These Native American Artists Want You to Know They Are 'Still Here'

Votan Henriquez, "Warrior Wombyn (aka Rezzie the Riveter)."
Votan Henriquez, "Warrior Wombyn (aka Rezzie the Riveter)."

Los Angeles filmmaker Pamela J. Peters has a message from Indian Country that she wants to share with the rest of the world: Despite centuries of discrimination and oppression — including murder, rape, forced relocation and cultural assimilation — “We are still here.”

As Native Americans, she continued, “We are documented as a past-tense culture, even though we're not.”

“For so long, we've had other people tell our stories and document our stories. They've researched us so much they've forgotten we are human beings,” said Peters, who is Diné (Navajo). “It's important for us to have our [own] narrative, to [define] exactly who we are as indigenous people.”

Artbound recently spoke with four Native American artists (including Peters), living in Southern California, who explore the theme of indigenous identity in their contemporary art.

Gerald Clarke Jr., "One Tract Mind: Flora."
In "One Tract Mind: Flora," Gerald Clarke Jr. pairs images of flowers and tract housing.

Gerald Clarke Jr.

“When you're a school kid in California,” Gerald Clarke Jr. said, “you learn about the missions.” And then, the multimedia artist added, “you learn about Indians.” 

But Clarke, who belongs to the Cahuilla Band of Indians, never identified with the “hard-working, subservient happy slave[s]” he saw depicted in textbooks and museum exhibits. Nor did he feel a kinship to the Native American archetypes he saw in movies and on television: the proud warrior, the spiritual sage, the super-ecologist, the savage. 

Native American artist Gerald Clarke Jr. uses gumball machines to explore the electoral process in his sculpture "Democracy for Sale"
Gerald Clarke Jr., "Democracy for Sale."

“The idea of the Indian and my daily reality were polar opposites,” he recalled, so he was forced to find his own identity. “To this day, I always identify with the outsiders, and I identify with the underdogs.”

Creativity came naturally to Clarke, who grew up on a cattle ranch on the Cahuilla reservation near Anza in Riverside County. (He now raises cattle on the same property.)

“When you grow up dirt poor and you got nothing, you make do with a lot of stuff,” Clarke said. “We used to build our own bike ramps and forts. I see that as my early excursions into sculpture.”

Clarke's art was also shaped by his education. The artist, who has a bachelor's degree from the University of Central Arkansas and a master of fine arts degree from Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, is an assistant professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside. (He previously served as visual arts chair at Idyllwild Arts Academy.)

“I joke that when people see my artwork in galleries, they go, 'Well, wait a minute. Where's the Indian stuff?'” said Clarke, who won the Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art in 2007. “They don't understand [that] it's not just a material or a format; it's more of an outlook on life.”

In fact, he said, “The stereotype or the image of Indian art is just as problematic as the stereotype of the person. When people think 'Indian art,' they think of materials, really — beads or clay or leather.”

Although Clarke taps into those artistic traditions, his wide-ranging repertoire encompasses everything from painting to sculpture to installation art. His series “One Tract Mind,” for instance, uses video and photography to explore the subject of tract housing in Southern California.

“I always tell people my medium is kitchen sink. It's anything I can get my hands on, that I can manipulate or do something with that will teach me something new,” Clarke said, adding that he prefers methods and materials that are easily accessible to viewers.

“What I do is I use ready-made objects — and those already-cemented stereotypes — as vehicles to engage people,” he explained. “It's not a matter of me dumbing down my message at all. It's using things that are readily apparent or comforting to see, in order to get people to engage in the work.”

Gerald Clarke Jr., "Continuum Basket Flora."
"Continuum Basket Flora" by Gerald Clarke Jr. reflects the centuries-old Cahuilla tradition of basket-making.

Take his “Basket” series, in which aluminum soda and beer cans are crushed and coiled to create stunning sculptures. Clarke said his series celebrates the beauty of the centuries-old Cahuilla basket-making tradition while offering a subtle commentary on the issues facing modern-day tribal members, including alcoholism and diabetes. 

Los Angeles' Autry Museum of the American West commissioned Clarke to create a six-foot-diameter beer-can basket for its expansive "California Continued” project, which spans two new galleries and an ethnobotanical garden. According to the museum, the piece, "Continuum Basket: Flora" “comments on how development, technology, and industry impinge on desert lands.”

Another new work, "Democracy for Sale," utilizes two gumball machines to address the current presidential election. On display through Oct. 30 as part of the group show “Made in America” at the Lancaster Museum of Art and History, each machine — one marked "Democrat," the other "Republican" — dispenses plastic capsules containing one-inch scraps of an American flag. 

“When you put your quarter in and you crank it, you get this tiny piece of flag [indicating] whatever party you're going to vote for,” said Clarke, who's served as vice chairman of the Cahuilla Band of Indians. “But no one will get all of the flag unless they buy both of those gumball machines.”

Clarke hopes the work will start a conversation about the American political system. 

As a contemporary Native American artist, he's always mindful of his audience. “I tell people I have two talents. I can make expensive clothing look cheap, and I can talk to pretty much anybody — the guys at the feed store or the guys at the museum or the guys on Capitol Hill,” he said. “I'm able to relate to a lot of people.”

"In the Beginning There Was Fox and Cinnamon" and "Contemplating Loss" by Mercedes Dorame.
Mercedes Dorame, "In the Beginning There Was Fox and Cinnamon" (left) and "Facing Storms" (right).

Story continues below

Mercedes Dorame

As an undergraduate student at UCLA, Los Angeles photographer Mercedes Dorame remembers pulling an old book about indigenous people off the shelf. Flipping through the pages, she discovered a shocking claim; the book said that the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe — historically known as the San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians — had been wiped out by disease.

“To find that in a library... was just one of those moments that takes your breath away,” recalled Dorame, a Tongva tribal member. “It made me think about how much of the tribal history has been erased over the years. ...People don't even know that there were Native people in Los Angeles.”

In fact, the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe, whose lands once stretched across the Los Angeles basin from Newport to Malibu to San Bernardino and the San Fernando Valley, remains one of more than 200 Native American tribes not recognized by the federal government.

Because of the tribe's uncertain federal status, “There's no reservation,” she said. “There's no place to gather. There's no place to perform ceremonies. There's no place to collectively mourn. I think that [has] had a really negative impact on my group.”

"Ceremonial Tent" and "Tongva Prayer" by Mercedes Dorame.
Mercedes Dorame, "Ceremonial Tent" (left) and "Tongva Prayer" (right).

That fact has also fueled the award-winning artist's search for cultural identity.

Dorame, who has a master of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, uses her work — which includes sculpture and installation art — as a way to, in her words, “document, challenge and contextualize cultural constructions.” (Her sister, Oakland painter Katie Dorame, puts her own spin on depictions of Native American history.)

“I'll be in Los Angeles or Orange County and there are people hiking through this area that have no idea there's a burial ground next to them or that these are really important cultural objects [near them],” said Dorame, who draws on her experiences serving alongside her father as a cultural resources monitor at sites in Los Angeles and Orange County. (Under California law, such consultants must be on hand at archeological excavations and construction projects where Native American cultural features, such as graves and artifacts, are likely to be affected.)

“It's simultaneously a great honor” and an emotionally taxing task, explained Dorame, whose dad is often called to serve as a monitor because of his “most likely descendent” status. “It's like you're watching your ancestors being dug up.”

"Earth as Earth" and "Contemplating Loss" by Los Angeles photographer Mercedes Dorame.
Mercedes Dorame, "Earth as Earth" (left) and "Contemplating Loss" (right).

While some of the things Dorame sees are too painful and private to photograph, she was moved to capture the image of a tattered, rain-soaked prayer for a re-burial ceremony tied to a chain-link fence in “Tongva Prayer.” “For me, it was about the layers of knowledge and experience and culture,” she explained.

In other photographs, personal and cultural artifacts come together with natural elements of the landscape in meticulously staged scenes of rituals.

“In the Beginning There Was Fox and Cinnamon” features a skinned fox head draped over a boulder ringed with rust-red spice, while two stones and a feather sit as sentinels on a hill overlooking a distant city in “Facing Storms.” In “Smoke to Water,” the red yarn binding a still-smoking sage smudge stick winds its way across mossy rocks to a waterfall.

Dorame aims to engage her viewers’ interest, hoping they’ll be inspired to dig deeper. “That’s the feeling I have when I’m handed some artifact on my site and don’t know what it is,” she said. “Maybe it will spark curiosity about the culture. Somebody will be like, ‘Hey, what did happen? Who were these people?’”

“There's a part of me that wants to connect... my tribe to the rest of the world,” she said.

Votan Henriquez, "Amoxtli."
Votan Henriquez, "Amoxtli."

Votan Henriquez

Cold, cramped and battling a headache, Los Angeles street artist Votan Henriquez helped put the finishing touches on a massive mural on the east side of the Minneapolis American Indian Center.

"When I was done I felt so relieved. ...A weight had been lifted off my shoulders," acknowledged Henriquez, who teamed up with Gregg Deal, a painter, street artist and performance artist who belongs to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, for the project.

Then, just as he was about to leave the site, a woman approached Henriquez. "[She said,] 'We need this. This is going to empower our community,'" he recalled. "Then I understood the reason we did that mural and sacrificed so much. It wasn't until you had to go through it that you really understood the bigger picture."

The realization came as a revelation for the Venice native, who has Mayan and Nahua roots. One of his prized possessions as a child was a red T-shirt bearing the words “Chichen Itza” and a picture of a pyramid. “That's what opened my eyes to my ancestry,” he said.

Votan Henriquez, "No Dakota Access Pipeline."
Artist Votan Henriquez re-imagines a popular "The Simpsons" scene to comment on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“At first I was just a tagger” incorporating indigenous patterns into his graffiti, said Henriquez, but teachers convinced him he could make a living from his art. After a brief stint in art college — “They didn't really understand what I was trying to do, and I didn't understand it myself,” the artist explained — he moved into graphic design, exploring themes inspired by his indigenous identity and the Mexican Day of the Dead, Día de los Muertos.

Now Henriquez mixes politically minded murals and street art with apparel and more. His company NSRGNTS, conceived in 1999 and launched in 2000, promotes “the transmission of indigenous thought and philosophy” through everything from T-shirts to stickers to skateboard decks.

Although the brand boasts such high-profile fans as rapper M-1 of Dead Prez and hip-hop star Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas, Henriquez and his crew meet many of their customers at pow wows and tribal gatherings.

Henriquez was in his early 20s when he attended his first pow wow. “I saw so many people who looked like my relatives,” he recalled, Native Americans who were truly “in tune with their heritage and their family history.”

Bus bench by Votan Henriquez.
Votan Henriquez, "You're on Indianland​."

He longed to connect with them and tap into a shared ancestral history. “We can learn from other ancestors — how to deal with reality, with life, with diversity,” Henriquez said. “All of us need to know that as indigenous people. There are lessons to be learned.”

Henriquez is inspired by legendary Native American leaders outside his own tribal tradition, such as Chief Joseph and Red Cloud. For instance, he painted a mural of Sitting Bull for H.O.M.E. On the Promenade, a Long Beach store that describes itself as an “urban trading post.”

“I want to represent that strength, in what we create and what we design,” Henriquez said, whether it's a T-shirt that proclaims “You Are on Indian Land” or a poster protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline showing a Plains chief in a war bonnet and a gas mask.

As Henriquez recently told his son — upset because his teacher had told him the Aztecs were brutal barbarians — “We have to go to school because we need to be educated. [But] sometimes we need to do the education ourselves.”

“As indigenous people we've contributed so many things to the world, and our kids don't even know [about it],” he said. “We really have lost a lot of that through our history books. We need to educate our kids through our art.”

Native Americans arrive in Los Angeles in a scene from the film "Legacy of Exiled NDNZ" by Pamela J. Peters.
Native Americans arrive in Los Angeles in a scene from the film "Legacy of Exiled NDNZ" by Pamela J. Peters.

Pamela J. Peters

When her father yelled “Kill the Indians!” while watching his favorite John Ford Westerns, Pamela J. Peters flinched. “It created this fear within me,” recalled Peters, a Los Angeles-based photographer, filmmaker and poet who belongs to the Navajo Nation.

That memory stuck with Peters throughout her childhood as she struggled to reconcile the portrait of indigenous life that she saw in movies and television with the one she experienced in real life. “When you say 'Indian,' the first things that come to the majority of people's minds are feathers, headdresses, buckskin, long hair, braids. ...There's this fantasy image that people perceive,” she said. “I wasn't this savage that people saw, and what they kept trying to identify me as.”

Peters was 17 when she left her home on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and moved to Los Angeles. (“I was always an adventurous child,” she said.) While earning her bachelor's degree at UCLA, she saw Kent MacKenzie's 1961 docudrama “The Exiles,” and realized she belonged to a broader movement of urban Indians.

“He gave a voice to Native Americans at a time when Hollywood was recreating and redefining Indians on film [and television],” she said of MacKenzie. “I asked, 'What can I do to continue this story?' People need to know that's going on.”


Kholan Studi, a Cherokee tribal member, channels Tony Curtis in "Real NDNZ Re-take Hollywood."
Kholan Studi channels Tony Curtis in the series "Real NDNZ Re-take Hollywood" by Pamela J. Peters.

Much of Peters' work explores the legacy of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, part of a widespread campaign that saw as many as 750,000 Native Americans move from reservations to urban population centers between the 1950s and '80s.

“Policies were created to diminish us,” the filmmaker said. By relocating Native Americans, she explained, the U.S. government hoped to decrease subsidies given to tribal members on reservations and cease land occupied by them while feeding the blue-collar workforce.

“A lot of people don't realize that L.A. has a large population of Native Americans. ...They're teachers. They're doctors. They're attorneys. They're filmmakers. They're storytellers,” she said. “I really wanted to show that we are part of the history in Los Angeles and we are part of the culture in Los Angeles.”

Her multimedia project “Legacy of Exiled NDNZ” looks at the descendants of that first wave of indigenous migrants as well as those who came to the city at a later date. What began as a short film that premiered at the LA Shorts Fest in 2014 has expanded to encompass a full-length documentary and photo essay.

While “Legacy of Exiled NDNZ” seeks to educate audiences about indigenous people living and working in Los Angeles, her multimedia project “Real NDNZ Re-Take Hollywood” uses photographs and video interviews to examine how the film and television industries have portrayed indigenous people in the past.

Shayna Jackson, a Dakota and Cree tribal member, channels Audrey Hepburn in the series "Real NDNZ Re-take Hollywood."
Shayna Jackson channels Audrey Hepburn in the series "Real NDNZ Re-take Hollywood" by Pamela J. Peters.

"Real NDNZ Re-Take Hollywood," first exhibited in August at Los Angeles gallery These Days, recreates iconic photos of movie stars from Hollywood's Golden Age — re-imagining silver screen heartthrobs such as Audrey Hepburn, James Dean and Tony Curtis as Native American.

Peters said she was inspired by how closely the seven actors she recruited for the project – they include members of the Blackfeet, Dakota, Cherokee, Crow, Shoshone and Seminole nations — resembled their celebrity doppelgangers. “Every time I see them, I go, 'God, you could be a Hollywood star,'” Peters said.

Peters, who counts photographers Dorothea Lange, Annie Leibovitz and Cindy Sherman among her inspirations, wants viewers to consciously change the way they look at modern Native Americans.

“I really want to see Indian actors as actors, not just Indians playing play-Indians. We're always playing Indians — we play them for Halloween. We play them for frat parties. We play them at sporting events," Peters explained. "Let's see them as Hollywood icons. Let's see them as creative people.”

By doing so, she hopes society will perceive Native Americans as real people with names, not mere relics of the past.

Shayna Jackson, a Dakota and Cree tribal member, channels Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" in Pamela J. Peters' series "Real NDNZ Re-take Hollywood."
Shayna Jackson, a Dakota and Cree tribal member, channels Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" in Pamela J. Peters' series "Real NDNZ Re-take Hollywood."
Pamela J. Peters, "Legacy of Exiled NDNZ."
Native Americans arrive at Union Station in Los Angeles in a scene from the film "Legacy of Exiled NDNZ" by Pamela J. Peters.

Top image: Votan Henriquez, "Autoimmune Disease."


Dig this story? Sign up for our newsletter to get unique arts & culture stories and videos from across Southern California in your inbox. Also, follow Artbound on FacebookTwitter, and Youtube.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading

Full Episodes