Paul Chaat Smith

No Fixed Destination

No Fixed Destination

Art Quantum: Eitejorg Museum of Western and Native American Art

I cannot wait for it to be over. As I am writing, just five months and change before we can send this horrible, unnamed misadventure to the dustbin of history. Ten years of colossal failure on every front. A decade so lame, a collective failure of imagination so vast that we could never even agree on what to call it. By 2002, everyone quit trying to name the thing, and it feels like we’ve been marking time ever since, like jailed prisoners with no chance of parole.

The first U.S. national election, back in 2000, remember that? It came down to one state, conveniently run by the brother of the winning candidate, finally decided weeks later by a bitterly divided Supreme Court. That Tuesday morning in September. Afghanistan. Iraq. Another absurd presidential election. Katrina. Iraq. Afghanistan. A booming economy, kind of, until it crashed, and we all found out it big chunks of the booming economy were essentially fraudulent. The New York Stock Exchange is back where it was at the end of the last millennium, as if the last ten years never happened.

I am still sentimental about my country, so let’s agree that the beginning of the end of the Unnamed Decade was November 4, 2008, when the same country that elected Richard Nixon twice and Bushes three times chose, by a decisive majority, a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama to be their new president. Seriously, who saw that coming? And who knows how the Barry Hussein Project is going to work out? Anyway, that’s a problem the lead essayist for the 2019 Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art catalog can address. Right now, we’re making an assessment about the state of Native American fine art, an assessment that looks at empty cargo jets, the three classes of Indians, and the 1992 film Basic Instinct.

We’ll start with the jets.

Sometime during the end of the last century, people started to be defined by their relationship to aircraft. Actually, to planes and airports. If you lived within an hour or two of a huge city, with a huge airport, you were part of the world. If you lived hours and hours and hours away from Chicago or Miami or New York or Los Angeles, you were not. Rather, you probably occupied a dirt patch in Flyover Country, and spent your days growing watermelons and lima beans, and looking forlornly up into the heavens, as the good people leave contrails that might as well have spelled out, “So Long, Losers!” in their wake.

The planes didn’t always carry passengers. Sometimes they carried packages, and sometimes they even flew around empty, waiting for packages to accumulate. Really, they did. I discovered this in October, 2005, three months after a hurricane and government incompetence nearly destroyed New Orleans. My wife and I were flying from Washington to Vancouver on a discount airline called Independence Air that no longer exists. Halfway across America, Lynora handed me the business section of the New York Times, and pointed to an article. “You’ll want to read this,” she said.

MEMPHIS - The nearly empty Airbus 310 was coasting through the Alabama night sky when a message flashed in the cockpit. “DIVERT,” it said, before using code to order the plane to land in Atlanta. The pilot banked the jet to the east and a half-hour later it was on the ground. There, its cargo door opened up to a group of waiting FedEx employees who began filling it with 17,000 pounds of cargo.

It had been a busy day for Georgia businesses, and FedEx’s regular nightly flights from Atlanta to the company’s Memphis hub were overbooked with packages. So the local crew made a call to a sprawling, low-slung room here at headquarters, where people hunch over computer screens showing weather maps and flight plans, and asked for help from the five empty FedEx jets that roam over the United States every night.

The recent birth of that small fleet, at a multimillion-dollar price tag, explains a lot about how the nation’s economy has become so much more resilient. Think of it as the FedEx economy, a system that constantly recalibrates itself to cope with surprises.

Wow. Five empty FedEx jets roaming over the United States every night, waiting for a message that often never comes, ready to land at any of a dozen cities at a moment’s notice. I won’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent thinking about those empty planes flying through the American night, just that it was really a lot. A business article about recessions became for me a poetic story, rich in metaphor and meaning.

But I didn’t really know why those planes fascinated me so much, or what I thought they meant. I just found the whole concept so beautiful: those huge, empty airplanes flying with no fixed destination, waiting for the flashing light that most nights never flashed, apparently extravagantly excessive, but actually saving time and money and even preventing recessions. I thought about the loneliness of those earnest airplanes, desperately hoping to be useful yet, so often landing in Memphis after a long night of nothing. I imagined the airplanes as somehow alive, feeling a very American sort of loneliness, where it’s always a quarter to three in the morning and Frank Sinatra’s on the cockpit radio. Like Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, except with giant airliners at the diner instead of people.

I’ll bet those empty jets aren’t flying around empty anymore. In 2005, America was big, imaginative, and rich. Four years later, the FedEx economy, blown away by surprises nobody saw coming, has been replaced by the Great Recession.

Flyover Country includes the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala Sioux. And let’s admit something right off the top, before we discuss our main topic, which is really important, namely why there are three classes of Indians, how to identify them, and what it means to each of us. Believe me, there’s lots to say, and by the time we’re done, you are going to be wondering how you made it all these years without this knowledge. I mean, that’s what I thought—“How did I stumble through life absent this knowledge?” How much of this stumbling might have been prevented, if someone had just told me about the three classes? Here’s my guess: a lot. I’m not saying I’d have spent the last few decades as the second coming of Fred Astaire or anything, but I am dead sure the world would have seen a hell of a lot less of PCS tripping over his own feet.

Back to the admission: I think it’s time we formally acknowledge how much we owe the Oglala Sioux. They are the most famous, most studied, most photographed, most feared, most heroic Indians of them all. Best. Indians. Ever. They are like the Academy Awards that year when Titanic swept every category. The rest of us have no chance, we’re just glad to have been nominated. (But not really, we’re just saying that.)

I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize for once writing that compared to my type of Indian, the Comanches, the “Sioux were a bunch of Girl Scouts.” To all Sioux people and also all girls who are now or ever were Girl Scouts: Sorry! Just kidding!

And because they are the most studied, scary, heroic, and interesting Indians ever, the Oglala Sioux have much to teach the rest of us. We can learn from the sidelines, so to speak. Personally, I love being on the sidelines, watching, observing, listening, and avoiding arrest.

Thank you, Oglala Sioux!

So here it is, the three classes of Indians, from the notebooks of famed anthropologist Dr. Scudder Mekeel, who was writing from Pine Ridge in 1930: “Appear to be three main classes of Indians: 1. Christian and trying to be acculturated. 2. Pagan and living as near as possible in old way, and perhaps succeeding spiritually to some extent. 3. The in-betweens—loafers, criminals, delinquents. The first two are fine individuals—the third (by far the majority) are all bums.”

Well, he’s got us there, hasn’t he?

I sense Dr. Mekeel is rooting for class two Indians, even though he knows they are doomed, since living as near as possible in the old ways isn’t very near at all, and has no future. But dammit, they’re trying something at least, and he believes they are “perhaps succeeding spiritually to some extent.” I don’t know what he means by that, but it’s a lot more than he says about class one, with his backhanded slap that they are “trying” (i.e., failing) to be acculturated. To me, this says Dr. Meekel likes the pagans more than the Christians. And really, who doesn’t?

No ambiguity about what he thinks of class three, and that’s probably what everybody thinks about class three, especially all of us who are in class three. We know we’re loafers, criminals, delinquents, and bums. I wouldn’t say we’re proud of it exactly. It is what it is. Because, admit it, nobody really liked the Christian acculturation project that much. It was boring and impossible, because all the Bible reading in the world couldn’t change the fact we were Indians trying to be Christians, and even when we really believed we were Christians, everyone is like, “Why are those Indians trying to be Christians?”

Loafing drove white people nuts, especially in the nineteenth century. Standing around the trading post, the fort, outside the train station, sitting by the highway, or the liquor store. Criminality at least shows some initiative; the Indian criminals and their delinquent fellow travelers at least get up in the morning with the goal of acting in an anti-social way, which takes planning and coordination. Loafing takes nothing at all. Joining the fraternity of bums, paradoxically, takes zero effort.

If most Indians were bums in 1930, does it follow that we are bums today? Yes. The vast majority of us are still bums, even though we’ve produced a disconcerting number of goal-oriented coffee achievers who run large businesses and fly on the space shuttle and so forth. Actually, we are proud of them, and salute them as we head to our afternoon nap. Napping is important, because even though loafing is easy, it takes more than loafing to achieve in-between-ness. The question is, why do most Indians choose to be class threes? I think because we understand that loafing is the most effective way to annoy the largest number of people.

Look at it this way: imagine the problem as the Missouri river. On one riverbank is class one, the trying to be Christian side, once known as the future. On the other riverbank is class two, the pagans and the whole spiritual thing, which we can call the past. Right there in the middle of the Missouri river, on a big, long sandy island, are the huddled masses of Indians who are in between (get it?) the past and the future. What are they doing? Not much. Loafing. Throwing pebbles in the river. Sleeping. Making snarky comments about the ones and the twos. Watching clouds.

This may not seem like much, but it’s way smarter than it looks, and here’s why: class three is neither past nor future, Christian or pagan. It’s just a kind of indigenous Lumpenproletariat that says little to the world, except, “What are you looking at?” The threes project a kind of postmodern alienation that would be at home in a John Updike short story or a Jim Jarmusch movie. Also, quantum physics argues that uncertainty, in-between-ness, if you will, is embedded in the fabric of the universe itself, and if I actually understood what that meant, I would say more about it.

Advanced physics. Frequent napping. Reluctance to get with the program, or any program for that matter. Yes, we’re talking about the artists of the Red Nation.

What have they been up to lately? Lots, actually. They’ve been going to art school in droves, including the famous ones in Chicago and Rhode Island and New York and London. They go to the Venice Biennial, to Documenta, Miami Basel, and the Armory Show.

We go here, and we go there, yet I see us always returning to the island. Make no mistake, the island has been good to us, it made us who we are, but lately I’ve been thinking it may be time to leave the Missouri River for the Indian Ocean.

Why now? Because ideas and circumstances and planets are aligning in ways that offer new opportunities and new responsibilities. Last year, the Prime Minister of Canada apologized before Parliament and a national television audience for the destruction its boarding school policies visited upon aboriginal people. The American president is black and white, African and American, of Kansas and Kenya. A cultural shift is taking place that increasingly understands race is fiction, racism is not, and that essentialist ideas about racial purity are losing ground. Our children are being taught that it is a scientific certainty that all humans originated in Africa.

The world increasingly understands itself as the result of fantastically complex histories and connections that make us all, as the Oglala Sioux teach us, related. But not in a gentle, New Age way, but in a noisy, confusing, Bladerunneresque, race-mixing, high definition thriller, which has always been closer to our real past than the fairy tales we believed but understood were never really true.

The job description for serious artists is to fearlessly engage the biggest questions of their time. And it so happens the biggest questions of our time are ones that we know well. Curator Okwu Enwezor in 2002, in the aftermath of 9/11, spoke of the “terrible nearness of distant places,” which exactly describes what took place five centuries ago, when halves of the world previously unconnected, became one. Our vantage point is unique and valuable, can be of great importance, if we accept the challenge of addressing the biggest, toughest questions, the ones without easy answers. It means choosing hard targets.

As Faye HeavyShield, Jim Denomie, Edward Poitras, Jeffrey Gibson, and Wendy Red Star demonstrate, Native artists can productively and imaginatively explore Christianity, museums, and stereotypes. They stand in contrast to many Native artists who settle for easy targets and tiresome rhetoric.

Jimmie Durham once described our contract with the art world as much like the notorious interrogation scene in Basic Instinct, as Sharon Stone crosses and uncrosses her legs, revealing to her police interrogators and the viewer that she is wearing nothing underneath her dress. Durham compares this with our strategy of telling the world that it can see this much of ancient and supercool spirituality, but only this much, and no more.

A brilliant set piece of strategic essentialism, and we’ve certainly got a lot of mileage from it, but clearly the scene has gone on way too long. It’s doing nothing for us, and is boring the audience to death. Basic Instinct came out in 1991, coincidentally a year before the Columbus Quincentenary, a high point of the American Indian strategic essentialism project.

No more teases. There is a bigger game, a more universal truth, and I want all of us to step up and meet our responsibilities. When our work fails to have the impact we think it should, our solution is to vote someone off the island, or make a new constitution for the island, or revise the dress code or the vision statement. Instead, maybe it’s time to leave the island altogether.

Leaving home doesn’t mean saying goodbye forever. We could have reunions every few years, catch up and remember the good old strategic essentialist days. And you know what, even if, out there in the big world, things don’t work out, we could always come back to the sandy beach in the middle of Sioux country. People there are very forgiving.

There’s work to be done, and a planet to save. I think we should give it a shot.

Paul Chaat Smith