Indian/Not Indian

By Paul Chaat Smith

On November 1, the exhibit Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, and the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. A companion book with the same title is co-published by the museum and Prestel. The book is edited by scholar Lowery Stokes Sims and exhibit co-curators Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche) and Truman T. Lowe (Ho-Chunk). The following is an excerpt from the essay “Monster Love” by Smith, which appears in the book. It is available at the museum, online, and at bookstores everywhere.

In the summer of 1994, news that Fritz Scholder was returning to Santa Fe with a show of new work, specifically a show of new work featuring Indians, produced a frisson of shock, delight, and nostalgia in the small city he had left two decades earlier. “Red Alert,” the headlines read. “The man is back.”


His absence all those years had only clarified his standing as the region’s most celebrated artist, second only to Georgia O’Keeffe. The local newspaper described it this way: “The years Scholder lived in Santa Fe are referred to by many as the most notable period of the city’s fabled art scene, a time roughly bounded by the Nixon years on one end and the rise of the Reagan presidency on the other. It was the final years of Santa Fe as an inexpensive haven for artists. In many ways, the most enduring art legacy of those years was the emergence of Scholder’s haunting, energetic paintings of American Indians. His creative genius laid a cornerstone in the foundation that made today’s flourishing Santa Fe arts scene possible.” The article ended with a quote from the artist about why he was returning to the subject that made him famous. Acknowledging that he had once declared he would never paint Indians again, he found that after thirteen years he had more to say after all. He allowed that he discovered something else, too: “I’ve learned that you should never hem yourself in by making pronouncements.”

We should be grateful this was a lesson he only learned in his sixth decade. The extravagant, baffling, and still-consequential career of Fritz Scholder is framed by bold pronouncements, dichotomy, and contradiction. It is irresistible—and I surrender willingly—to treat them as one way of mapping the artist and making sense of his life and work.

Here’s the short list: the son of a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) school administrator, who vowed he would never work for the BIA, who later teaches at a BIA art school. The abstractionist who turns to figuration. The artist who (twice) broke his promise to never paint Indians and was rewarded with fame, wealth, and endless controversy. The public intellectual who gave speeches about the New Indian Art Movement, who also said he didn’t believe in making statements.

And, above all, this one: the man who revolutionized Indian painting, who also consistently, insistently, told everyone who would listen over five decades that he was not Indian. Except that he was proud of being one-quarter Luiseño. Except that perhaps he was a non-Indian Indian. As if trying to be helpful, Scholder also told us, over and over, that his favorite word was paradox. To which we can only say, no kidding.

In Fritz’s early years the Scholders lived in North Dakota border towns. During the brutal, unforgiving winters, they clung to ropes tied from house to barn to keep from blowing away into the night. “We lived on the Indian school campus, because my father (who is half-Luiseño) worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But we went to public schools. There were no Indian objects in the house. We never thought of ourselves as Indians. My father was a product of the old Indian schools—he was ashamed of being an Indian.”

What do we make of this? Part of the answer is that people like the Scholders considered Indians to be from reservations. During the mid-twentieth century, it wasn’t just the Bureau of Indian Affairs that believed Indians should be assimilated; it was also much of Indian Country. Concepts at the core of Indian values in the United States and Canada today—that traditional beliefs and practices must be preserved and continued, that languages and ceremonies should be protected at all costs, that being Indian is a good thing—were not the prevailing ideas back then. There were Indians in 1950 who argued and organized for these things, but they were a small minority even in the most conservative (what we called “traditional” in those days) reservations. People like Fritz Scholder’s father were not Indians, they were “half-breeds,” a term then commonly used in both derogatory and matter-of-fact, descriptive ways.

The Scholders left the Northern Plains in 1957 for Sacramento. There, Fritz Scholder IV reported for a new assignment with the BIA, and Fritz Scholder V enrolled in art school.

NEW MEXICO NO. 1, OIL, 60 X 60
NEW MEXICO NO. 1, OIL, 60 X 60

A dozen years later, so much had changed the sun might as well have been rising in the west and setting in the east. As American astronauts walked on the moon, Fritz Scholder was becoming the most famous Indian artist in the country, and, in the unlikeliest turn of all, his father was recovering Luiseño songs and stories.

The 1960s came to Indian Country late, but hit fast and hard. On the political front, a triptych of daring, failed rebellions began in the fall of 1969. They were impressive no matter who was behind them, but for Indians to be organizing them was positively shocking, especially to other Indians. A nighttime takeover of Alcatraz prison in California? Seizing the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., on the eve of a presidential election, brandishing Molotov cocktails and threatening to strike the match? Holding an entire town in South Dakota for two months against hundreds of federal troops?

It was the cultural revolution, however, that would prove more successful and long lasting. And that revolution was just beginning when Fritz Scholder arrived in Santa Fe in 1964 as the Advanced Painting instructor at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA).

It would be three years before he finally painted his first Indian, an awkward, self-conscious work, executed nervously, as if he knew the whole world was watching, but the series improved rapidly. In 1969, Scholder created the astonishing Indian With Beer Can, easily the greatest and most influential painting in the history of Indian art.

Indian With Beer Can lives in that exclusive neighborhood of artwork that is described in sentences that invariably include the words “before” and “after.” It was the visual equivalent of storming the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., or occupying Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, only darker and scarier. The picture blew a hole right through the viewer’s head, and the holes were different depending on who you were. Most Indians hated it, and nearly forty years later, many still do.

Scholder was not the only artist to paint distorted, Baconesque Indians, or even the first. He did possess advantages that set him apart from both his colleagues and his talented students. First, his exceptional drive and focus to succeed. Second, his real-world experience as a practicing artist, his considerable network, and his string of awards gave him the necessary tools to bring his work to a national stage.

All of this, I think, was according to plan. As he acknowledged during his years at IAIA, Scholder was deeply influenced by his surroundings. The Indian series was, in his words, “logical at the time.” It was not just any series; he plainly saw the power of the work and later coolly took credit for helping demolish the painting style promoted by Dorothy Dunn’s Studio at the Santa Fe Indian School. (“I felt it to be a compliment when I was told that I had destroyed the traditional style of Indian art, for I was doing what I thought had to be done.”)

With message discipline reminiscent of a successful political campaign, Scholder would explain, time and again, that he was not Indian, never said he was Indian, was not an Indian artist, and did not know what Indian art even was.

On rare occasions he would speak of Indians in the first person. They would take place about as often as a solar eclipse. “Like every other Indian, I have to live in 1974.” Or at the First Convocation of American Indian Scholars held at Princeton University in 1970, where he used the phrase “our people.”

Two days before the American Indian Movement (AIM) took over the village of Wounded Knee in February 1973, he sounded angrier and more spontaneous—off message—as he riffed about monsters and Indians: “People don’t really like Indians. Oh, they like their own conceptions of the Indian—usually the Plains Indian, romantic and noble and handsome and somehow the embodiment of wisdom and patience. But Indians in America are usually poor, sometimes derelicts outside the value system, living in uncomfortable surroundings. We have really been viewed as something other than human beings by the larger society. The Indian of reality is a paradox—a monster to himself and a non-person to society.”

Scholder was always hostile to the radicals of AIM, and annoyed that many assumed he was the Minister of Culture for the Indian Revolution. “I don’t dig Red Power and I don’t identify with protest Indian art. I just say let’s find what the American Indian is and what he stands for. To me, he is dignified, non-militant and sensitive.”

But the bottom line for many who find his statements artfully disingenuous is that it was the Indian paintings that made him rich and famous, not his abstracted landscapes or his mystery women. Even Scholder would concede this, sometimes: “Before I started painting Indians, I had to stretch my own canvases. By the time I finished with that, a day was gone and I was afraid to put my paint on it because I might ruin the canvas and have to start over. Now, I have two assistants who stretch my canvases and clean my brushes. It leaves me all my time to create.”

For me, Scholder’s legacy is two things: an incredibly generous gift of a new way of seeing our circumstances without the blinkered lens of art made in the interests of tourism and pacification, and a life lived in opposition to the prevailing sentiments that offered easy answers to complicated issues. It would have been so easy for Scholder to declare himself, finally, an Indian, to become Luiseño or Hopi or Sioux, and he never did. In 2008, as the diversity and authenticity discourses exhaust themselves into irrelevance, Scholder’s weirdly stubborn formulas are fresh and remarkably on point.

Others at IAIA painted grotesque, distorted Indians first. But nobody else’s Indians haunted viewers the way Scholder’s did, and that’s the reason we’re still arguing over him today. His paintings did what great art sometimes does: unleash forces far beyond what the artist intends.

I respect that Scholder, even knowing it was all but useless, never gave in to others’ definitions of who he was. He remains a complex, troubling, inspiring, and towering figure whose eerie paintings of the human—and the Indian—condition have power, even if they no longer shock. He lived a strange kind of Indian life, yet in some ways it was a classic twentieth-century Indian life.