At the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, artist Wendy Red Star noticed a lonely pair of Crow moccasins sitting in a glass case.
"I remember looking at these," she says, "and knowing that if they'd put a name there that I probably would know who the family is. Perhaps they were my relatives."
Afterwards, she found herself looking at the idyllic dioramas, watching visitors gazing at the collection, she says "assuming that these native tribes were nonexistent... And here I was—a real-life Crow Indian—sitting among them. That made me feel really strange... When they were collecting that stuff it was because they thought we were going to vanish... because they were killing us off."
Red Star has always been fascinated by exploring stereotypes, especially those attached to her Crow heritage. But it wasn't until that alienating museum experience that she began to accumulate items for her Four Seasons series, which attempted to ironically dissect the public's idealized view of American Indians in contemporary society. Using comedic, blow-up wildlife in '70s panoramas of mountains and lakes, Red Star assembled a cathartic, mocking look at indigenous, dioramic representations, even posing as the principal model in each tableau.
"I don't take art too seriously, so all of it has some sort of humorous aspect to it," she says. "The issues with Native American art are so complex that there's not much I would have to do for social commentary, because the commentary is already there."
Red Star creates tightly focused body of works, ranging from electrically bright lithographs featuring old automobiles to three-story high tipi poles arranged according to positions laid down by Chief Sits In The Middle Of The Land in a speech to the Crow nation. Baloowappaache, a "big, mock sweat lodge" installation piece, is outfitted with chairs, a wall filled with photos of Crow Indians throughout history and a television set that is constantly tuned to Crow-themed YouTube videos.
Likewise, her photographs are illustrative of her dual-perspective of archiving "Crow land, Crow reservation" and her aspiration to demystify her fellow Crows. "I want to focus on real people and who we are and what our houses look like," she says. Her photos depict the disused cars, rundown movie theaters, churches—"all the churches I could find, she says"—and the other manufactured objects dotting the Crow landscape and its rural surroundings. A similar multi-media project involves a set of star quilts onto which she's emblazoned slides from the 1970s. "I love the historical photos of my ancestors... But to me these pictures of the Crows... in their bellbottoms, are just as interesting."
Red Star's current exhibit, My Home is Where my Tipi Sits (Crow Country), is at the Missoula Art Museum and, like so much of her other work, it speaks with humor and candidness to her experience as a Crow Indian in contemporary society.
Born in Billings in 1981, Red Star was raised in a thoroughly multi-cultural environment on the nearby Crow reservation: Her mother was an Irish nurse, her father full-blooded Crow, and later she would be joined by a Korean sister whom her mother adopted.
"My mom was really great at making sure my sister and I were involved in our culture," Red Star says. "She pushed me more than my dad did to participate in Crow culture."
That included going to the local Crow Fair every third week in August.
"I did the rodeo," she says.
Red Star's attraction to the saturated colors and the flamboyant patterns that would mark her later work came from her grandmother and her grandmother's beadwork.
When she was 18, she moved to Bozeman to study sculpture at Montana State University, and then went on to receive an MFA at UCLA. Immediately in these larger cities, she came face to face with the disjunction between reservation life and the pre-conceptions of a misinformed outside world.
"I started to realize these major differences," she says. "Mostly how poor people were on the reservation... I started getting these stereotypical questions, like 'Do you still live in tipis?'" Red Star laughs softly. "I always approached it as educating people, whereas my dad would just say, 'Oh yeah, we still live in tipis.'"
Describing herself as a "cultural archivist," Red Star tries to document and preserve the social contrasts that she still encounters, on and off reservation. She is also an educator who teaches art as an adjunct professor at Portland State University, where she started the Contemporary North American Indigenous Artists blog. She had her students interview prominent American Indian artists, asking what it meant, essentially, to be considered American Indian artists.
When I flipped the question on her, she hesitated a moment. "There's a big debate going on in the Native American community about that," she says. "Some of the artists don't want to be associated with their background at all." But having that label, she says, does relate to her work.
"There is going to be a movement of Native American artists," she says excitedly. She sees her photography, paintings and staged dioramas as ways to awaken people "to this new Native American image, instead of the Hollywood Indians."
"A lot of my work is anti-romanticism—which usually means just telling the truth."
Wendy Red Star's exhibit My Home is Where My Tipi Sits (Crow Country) opens at MAM with a reception and gallery talk Friday, August 5, from 5 PM to 8 PM. Free.