a Native American man and woman, with interchangeable, stereotypical clothing that ranges from bucksin outfits and headdresses to prison outfits to sloppy t-shirt and baggy shorts, images which are not accurately representative of our country's hugely diverse Native population. "Underneath these ridiculous costumes," notes Hammond, "are a man and a woman, free of stereotypes."

According to Hammond, in curating the exhibition, which is suitable for adults as well as children, "We touched on all of the major elements we thought should be included, and we tried to do so with a gentle sense of humor, so that people aren't totally offended, but do emerge from here with a new perspective" noting with a satisfied chuckle that many visitors leave the museum after viewing the exhibition, shaking their heads and commenting, with a new sense of awareness, "I can't believe John Wayne said that," in reference to a withering and historically inaccurate statement - posted on the wall as part of the museum's exhibition - made by the "cowboy" film hero about Native Americans made to Playboy Magazine in 1971.

Film stereotypes exhibited at Agua Caliente Cultural Museum. | Photo: Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.

Gordon Johnson, a Cahuilla-Cupeno and distinguished author of "Rez Dogs Eat Beans: and Other Tales," notes the value of the exhibition. "Exhibits like the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum's are important to dispel the stereotypes and wake people up to the fact Indians are evolving, they are not stuck in time," he says. "Many people form their impressions of Indian culture from watching movies -- old cowboy and Indian movies at that. It is surprising, even today, people expect and are disappointed when they don't find Indians riding horses and living in tipis. Many want Indians to live up to the romanticized 'noble savage' image they've been spoon fed by media."

In contrast to this expectation, Cahuilla Indians of the Palm Springs and surrounding areas traditionally lived in dome-shaped or rectangular type of structure, according to Cahuilla anthroplogist Dr. Lowell Bean, known as a "kish," up to 15-20 feet across and and by covering bent willow branches with palm fronds and other available plant materials. In addition, tipis, made from large animal hides, are largely traditional to our country's northern Plains Indians, who had, until the 20th century, ready access to free-ranging buffalo. In addition, in contrast to the elaborate, beaded leather clothing common to the Plains Indians, the Cahuilla dressed in little clothing -- made of palm fronds, deerskin and tule -- during the frequent warm desert weather, and in colder months, wore capes made of deerskin or rabbit fur to stay warm.

Stereotype exhibited at Agua Caliente Cultural Museum. | Photo: Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.

The exhibition also showcases liquor bottles made in the image of war-bonneted "cigar store Indian," with photographs of some of the area's real Native American people. There is a screen with a continous loop of cartoons playing, including such longtime favorites as Bugs Bunny, that have perpetuated myths about American Indian people, and cartoons with characters that challenge these stereotypes. There are also depictions of cultural stereotypes that are still perpetuated through commercial culture, including a large rendering of the "Indian Princess" image that is found on the Land O'Lakes brand of butter, and a display of "Native American Barbie," dressed in buckskin, a war bonnet, and holding a baby in a papoose, as contrasted next to an Anglo Barbie, who is wearing contemporary clothing.

Other important parts of the exhibition include a list of the 600 federally-recognized American Indian tribes, along with the 229 Alaskan Indian Villages, all with their own language, its own beliefs, its own complex kinship systems, as well as a display referencing the currently-politically-charged issue of professional sports teams mascots, such as the Washington Redskins, which uses words and symbols that are highly offensive to many American Indians.

"It was a little bit risky to do what we've done," notes Ashley Dunphy, current acting curator at the museum, who also helped create the exhibition. "It's not common for Native American art exhibitions to include anything referencing the demeaning and two-dimensional caricatures of Native people that we've included in our exhibition. But we felt it was important to present some of this, to help people identify their prejudices, and then, offer alongside of that, an accurate representation to help them expand their awareness and understanding of the true lives and cultures of our country's Native Americans, including those with roots in Palm Springs.

Display at Agua Caliente Cultural Museum. | Photo: Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.

Display at Agua Caliente Cultural Museum. | Photo: Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.

Agua Caliente Museum acting curator Ashley Dunphy. | Photo: Ruth Nolan.

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Top Image: Political cartoon at Agua Caliente Cultural Museum exhibition. | Photo: Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.

About the Author

Ruth Nolan, M.A, a lifelong resident of the California desert and southern California's Inland Empire, is professor of creative writing and desert literature at College of the Desert in Palm Desert. She is also editor of the criti...
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