Indie Indigenous: Virgil Ortiz and the Changing Face of Native Art

Editor’s note: below is the final installment of a three-part series by Rachel “Io” Waters about contemporary native art and culture. The first two blog posts in this series, and the intro post, can be found here, here and here


Image from Virgil Ortiz’ Venutian Soldiers series

There is this notion of Native American art that permeates the collective psyche. Often the mental images evoked are those of pastel landscapes with painted horses galloping along sandstone cliffs or of noble maidens snuggling with wolves, created by artists whose only contact with native culure appears to come from Harlequin covers. It’s the type of art best reserved for the walls of Best Western hotels and 24 karat gold-rimmed collector’s plates. Pleasant. Bland.

Enter Virgil Ortiz, a painter, fashion designer, stylist and ceramicist from Cochiti Pueblo whose work challenges every notion of how native art should look. At once traditional and futuristic, whimsical and post-apocalyptic, Ortiz’s art transcends classification altogether.


From 2010’s Contortionista series which melds 19th Century Pueblo Munos figures with the sensual lines of modern Cirque performers.

With a reach extending far beyond the borders of his home state of New Mexico, Ortiz has created prints for fashion giant Donna Karan and continues to expand his own fashion line into the realms of clothing and accessories.

In August of this year, Ortiz premiered his latest project “Venutian Soldiers” during Indian Market in Santa Fe, NM. Inspired by “America’s First Revolution,” the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Ortiz showcased a series of ceramic work and photography depicting an army of futuristic, indigenous superheroes outfitted with feathered gasmasks and latex loincloths.


Image from Virgil Ortiz’ Venutian Soldiers series

The 1491s: Bastard Children of Manifest Destiny

Hollywood would have you believe that American Indians are a pretty humorless lot. Stoic, tragic, fierce, mystical, romantic? Sure. But funny? Somehow the notion never caught on and yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Though I was born too late to share a joke with my more culturally connected Mvskoke relatives in Poarch Creek, Alabama, I had the benefit of spending much of my childhood in an Ojibwa household where laughter reigned supreme. I never saw anyone cry over garbage being tossed by the roadside, but I’ve spent many evenings shedding tears of joy. Bawdiness and wit are, for many indigenous peoples, virtues which help hold communities together, ensure the survival of stories and traditions and offer healthy means to cope with frustration and heartache.

Perhaps no one sums up the native experience and debunks stereotypes more concisely or hilariously than the 1491s, an all-native comedy group that describes itself as “a gaggle of Indians chock full of cynicism and splashed with a good dose of indigenous satire.”

In the video below – set to a 1979 disco cover of the song “I’m an Indian Too” from Annie Get Your Gun – the 1491s tackle the ongoing obsession in pop culture with all things Indian, lampooning hipsters who sport headdresses and contrasting popular images of Indians with natives (and a few fans of native culture) at the Santa Fe Indian Market:


That’s yours truly at 2:06.

In other skits, presented after the jump, they poke fun at everything from “Twilight” to the Occupy Wall Street movement, cleverly highlighting its failure to incorporate the concerns of indigenous people.

Syncretize, Decolonize: First Nations Find a Voice Through Urban Music and Dance

It was a Thursday night in Albuquerque, NM, and on the floor of a small club on the outskirts of town a member of the Foundations of Freedom dance crew drew applause from onlookers. With his synthesis of moves culled from breakdance and traditions far older, the dancer transitioned from handspins to a kneeling archer’s position in one fluid motion. When the song – itself a hybrid of house and powwow music – finishes, the dancer straightened his shirt emblazoned with the image of a Playboy bunny sporting eagle feathers in place of ears.


A Tribe Called Red comprised some of the music at the event. The group, which emerged out of Canada in 2008, synthesizes powwow music and electronica into a genre known as “Powwow Step.”

The club was packed with people predominately from New Mexico’s 19 Pueblos and from the Navajo (Diné) nation. Those who turned out were clad in intricately beaded jewelry, hand-painted Chucks and witty T-shirts which nodded to pop culture or made parody and political statement out of the stereotypes that so many non-indigenous Americans ascribe to when it comes to native peoples.

The party was one among dozens of music, art and fashion events surrounding the Gathering of Nations powwow held every April in Albuquerque, NM, where more than 50,000 individuals from more than 500 nations come to dance, sell their wares and mingle. But for most of those in the club that night, the powwow itself wasn’t the main event.


Patrick CloudFace Burnham (foreground) and Randy Barton create live paintings at a Gathering of Nations after party.

In fact, for many it represented just another means for non-natives to exploit native people. And while some would go to support friends and family, others declared the event fodder for the colonized and instead chose to attend native-organized counter powwows and Sacred Cyphers where musicians, painters and dancers could express themselves in their own spaces through a fusion of native song, hip hop and electronic dance.

Better than Coffee: Nakotah LaRance

Columbus Day has been rebranded as many things – from Indigenous People’s Day to Imperialist Day to Exploration Day. To celebrate this holiday, we’ll be publishing a three-part series of blog posts by guest writer and Coilhouse Issue 01 contributor Rachel Waters, a.k.a. Io, about modern native art and culture.

Io writes, “I’ve gotten pretty weary of the Diane Sawyer/Lisa Ling poverty porn about natives and I felt it was time someone focused on the massive renaissance of native art/music/dance as it relates to decolonization and forging a 21st century native identity which pays homage to the traditional whilst being thoroughly cutting edge. I mean, these guys are creating genres of music like Powwow-Step, creating really strong public art, mixing breakdance and grass dance and holding Sacred Cypher competitions with all native hip-hop and dance troupes.”

The first piece in the series is going up imminently. For now, enjoy this video of hoop dancer Nakotah LaRance dancing to a song by New York-based electronic duo The Knocks. LaRance, 23, is a six-time world hoop dancing championship winner who was just 19 years old when Cirque du Soleil discovered a video of one of his performances, and invited him to go on tour. In this video, Nakotah takes to the desert to perform a stunning dance routine. [via Io]

Cargo Cult, Native Appropriations, and Voodoo Programming

The campaign slogan was “Traditional Goes Digital,” and it included three images: Squaw, Brave and Chief. These were created for Australian printing company ColorChiefs in 2006, and recently resurfaced on the How to Be a Retronaut blog, to such wry comments as “Native American steampunk use ALL the parts of the 8088.” The images have also garnered some critique, both for their cultural appropriation and sexism. As blogger Ikwe recently wrote on Tumblr, “it’s not very creative to sexualize a native woman in this way but it’s packaged with a new futuristic sexy theme so it’s sooooo groundbreaking and chic. Oh yes, the ad also reminds us that we are moving forward from our primitive and savage ways. Meh.” Paging Dr. Adrienne!

Looking at this somewhat clueless ad campaign did lead me through an interesting Wikipedia tunnel. Come with me on a magical journey:

Cargo Cult on Wikipedia:

With the end of the war, the military abandoned the airbases and stopped dropping cargo. In response, charismatic individuals developed cults among remote Melanesian populations that promised to bestow on their followers deliveries of food, arms, Jeeps, etc. The cult leaders explained that the cargo would be gifts from their own ancestors, or other sources, as had occurred with the outsider armies. In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the soldierssailors, and airmen use. Cult behaviors usually involved mimicking the day to day activities and dress styles of US soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles.[5] The islanders carved headphones from wood and wore them while sitting in fabricated control towers. They waved the landing signals while standing on the runways. They lit signal fires and torches to light up runways and lighthouses.[citation needed] In a form of sympathetic magic, many built life-size replicas of airplanes out of straw and cut new military-style landing strips out of the jungle, hoping to attract more airplanes. The cult members thought that the foreigners had some special connection to the deities and ancestors of the natives, who were the only beings powerful enough to produce such riches.

Which led to Cargo Cult Programming on Wikipedia:

A style of computer programming that is characterized by the ritual inclusion of code or program structures that serve no real purpose. Cargo cult programming is typically symptomatic of a programmer not understanding either a bug he or she was attempting to solve or the apparent solution (compare shotgun debuggingvoodoo programming).[1] The term cargo cult programmer may also apply when an unskilled or novice computer programmer (or one not experienced with the problem at hand) copies some program code from one place and pastes it into another place, with little or no understanding of how the code works, or if it is required in its new position.

Voodoo Programming on Wikipedia:

In computer programmingdeep magic refers to techniques that are not widely known, and may be deliberately kept secret. The number of such techniques has arguably decreased in recent years, especially in the field of cryptography, many aspects of which are now open to public scrutiny. The Jargon File makes a distinction between deep magic, which refers to (code based on) esoteric theoretical knowledge; black magic, which refers to (code based on) techniques that appear to work but which lack a theoretical explanation; and heavy wizardry, which refers to (code based on) obscure or undocumented intricacies of particular hardware or software. All three terms can appear in source code comments of the form:

Deep magic begins here…

In fiction, the term comes from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, an early book from C. S. Lewis‘s The Chronicles of Narnia, which describes ancient laws and codes as “deep magic from the dawn of time.”

[via m1k3y]

Better Than Coffee: The Maori Legend of the Kiwi

[Good morning, dear comrades. I’m chugging redbull and running to catch a ferry in a few minutes, so please forgive the sloppiness of this edition of BTC!]

Last night, I and ten other curious folks took a guided nocturnal hike through the Karori Sanctuary. A dense and verdant square mile of forest located mere minutes from downtown Wellington, the preserve is surrounded by a predator-proof fence (specially designed to keep out invasive species like hedgehogs, possums, cats and dogs), and has become “a safe haven for some of [New Zealand’s] most iconic and endangered native animals, including tuatara, little spotted kiwi, saddleback, hihi and giant weta.”

kiwilsom copy

Our lovely tour guide, Tracy, told us that there are approximately 100 little spotted kiwis living in the sanctuary. They’re extremely shy and elusive critters, so there was no guarantee we’d get to see one. But we lucked out and encountered one foraging in the underbrush mere feet from the trail. He was one of most adorable, lovable creatures I have ever seen. I will cherish the memory of his fuzzy rump bounding off through the twilight for the rest of my life.

There are hundreds of different factoids I could share about his species. Perhaps when I return from my travels in a few days, I’ll add some of them in comments. Hopefully some of Coilhouse’s more knowledgable NZ and/or birding readership will chime in as well?

For now, here is the Maori legend of New Zealand’s beloved hairy little whiskered flightless bird, imparted by Ben, Hayden and Gavin, three young storytellers from Mangakahia Area School in Titoki, Northland:

The Maori Legend:

Why Kiwi Lives on the Forest Floor

One day the king of the forest, Tanemahuta, was walking through the forest. He looked at his trees and noticed that they looked sick. They were being eaten by the bugs that lived on the forest floor. Tanemahuta told his brother Tanehokahoka (King of the sky) what had happened to his children the trees.

Tanehokahoka wanted to help his brother so he called all the birds together for a meeting. Tanemahuta said to them all
“The ground bugs are eating the trees. I need one of you to give up your life in the sky and come and live on the forest floor so the trees will be saved. Who will come?

Tanemahuta and Tanehokahoka waited and listened – but everything was quiet, and not a single bird spoke. Tanehokahoka turned to Tui…

[Story continues after the jump]