Succotash and pemmican and other treasures of Native American gastronomy don't feature big on fine menus around the world.
Traditional Indian art forms such as basketry and quill work are appreciated, but mostly in the ghetto of native craft and its collectors.
Native music hasn't won many Grammys.
Then there's the world of cutting-edge contemporary art. It may be the only place where works by North America's native peoples really rank.
At the supremely prestigious Documenta exhibition in Germany in 2002, a whole suite of monitors was given over to Zacharias Kunuk and his Igloolik Isuma Productions video collective, for an installation about contemporary native life around the Arctic Circle.
Brian Jungen is a talented young Vancouver artist whose mother is from the Dunne-za Nation -- a group once known as the Beaver Indians -- in the interior of British Columbia. He is featured in the international biennial in Gwangju, South Korea, which launched earlier this month. The Washington-based curators who helped organize the show were wowed when they came across his works. He's made standard shipping pallets exquisitely carved from cedar, the wood of choice for the palletfuls of West Coast native art that ship to the outside world; whale "skeletons" assembled from cut-up plastic garden chairs -- complex things that prod at the flat-footed ideas of nativeness that most of us, including many Indians, have bought into. Jungen is about as hot a commodity as the art world has to offer.
Rebecca Belmore, an Anishinabe artist now based in Vancouver, will represent Canada at the Venice Biennale this coming summer. Her plan for the project has yet to be released, but it's bound to challenge everything her viewers think about the nature and meaning of Native American culture.
Similarly radicalized native artists such as James Luna and Jimmie Durham -- who was featured in the last Venice Biennale -- would be on any list of figures who have mattered in the recent history of art.
Visit the Smithsonian's new National Museum of the American Indian, and you can get a taste of some of this plenty in its permanent collection. Three of the eight major works installed to celebrate the museum's opening are commissions from living artists, and there are a few other contemporary pieces scattered here and there. (The special-exhibition area has been devoted to a two-man loan show of George Morrison and Allan Houser, native Old Masters who hit their stride after World War II and are now deceased.) There isn't much current art on show, and not all of it is native art at its most daring. But it should whet some appetites.
NMAI isn't an art museum, so most of its contemporary works have come into the collection as donations, or by transfer from other government bodies, rather than as strategic purchases. This means the holdings can be pretty hit-or-miss.
The museum's most exciting works of contemporary art are tucked into a small display inside the "Our Lives" exhibition on the museum's third floor, which explores how indigenous Americans live today. The display uses a few small works of art to illustrate how the "vocabulary" of native culture has changed to deal with contemporary realities.
One vitrine contains a delicate vessel by Mi'kmaq artist Gail Tremblay, immaculately crafted in the ancestral style of native basketwork from the Northeast.
Tremblay has clearly taken pleasure in surveying the world around the contemporary native artist -- a world that includes film schools and cast-off footage -- for attractive crafts materials, just as her ancestors would have scoured their forest environment for basketry supplies. But there's real contemporary content here as well: The illegibility of the random, discarded film stock has something poignant about it. It seems to talk about native artists and cultures at sea in a world of passing images that rarely speak to their reality. It talks about a kind of desperate cultural tinkering, in which an Indian artist tries to make white culture useful but finds in it only the raw material for nostalgic craft.
There's a kind of willed obtuseness in this basket, a refusal to acknowledge that the film stock is anything more than a pile of ribbons, or that an Indian might use it for something other than traditional basketwork. "You want me to be the kind of naive Indian who thinks glass beads are money, and that film stock is just another kind of bark?" the artist seems to say. "Then that's what I'll be. And I'll still make an object with both beauty and meaning in it."
In another vitrine, Alaskan Inuit Lawrence Beck has played the same games with hallowed traditions and modern reality. An object that seems to be a traditional one-eyed spirit mask is in fact cobbled together from shiny new housewares. The artist has used fragments of slotted kitchen spoons, dental mirrors and a stainless-steel vegetable steamer to mimic an artwork from his ancestral past. The piece takes a swipe at the whole idea of the "traditional," often imposed on Native American artists by white buyers who prefer their Indian culture unsullied by modern life.
A few other important contemporary native artists get some play on the museum's third floor. There's a picture of Luna's 1987 "Artifact Piece," a performance in which the Luiseno artist presented his own body in a museum display case, as though his Indianness automatically transformed him into an object of essentially anthropological interest. Another photo shows the "megaphone" project of Anishinabe artist Rebecca Belmore, in which she installed a massive bullhorn in Canada's capital and invited her fellow native peoples to step up and give voice to their concerns. But both of these important artists are introduced to visitors only as illustrations of vexed moments in native politics. Neither has works in the museum's collection.
The museum's few works of current Native American art on view simply as art, rather than as historical illustration -- these include the three "landmark objects" commissioned for this week's opening -- are so tame they barely register as contemporary at all.
The museum has commissioned a totem pole carved this year by Nathan, Stephen and Dorica Jackson, of Alaska's Tlingit people, meant to be a purist's revival of the kind of carving practiced by these artists' ancestors. It is a lovely thing, with all the virtues of the ancient objects it derives from. But it doesn't engage the contemporary world, or the wider world of contemporary art, in any substantial way.
Another landmark object, commissioned as a gift to the museum from the Canadian government, is by Vancouver artist Susan Point. She's a major figure in West Coast native art who has revived Coast Salish styles, which used to be overshadowed by the work of groups based farther north. Her sculpture at NMAI is a head-high disk of red cedar, carved and painted to illustrate a coastal myth about the origins of salmon. There would never have been an object like this in an ancient Salish village, but it brings together motifs, techniques and styles that come out of that past. Point starts from traditional forms but develops and expands them so they can function in a free-standing, European-style work of art. In this piece, Point updates tradition, working as a living proponent of it. But she doesn't push beyond tradition to question the premises it's built on, or to engage the other contemporary art that's made around the world today, as some of her most daring colleagues have.
A third major commission, by Roxanne Swentzell of the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, doesn't channel ancient native forms as directly. Her project, paid for by the museum, consists of a series of large, whimsical figures cast in high relief in bronze and applied to the curving outside wall of the museum's theater. They evoke the lightly stylized, art deco figuration that you see in projects that were commissioned by the Works Progress Administration as decoration for Depression-era public buildings. The whole package reads as an uncomplicated, unquestioned marriage of outdated European style and nostalgic Indian motifs. The two traditions don't strike sparks off each other; they damp each other down.
If cutting-edge Native American art has such a high profile in the wider world, why is it so barely present in the Smithsonian's new showcase for Indian culture? According to Gerald McMaster, a prominent Plains Cree artist, scholar and curator responsible for the content of NMAI's exhibitions, there's a sense that Washington, and the Mall museum's imagined audience, aren't ready for the challenge of contemporary art. They need to be exposed to the "foundations" of native art, he said, before they can go on to its more current incarnations. Audiences in the capital need priming before they can confront works such as his own "What Becomes a Legend Most," a painting that parodies the cliched style of Santa Fe tourist art, showing a stereotypical Indian "brave" on horseback with the famous tag line from Blackglama furs inscribed nearby. (The museum doesn't own any McMasters.)
Even some of McMaster's peers and bosses don't seem ready for this kind of probing art. Not long ago, says McMaster, he tried to acquire one of Jungen's landmark early works. In an acclaimed show from 1999, the artist took classic Air Jordans, cut the shoes up and sewed them into imitations of the traditional red, black and white masks of British Columbia's coastal peoples -- groups to whom he has no ethnic links. Jungen cobbled white consumerism and Indian cliches together into an irresistible fetish object. McMaster says that when he brought one of these rare pieces to the museum's acquisitions committee, members didn't seem to know of Jungen's growing reputation, and maybe didn't quite appreciate the critique in the piece. They turned the purchase down -- which means the museum will now have to wait for some millionaire collector to donate an early Jungen, since their prices have soared.
Jimmie Durham, the Cherokee artist and activist, has a telling quote: "As an authorized savage, it is my custom and my job to attack." But you won't find much of this savagery at Washington's National Museum of the American Indian.