When white people came to the Plains, they brought with them paperwork. They brought ledgers, so they could record their monetary transactions as they went about the business of overtaking an entire culture and setting up a new one. An American one. The native tribes had a tradition of painting on animal hides with mineral pigments, using bone and wood. As they encountered white Americans, they adapted their traditional artistic techniques to make use of the new materials brought by these new people. They drew warriors and hunters and courtship scenes, among much else, on the ruled and lined paper that was designed for the accounting of the coming new economy.
"God did that story get old," says Dwayne Wilcox. He's a contemporary ledger artist and he spent years on the art-fair circuit, telling this abbreviated history to an endless parade of curious onlookers who'd never heard of the tradition that his work referred to. "I always knew about ledger art," he tells me from his home in Rapid City, S.D., "and I thought everyone else did too. But I was wrong."
Wilcox, a Lakota, grew up in a tiny town on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. "That's where it all started," he says, "'cause there was really nothing else to do in the early days. I'm from a generation that was in the twilight zone. ... Pumping your own water, kerosene lamps, that kind of stuff. But, you know, that didn't last very long, thank God." He started drawing on used scrap paper his sisters brought home from boarding school, but he wasn't satisfied with his materials. "I never found it inspiring to draw on old paper," he tells me, laughing like he does throughout our conversation. "I wanted to draw on art paper."
He eventually left the reservation, spent time in the military, moved all over the country and made art on art paper. "I did the same kind of drawings on art paper as I do on this ledger stuff," he says, "but the art papernobody ever really cared about it. Couldn't really get a price that I wanted [for it] and everything. So you kind of learn after awhile."
Wilcox is candid about his struggle to balance his need to make a living as an artist, which means catering to an outmoded and racist perception of Indians, and his need to stay true to himself and to contemporary American Indian culture.
"I was doing warriors on ponies because that sold good and that's what everybody wanted to see an Indian look like," he says. "They didn't want to see him in a baseball cap and tennis shoes. ... We're drawing these warriors and selling them. But we didn't have to live through that. Our time is just as important as our grandfathers' time. They gave us a lot of tools that carried us on in life, so why aren't we reflecting some good about our culture today? Something that's got some strength to it, rather than just 'Oh, the poor white people are just beating the hell out of us again.'"
His response to all of these contradictory impulses can be seen in his exhibit Above the Fruited Plains at the Missoula Art Museum. His are narrative drawings that meld 19th-century Indian tradition and contemporary cartooning technique to make images that are funny and alarming, broadly farcical and bluntly realistic. In "Custer Eating Crow," a pair of solicitous American Indians serve the bird to the man himself on a silver platter. In another drawing, a pair of nude Indians flee across a KOA campground full of teepees. In another, a gaggle of Indians in traditional dress relentlessly photograph a pair of middle-American tourists. In "There's One in Every Crowd," a group of modern Indians mill aroundand the "one" seems to refer to the guy in the foreground who has a mullet. "Indians had mullets at one time," Wilcox informs me, laughing again, "they just didn't call it that. They called it the David Cassidy hairdo and the shag."
We might prefer to see Indians as quaint and noble historical relicslike real-life kokopellis!but Wilcox makes us see their bad haircuts and their complicated contemporary situation. And he hopes to pave the way for future American Indian artists to do the same. "These next artists," Wilcox says, "hopefully they don't have to paint Indians talking sign language and just rebreathing life into the old crap. Nothing wrong with the old crap, but we gotta make some new stuff."
A First Friday opening reception for Dwayne Wilcox's Above the Fruited Plains will be held Friday, June 1, from 5 PM to 8 PM, with an artist talk by Wilcox at 7 PM. Free.