‘Last American Indian’ finds challenges in performance art

Written by Kris Coronado

On a gray October morning, the Lincoln Memorial is teeming with tourists. Many are so intent on jockeying for a good spot to take a photo of the presidential statue, they seem to miss the 6-foot-4 man wearing a feathered headdress.

With a black handprint painted across his unsmiling face, he looks like a Native American caricature: black wool leggings bordered with fringe and a matching loincloth hanging from a belted loop. At times, he holds cardboard signs saying: “My Spirit Animal Is White Guilt” and “This Used to Be Indian Land But Everything Went to Crap.”

This is the fourth time Montclair artist Gregg Deal has brought his performance piece, “The Last American Indian on Earth,” to this well-trod spot. As the 38-year-old sits on the memorial steps and checks his iPhone, an invisible stage has been set. Deal waits for another character to start the action.

It doesn’t take long. A middle-aged blonde sits next to him and asks if her friend can take a picture. Deal obliges. Posing for photos is the most common request Deal gets. Many observers mistake his cliched costume for an authentic representation of an Indian; others assume he’s dressed to support Washington’s pro football team, an irony, because he objects to the name “Redskins.”

A silver-haired man enters the scene. Standing behind Deal, who doesn’t see him, the man raises his right palm with a playful smile, making sure the woman taking the photo gets him in the shot.

Also in this issue:  Read about Northern Virginia native and novelist Helen Wan’s exploration of the Asian American “bamboo ceiling. Also in this issue: Read about Northern Virginia native and novelist Helen Wan’s exploration of the Asian American “bamboo ceiling.

Moments later, when a reporter asks him why he posed that way, the man answers: “I thought that was the Indian greeting of ‘How.’ ” He gives his name and e-mail address but quickly ends his conversation when the reporter asks him what he does at the International Monetary Fund.

Unaware of the exchange, Deal has wandered to the sidewalk, where he is greeted by a bearded man in a black turban. As the man’s son snaps a photo of him with Deal, 58-year-old Amrik Singh Mudhar jokes: “One Indian to another.”

Deal chuckles and adds, “Columbus is blowing up somewhere.”

The artist and Mudhar — who, as it happens, is visiting from London to see a football game the next day — proceed to have an amicable discussion about historical oppression as it relates to heritage. Bidding farewell, Mudhar says, “You should be proud of who you are, because I’m very proud of who I am.”

The two encounters, the quick and easy mockery and the thoughtful conversation, demonstrate the range of reactions Deal has experienced during his performances. But he gets more of the former, he says, and “I feel that the knee-jerk reaction is the true reaction.”

Deal visits the Lincoln Memorial. Deal visits the Lincoln Memorial. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

(Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

(Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

(Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

(Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

Growing up in Park City, Utah, the son of a Caucasian father and a Native American mother, Deal knew he looked different from the white kids in his class. But tribal traditions weren’t part of his daily life because he didn’t know what tribe he was from. His mother had been adopted by a white family and had no information on her tribal affiliation. Though she chose not to seek the information through the Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal law that aims to preserve the native ties of Indian children, she and Deal did request records from the agency that handled her adoption, to no avail. “I’d call and say, ‘Listen ... I can’t be a member of my tribe without all of this information in order to substantiate my bloodlines,’ ” Deal recalls.

In 1998, Deal, who was managing a pizza and video rental store in Provo, Utah, met Brigham Young University student Megan Prymak. After a quick courtship, the pair moved to Montclair, where Prymak grew up, and married. While his wife worked in sales and recruiting, Deal enrolled at George Mason University, majoring in art, with a concentration in painting.

In 2006, the couple had a daughter named Sage.

As a new dad, Deal felt a renewed desire to substantiate his roots and tried the adoption agency once more. This time, his persistence paid off. “I was able to call my mom and tell her her birth parents’ names,” Deal says. He traced his lineage to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s reservation near Reno, Nev. He and his mother enrolled for tribal membership in 2007.

Deal, whose work has appeared in individual and group exhibitions since 2002, was laid off from a graphic design job in September 2009. Since then, he has supported his family (he and his wife now have three children, ages 1 to 7, with a fourth due in June) with art commissions and sales at local art events. His interest in native affairs continued to build, especially with the growing controversy about the Redskins’ name. And, though he considers himself primarily a painter, he began to contemplate a performance art piece.

At the Venice Biennial in 2005, Deal had assisted Native American performance artist James Luna with the first installation of “Emendatio,” which included a segment in which Luna danced inside a ceremonial circle made up of Spam cans, syringes and sugar packets, meant to represent the ill health of indigenous communities. Deal, who calls it a life-changing event, began to see what he once considered a hokey idea as a powerful social platform.

Last spring, Deal came up with his own performance concept in which he’d dress up in a brash getup to physically embody what he believes many non-indigenous people envision when they think of a Native American. The mostly prefabricated outfit is a costume, not authentic regalia; is intentionally over-the-top; and holds no personal significance for Deal. “Traditional native outfits have a lot of heart and soul in them because a family builds them, and they do the beadwork and everything,” Deal explains. “I didn’t want any of that with my outfit.”

He crowdsourced the funds to purchase an imitation eagle-feather war bonnet online. The white beaded strips on his leggings were made in China. He painted his shoes, size 12 Vans, to mimic moccasins.

He’d wear the ensemble in public, walking and often snapping photos with his iPhone as if his attire weren’t out of the ordinary. Accompanied by a photographer, Deal would document in photos and video what passersby did when they came across him, whether at a diner or on the Mall. He envisioned that the photos and video footage, most of which has been shot in the D.C. area since August, would be made into a short film. He began posting snapshots of his experiences online ( thelastamericanindianonearth.com ).

Deal acknowledges that the concept of dressing as an overly stereotypical Indian to see how others react may be setting them up, but, he counters, “I think that the interesting comment on that is not that I’m setting people up, but that we live in a society where my dressing like that would actually be setting people up.”

Deal’s extravagant attire attracts quizzical looks,and those who react vocally fall into predictable categories. There are the whoops and war cries, such as those from a Penn Quarter Protein Bar employee who says that being a Redskins fan makes it okay for him to yell “Aiyaiyaiyayah!” at Deal. Suspicion is another, as displayed by a security officer at Potomac Mills mall who demands to know what Deal is doing (Deal’s response of “Shopping” irking the officer all the more). There’s the bizarre: Upon meeting Deal at the Lincoln Memorial, an Italian tour guide tells him, “My people send greetings to your people.”

And, of course, there are the amazed who think Deal is, well, the real deal, such as the 20-something woman who bumps into Deal outside a pop-up art event in Shaw.

“So,” she says, “you do the patterns and the beads and stuff?”

Whatever the reaction, Deal tries not to show what he is feeling — often frustration, at times anger. But he does tend to be cordial to those who engage him in friendly and thoughtful conversation, as in the case of Mudhar. Those interactions, however, are rare. As Deal anticipated when he first began the piece, yells and insults are among the most common vocal reactions.

Suspecting that will be the case is one thing; experiencing it over and over again has proved to be more emotionally taxing than Deal had anticipated.

“I think after the third time I was out there, I told my wife I had to stop, ‘I gotta take a step back from this.’ ”

And soon, he would have to ask himself just how much he would be willing to endure to make his artistic statement.

Deal, far left, discusses the Redskins’ name with television host W. Kamau Bell, center, and Ho-Chunk Nation member Andy Thundercloud. Deal, far left, discusses the Redskins’ name with television host W. Kamau Bell, center, and Ho-Chunk Nation member Andy Thundercloud. (Yana Paskova/For The Washington Post)

Though his opinion about the Redskins name — that it’s an insult, not an honor — was part of the inspiration for “The Last American Indian on Earth,” Deal hasn’t intended to become publicly involved in the debate. Yet, after continually encountering locals who mistake his attire as an opening to discuss their love of the team, he decides to launch a new site, changethename.tumblr.com, in October.

It is those efforts that attract the attention of the producers of the FXX late-night show “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell.” Hosted by stand-up comic Bell, the half-hour program is a mix of comedy, celebrity interviews and discussion of pop culture, often aiming to stir the pot on diversity issues. (The show was canceled nearly two weeks after Deal’s appearance.) Producers invite Deal to the Manhattan studio for a debate about the Redskins name with Andy Thundercloud, a 70-year-old elder of the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin. Deal would explain why he wants the moniker changed, while Thundercloud would discuss his indifference to the mascot.

During the taping, one wouldn’t guess this is Deal’s national television debut. Dressed casually in a black sweatshirt and jeans, Deal seems at ease when explaining why he disagrees with Redskins team owner Dan Snyder’sassertion that the Redskins name is a “badge of honor.”

“It honors colonialism,” Deal tells Bell. “The idea of what indigenous people are supposed to be, and not a modern, living, breathing people because I don’t look like the guy that’s on the side of the helmet.”

When the show airs later that night, however, Deal isn’t watching. Instead, he’s in Times Square, taking advantage of the taping to bring “The Last American Indian” to Manhattan.

New York, however, turns out to be a different experience than Washington: No one seems to care. If it was easy to miss Deal among the tourist throngs at Lincoln Memorial, it’s almost impossible to pick him out of the Technicolor melee, bursting with bright lights and oversize billboards, that is Times Square. Those who do notice Deal seem to consider him just another oddball in costume, like the guy in a Spider-Man suit or the multiple Elmos, milling around trying to score tips by posing for pictures.

But when Deal walks by the U.S. Polo Association storefront, 23-year-old employee Clive Campbell whoops loudly. Asked why, Campbell answers, “Oh, so that he could have, you know, people notice that he’s standing there.”

On 14th Street, a 47-year-old construction mason, Gillet Hood, makes the same noise from beneath his ventilation mask. “It’s a tradition, like an Indian sound,” he explains. “No?”

Despite the whoops and hollers — seven over a day and a half — Deal sees his time in New York as more muted than in Washington.

“I think D.C. is different than New York, but there’s a sports team there called the Redskins … and I think that I can contribute to the interaction. That got a lot of people [in Washington] to say, ‘Oh, look, he must be with the Redskins,’ or ‘Oh, hey, look, a Redskin.’ So, are they saying that because they’re horrible and they’re racist? Or are they saying that because [they see] a connection to the team?”

Deal has been wondering if he should go to FedEx Field to find out. “I want to walk in the parking lot of FedEx Field, where the Washington Football Team play, during a tailgate party as The Last American Indian On Earth,” he posted earlier on his Web site. “I will wear a sign making it obvious that I am not there in favor of the team, or as their mascot. I was thinking about something along the lines of wearing a sign that says ‘Sub-Human Non-Entity.’ ”

A report by Canada’s CBC News, which Deal sees online in late November, helps him decide: no. The piece included a brief interview with him about the name issue, as well as footage of tailgating Redskins fans, many visibly intoxicated, adamantly defending the name.

“It’s part of our DNA,” says an unidentified man selling buttons that read “I support the name.”

The media montage is a reality check for Deal, and he realizes that experiencing such brazen confrontations without reacting would be tough.

“It’s not just one person,” Deal says. “It would be an entire culture of people ... drunk and inebriated people whose sensitivity level is pretty much nil. Do I want to subject myself to that, whether they think I’m insane or not?”

Deal takes a selfie with an American Bison at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Deal takes a selfie with an American Bison at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

Though some representatives of native organizations declined to comment on Deal’s project, Patsy Phillips, director of the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., sees it as a conversation starter. “I think the more exposure and discussion he can arouse, the more discussion that can happen,” she says.

It’s a discussion to be had by nonnatives and natives alike, says Chase Iron Eyes, a founder of the independent media site LastRealIndians.com. “Not only does it make non-Indians evaluate their own sort of conceptions and biases, but it makes us do that same thing,” he says. “It makes us look at ourselves and think of how are we really portrayed in mainstream media. What does our image really mean to the world?”

Even Deal sometimes finds his own assumptions challenged.

Consider when the Last American Indian on Earth met Santa Claus at Potomac Mills on a December afternoon.

“He shakes my hand,” says Deal, “and he says, ‘Where are you from?’ I said, ‘Pyramid Lake Paiute; I’m from out West.’ ”

Santa’s response took Deal by surprise.

“He goes, ‘I’m Cheyenne River,’ and he starts speaking to me in his language,” Deal says. “This guy looks like Santa Claus.

“My mind was blown a little bit.”

Kris Coronado is a frequent contributor to WP Magazine and an editor at Bethesda magazine.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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