You Are What They Make You: Interview with Gregg Deal
Across history, there has been a perpetual conflict in regard to Native American identity, culture and space. Seeing as November has been declared Native American Indian Heritage Month (in August 1990 by President George. H. W. Bush), I have set myself the task of bringing forward the stories of one Native American’s life. Gregg Deal is an artist and advocate for Native American rights from Denver. His work consists of murals, paintings, performances and various other things that tackle this subject.
“It’s hard to put this into context for people who are not familiar with it because there is no context to indigenous people in general. Just in the United States, for example, there are 573 federally recognised tribes and hundreds more that aren’t recognised by the federal government but are oftentimes recognised by the states that they reside in, as they struggle for self-determination and recognition. Even though they speak English, and wear western clothes, they are by all intents and purposes Americans in the way they live and represent themselves. There is a duality to our existence and that is incredibly complex. There are over 300 different languages and, of course, different dialects within each of those languages. The Indian space is as diverse as the world we live in. It is not one race of people who are all kind of the same.” When discussing the estrangement that the Indigenous people had with the culture, Gregg brought up the boarding schools. “They were this incredibly disruptive thing, that happened from 1879 all the way up until the 2000s, which was the separation of children from their families for educational purposes. It initially started with the intent of helping the ‘savages’ and educating them, but it was never perceived as something that would result in Indigenous people living in the world they created. It was about eliminating culture, language, tradition, and separating families. It’s a tool that has created generations of people who never had an example of how to be a mom, a dad, a guardian, a protector, a parent; how to be a person who rears and raises another person, and it lacks love and understanding. Those things aren’t just a separation of that, but it created generations of young people that had a lot of abuse and had no frame of reference to what it is to be a parent. You can see the residue of that in alcohol, spousal and sexual abuse. Because they don’t know how to handle those things and the only thing that a lot of those people knew was the way the nuns or priests would react – which would be to beat the hell out of them.”
Considering past tensions between Native Americans and Americans, I wondered what their relationship is like today. “The best and most public example I can give you is the mascot debate.” Gregg added: “A lot of people just dismiss it and find it to be something trivial. Most people say that they want to support and represent Indians, but when it comes to Indigenous people saying ‘your mascots are a problem because you’re using a racial slur’, the same people will dismiss it. They claim that they love Indians because of their strength, and there’s a sense of resilience that goes with that, and when we do stand up for ourselves, we are told to shut up. Mascots might not be important to some people, but the perception of indigenous people is fed by mascots and understood by American people through mascots; and by legislators, senators, representatives. They never come into
contact with an Indian person but they might get invited to a Washington redskins game, and that will be their entire idea of what an Indian person is; a white man dressed up in a fake headdress, wearing redskins gear, using a racial slur, to identify native people. That goes into our lawmakers who make the laws that affect us. Right now, Trump’s administration, and Republicans in the senate, are trying to eliminate indigenous status by saying that our existence is based on race and therefore discriminatory according to the concepts of discrimination. Based on the fact that you can’t give something or take something away from someone based on race. But we’re not a race, we’re individual communities, we’re individual nations of people and that relationship is not based on race, but instead on a nation to nation relationship. Therefore, if our lawmakers only understand mascots, that affects the laws that are being created; it dehumanises us. Ultimately, the frame of reference that an audience might have to process these things with, is in a way that which makes sense to western ears or eyes.”
“People believe they know what an Indian looks like, and if you don’t look like an Indian then you have no right to act like an Indian.”
Gregg reflects: “The problem with Americans, and I think with the western culture at large, is that there just simply is no frame of reference. There is no understanding of the history, nor the language that’s been used throughout history. We know who Christopher Columbus, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln is; these are all figures of incredible people. They are used to amplify how great our country is. Yet, there is no frame of reference or understanding of Indigenous people. Western understanding of Indigenous people is wholeheartedly through film, books, art and photography. These are the things that have established the identity of America, and it’s not an identity that native people own. It is an identity that has been thrust upon us and it has become this thing that is quintessentially native: it’s about the headdress, it’s about wearing leather it’s about living in a tepee. Because people believe that this is what the identity is without realising that it’s far more complex than that. Meanwhile, out of that 573 different recognised indigenous people, maybe a dozen of them use those things that are the quintessential identifying factors of native people.”
Stereotypes are a common issue that people have to overcome in various countries. This raised the question of how much it affects the lives of Native American people. “There’s sort of an expectation that you have to meet as an Indigenous person: you have to be a certain shade of brown, your hair has to be a certain colour, there are certain bone structures, and so on.” Gregg states. “There are going to be a lot of questions if my kids decide to assert their identity, they’re going to get a lot of crap for it … That’s going to be the big struggle for them because they are white-passing; my father’s white, my wife is white, so my kids are mostly white but they’re 100% members of our tribe. I think they will have to understand the concept of privilege based on their appearance and they will also have to discover how to navigate in relation to other indigenous people. Because they can get away with more than I can.”
The physical space contributes immensely to an individual’s interaction with the people around them. Gregg comments: “The places that I live in is predominantly conservative and very right-wing. Therefore, it’s common for me to be confused as a Mexican and told to go back where I came from. My kids will never have to deal with that. They’re never going to have that mistaken identity; however, they’re going to have to struggle with the other side of that; being indigenous and not looking like everyone else expects them to. That’s what’s weird about native people. Our existence is not beholden by our own communities and our own identity, it’s actually beholden by the perception that people who are not native have of us. Which is incredibly strange and is difficult too because as an artist I have to navigate spaces that have an expectation of my identity. If what I’m doing is not where that expectation says it should be, then my work has less value as a result. If I’m not creating art that’s familiar, then it has less value. So, there’s so much of the Western perception that plays into the legitimacy of my work, of my words, my appearance, and everything that goes along with that.”
Despite what people might think, the struggles that Indigenous people face is still prominent and real. There are many different tribes, with varying struggles and needs. It is very difficult to narrow it down to a singular common struggle. However, Gregg said that “one of the big things that you’ll hear native Americans talking about, is sovereignty”. He elaborates: “The right to govern ourselves. People say that we’re a sovereign nation. But if we’re a federally recognised tribe, we are reliant on the federal government in one way or another, from your enrolment process, all the way down to supplements that you might get for healthcare, for schooling, for infrastructure, or for any of those things. Most Americans believe that tribes are getting free money from the federal government that we don’t deserve. And then people take the casino and gaming stereotype very seriously, thinking that we have an excess of money. Indigenous people are lower – socially, economically and politically – than anybody else in the United States. Yet there’s the belief that the poorest people in this country are getting something that the richest people in the country are not. In addition to a social security number, I also have a federal ID card, that recognises me as an indigenous person. We’re the only race in the world that has to prove our existence through a series of fractions that are ultimately held by the federal government.”
“But it’s not about police brutality. It’s not about racism, mascots, being poor, being the highest rated for diabetes or heart disease and cholesterol; it’s not about poor diet or poor education, about whether or not we are sovereign, or whether we have equal rights under the constitution, whether the federal government is honouring treaties. It’s not about any singular one of those things, it’s about all of those things. Because each one begets the next.’
Native American Indian Heritage Month is something relatively new. When asking how popular it is in America, Gregg said: ‘Most Native Americans don’t know that. Academic institutions are aware of it and they will make an effort to have Native speakers at some colleges. There is an effort to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, however, that would be in October. In comparison to Black History Month, which is quite a wide movement and celebrated in schools, and Asian History Month as well; the Native American Heritage Month has never been celebrated and most people are unaware of it.’
When asked whether he thinks something will change in the attitudes of the people and the government, he stated: “That’s not going to happen, that would be an admission of guilt that undermines the American dream and all the other stuff that makes America this great nation that is infallible, but it’s not. I think the information will come out, it’s accessible, you have a right to information with the freedom of information act, but I don’t think accountability is part of the deal.’
His art plays around with various concepts about identity, but that’s not the entirety of it: “I think I’ve seized some moments and I’ve been able to articulate those moments, both in art and in [spoken] word. In such a way that has allowed me to stand out. I think it is about seizing moments and sort of being bold and unapologetic about things. I’m an artist who just happens to be native. My work isn’t formed by my identity but rather by how I grew up and the community that I belong to. Yet my work is also my work, so I think I have the same struggles as other people, you know? I want to create good work. It’s my life’s work and I want it to be relevant; to be true and honest. I want it to have the same integrity that I feel in my own life, to occupy the spaces it does not get to occupy. One of the things I love about murals is that I get to create something that exists in a space that people might not be familiar with.”
Images courtesy of Twitter @greggdeal, pinterest and denverartmuseum.com
This article is part of our one-off edition of IQ Magazine, out from November the 29th 2019. Pick up the magazine on campus in our InQuire distribution bins in Keynes, Co-op, the Templeman library and other locations on campus.