Designing a History of Indigenous Graphic Artists

What would you do as a teenager if you were awoken by a spirit throwing bits of fry bread at you? Depending on how you were culturally raised there are quite a few different responses. As I was watching this scene unfold, I paused the shot. On the walls were posters that felt familiar, comforting, relatable, inspiring. I could see myself in them. Feeling recognized by those who speak your language, whether that be word or bead, carries a lot of weight. But I’m getting ahead of myself, without addressing this spirit in the room.

I’m describing the opening scene of Reservation Dogs, Season 1, Episode 8 “Satvrday.” In it, Spirit (Dallas Goldtooth) comes to check in on one of the show’s teenage protagonists, and is descendent of Spirit, Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai). Spirit is dressed in traditional beadwork and buckskin, warrior feathers adorning his head, and Bear is the archetypal disheveled, sleepy teenager. Every detail has been considered by the set designers and prop team — for instance, the blanket’s colors mirror the medicine wheel centered in the shot. All the room’s adornments are spot-on.

Last year I was asked to give a lecture on Indigenous design history for Poster House in New York City. Afterwards, the museum curators asked if I would like to create an exhibition about Indigenous-designed posters. That led me on a search for documentation and scholarship on Indigenous print and graphic design. History books, timelines, and collections can be limiting in their often narrow viewpoints. As many people currently grapple with what it means to be racially and culturally aware and not to appropriate from other cultures, it is vital that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) scholarship is visible. As a people who have been subject to colonization, subjugation, and attempted erasure, too many histories of Indigenous, Native American, and First Nations people are lacking, especially in design. The scene from Reservation Dogs, which aired on Hulu, a major, internationally distributed streaming service, presents a relatable moment in contemporary Native American life on an Oklahoma reservation. It carries parts of ourselves we can see, reference, and sing to. Right there on Bear’s wall were posters I was able to already know and recognize. It makes me hopeful that we can begin to glean together works that document Indigenous resiliency. As a reconnected native, I want to see my own interests reflected back to me, and I recognized the posters on Bear’s wall. I hear students and friends alike ask where are our books and documentation? Where can I see our Native American design history? Where are our Indigenous typefaces? Where do I see myself in relation to this work? The scene makes me hopeful that we can successfully document Indigenous resiliency.

On the left side of Bear’s wall is a poster by Jonnie Diacon (Mvskoke). Diacon has hand-lettered and illustrated what looks like a concert poster in a psychedelic 1960s style. The artist has long been a fan of this period’s concert posters. I can see the influence of Wes Wilson and Push Pin Studios. What really sings out to me is the use of Mvskoke language, choosing decorative, all capital letters, and the central figure’s motion, dress, and background.

Above the dancing figure is the word SAYVTKETV, meaning “stompdance.” The names of ceremonial grounds in the Mvskoke Nation radiate out from the dancer, like ripples caused by the figure’s downward motion. The individual is outside, domed by the starry night sky and surrounded by a brush arbor and trees. Here I can almost imagine what it would be like to be in that space, lit by the moon, hearing the strong foot rhythms resounding in a circle.

To the right of the Diacon poster is a larger work with a warm marigold yellow background and a screened, black-ink image. Steven Paul Judd (Kiowa-Choctaw) in his classic indigenous meets pop art style, photo-collages the face of Lakota Sioux chief Iron Shell on top of a tombstone-shaped body emblazoned with the hand-drawn message “ I LOVED AMERICA BEFORE IT WAS CALLED AMERICA.” It carries the look of a 1980s inspirational poster, yet it’s (non)ironic reality carries a heavy punch. As an Ancestor, Iron Shell reminds us all that history has been revised to remove the tribes, literally and figuratively, that were here before colonial settlement. We were here and had a balanced way of life.

Each of these artists expresses creative sovereignty and in the act of decolonizing design. They address historically relevant moments in Native American history through native language letterforms or traditional symbol-form vocabulary. The subject matter also deals with relevant topics: cultural forms of expression, spirituality, our relation with the environment and the nature world, and traditional stories and myth.

To begin to document and share these forgotten, neglected, and erased histories, we must not only archive and display the created works, but also learn the stories, processes, and histories of the individual makers or collectives. It’s great to see, in a room like Bear’s, that these works exist and have a place to sing. They note that humanity’s creative sense of hope is still with us. As design historians and curators, we can do better. Native American print and design history needs to sing louder, and that’s what I am hoping to do — to bring these pieces forward to be acknowledged, looked at, listened to, and remembered.

Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2023/24 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators and the first of three posts by the authorthe third of which will be an online exhibition published on Hyperallergic and sent to all newsletter subscribers.

Brian Johnson will discuss his work and research in an online event moderated by Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian on Tuesday, March 26, 6pm (EDT)RSVP to attend.

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