Arts & Culture

Native American art show asks us to imagine if there were a Bureau of Caucasian Affairs

The Native American artists featured in the annual “In the Spirit” art show at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma have never shied away from exploring the boundaries of what defines Indian art.

“It’s known for artists who really experiment and push the limits of contemporary art,” said show juror Charles Bloomfield.

Sometimes the works delve into politics and social issues, like missing and exploited Native American women. Other artists, like Jeffrey Veregge and his superhero prints, have redefined Indian art.

This year show’s — the 14th — opens Thursday and runs through Aug. 11. It has plenty of aesthetically pleasing art and one word-heavy exhibit that uses a role reversal to show the lenghts that Native Americans must go through to be considered an “official” Indian.

“IMPORTANT!” a panel reads. “Please fill out your (Certificate of Degree of Caucasian Blood) card information as follows.”

The so-called “Bureau of Caucasian Affairs” wants to know to what degree of Caucasian blood an applicant has.

“List your tribe/s (example: Dutch, Scottish, Welsh, etc.),” the instructions read. It must be signed by “any willing Native American officer.”

There is, of course, no such bureau. It’s a tongue-in-cheek piece by Samuel Stitt (Choctaw) that comments on what Native Americans must do to be recognized by the federal government.

There is a real Bureau of Indian Affairs and a real Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood.

Bloomfield, who has Saanich and Lummi nations ancestry, is only officially recognized by the government as a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe in Northern Nevada.

“My parents can’t go straight to the tribe and apply for me to be a tribal citizen (when born),” Bloomfield, who lives in Lakewood, said. “I have to go first to the federal government and apply for a certificate of Indian blood.”

The rest of the show is a mix of media, including painting, carving and weaving. The 28 works are by 24 artists, about half of whom are in the show for the first time.

The pieces blend what is traditional and what is contemporary.

“’Traditional’ can be a difficult word when it comes to Native American art,” Bloomfield said. “Everything is contemporary, in a way.”

One piece, a mask called “Predator Cannibal” by Robin Lovelace (Tlingit) has all the shapes of a traditional cedar mask but is made from stainless steel and abalone shell.

Another piece, “Coastal Mjolnir” by Earl Davis of Willapa Bay’s Shoalwater Bay Tribe, uses cedar, glass and LED lighting. Davis is Norwegian as well as Chinook, Chehalis and Yakima/Puyallup. The alternative name for the piece is “Thor’s Hammer.”

Davis’ use of his varied ancestry is a growing trend, Bloomfield said.

“A lot of us have mixed heritage, mixed backgrounds, and artists are incorporating those different mixed backgrounds,” Bloomfield said.

The highlight of the show is the “In the Spirit” Northwest Native Festival on Aug. 10 with entertainment and arts and crafts for sale.

The August event is free as is the history museum, the Tacoma Art Museum and the Museum of Glass on that day. Both art museums are participating in the event with accompanying exhibits.

Craig Sailor has worked for The News Tribune for 20 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He previously worked at The Olympian and at other newspapers in Nevada and California.