September 15, 2008

"Buffalo Bill and the Indians on the Beach"

We get e-mail:Hey Rob,

My name is Mark Anquoe and I am a Kiowa Indian currently living in San Francisco. I follow your blog and enjoy your cultural/visual criticism.

There is currently an art installation at the beach here in San Francisco by this rather obnoxious white artist. I'm organizing some people to have an Indian presence at this art installation this weekend and I'm writing up some materials to facilitate communication with the predominantly white and Asian onlookers this weekend. If you had a minute to spare, I'd like to ask your opinion of this installation and this artist.

SFGate news article about the installation:
Wild West tribute at Ocean Beach

The artist's website:
Thom Ross Art

A forum topic/discussion I have started on, with additional information (my handle is gazelbe):
Custer fan celebrates Indian minstrel shows in SF

I'd be curious to hear anything you had to say on the subject.

Anyway, thanks for your time and I really enjoy your work.

Mark Anquoe
The SF Gate's blurb on the installation, which is titled "Buffalo Bill and the Indians on the Beach":Surfers and dog-walkers heading onto San Francisco's Ocean Beach Friday found themselves in the company of 100 wooden Indians on horseback, with face-paint and feathered spears glittering in the morning sun. The life-size plywood cutouts, above, lining the beach just below the Cliff House, are the work of Western artist Thom Ross, who based the richly colored tableaux on a famous black-and-white photo of Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show, below, that was taken on the same stretch of Ocean Beach in 1902. "It's a Valentine to my hometown," said Ross, a San Francisco native who lives in Seattle and sports a Vandyke much like the one worn by the Buffalo Bill on the beach. Ross, who re-created Custer's Last Stand at Little Big Horn with 200 wooden figures in 2005, will put on his Wild West show through Sept. 15.Comment:  Off the top of my head, I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it's nice to see Indians (even cutout Indians) in a public area where people usually don't see them. On the other hand, I don't see the point of slavishly recreating the Wild West show photo. What's the artist's point of view on the Wild West shows? Is he criticizing or celebrating them?

Without more information, it seems like more of a celebration than a critique. The bits about the show being a "valentine" and Ross's Vandyke beard only reinforce the feeling. Ross may fancy himself a modern-day showman who's following in Buffalo Bill's footsteps.

More on Ross's approach

At, Mark Anquoe adds some details not evident in the SF Gate blurb:So this "artist" has 100 wooden Indians on the beach standing behind Buffalo Bill and facing Custer. There are also wooden Indian stand-ups with the faces cut out so people can stick their own faces there and take snapshots ("war paint" masks are also provided if you don't want to use your own face).

The "artist" dresses up as Buffalo Bill and tells people about the savage Indians' love of scalping white women, he talks about how Custer wasn't that bad a guy and that Geronimo fled the reservation because he wasn't allowed to beat his wife.
Okay, that's about what I was afraid of. Apparently Ross's motive is to perpetuate the "glory" of the Wild West shows with all their stereotypes. In particular, the Plains Indians on horseback wearing feathers and warpaint and brandishing spears. Ross worsens the problems by telling his own skewed view of Western history.

And what's with the bit about putting your face in a cutout and "becoming" an Indian? Is this supposed to be an example of Ross's artistry? It sounds like something you'd do at a carnival or circus sideshow, not in a work of art. I.e., like something people did at the original Wild West shows.

Tired of clichéd images?

In Thom Ross, Western Artist, Ross says he gets "so tired of the clichéd images in Western art." Because of this, he duplicated the clichéd images in an old photo of a Wild West show? Images that were clichéd at least a decade before the 1902 photo date?

Cutouts of Plains Indians chiefs and braves...gee, thanks, Thom. Thanks for your refreshing display of novel Indian images. Not.

I'd be impressed if you put up cutouts of Indians playing ping pong, croquet, or poker. I'm not impressed with your regurgitation of the images you supposedly disdain. Can you say "hypocritical"?

A real artist would use the opportunity to say something critical about the past, since it deserves criticizing. Put Buffalo Bill in color and the Indians in black and white to show they were only background props. Or put 100 Buffalo Bills and one Indian to show the Wild West shows were really about glorifying the white man's conquests. Put Indians from 100 tribes behind Buffalo Bill to show the diversity of traditional Native cultures. Or put Indians from 100 modern occupations--doctor, lawyer, politician, astronaut--to show the diversity of today's Native people.

Sheesh. Ross's "art" seems lacking in artistry, to put it mildly. Maybe he should stick to shooting critters and let me take care of the art.

For more on Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows, see A Brief History of Native Stereotyping. For why these shows were stereotypical, see The Basic Indian Stereotypes.

P.S. A Kiowa Indian who enjoys my work...what a pleasant change. <g>


Mark Anquoe said...

Hey Rob,
Thanks for your comments and analysis. I thought you'd enjoy hearing the conclusion to this bizarre story...

Here is the flyer I ended up writing and passing out at the installation. Over the course of five days, I, along with people from AIM and SKINS(Student Kouncil of Intertribal Nations) spoke to hundreds of people in our community and did many interviews with the media. Reaction to my literature and our talks was very nearly unanimously positive. (There were two older white gentlemen who were both insistent that I was wrong to express any complaint, but couldn't quite elucidate why when pressed.)

Briefly, we tried to inform people about the actual lives of the Indian people who performed in those Wild West shows. The general public really has no idea what the Wild West shows were. There is sort of a vague understanding that the shows existed, but no real detail beyond that. Once we explained that the Wild West shows were just the Indian version of the black minstrel shows, most people's reaction to what they saw changed quickly. It was then immediately obvious that a city like San Francisco that prides itself on a progressive political climate would have had a very different community reaction to an art installation involving 100 wooden black minstrels posed behind their proud white promoter. Add to this the obvious insensitivity of the faceless wooden Indian and the artists invitation to play Indian, and the outrage of the Indian community here became quite easy to understand.

In contrast to the public, who were grateful for all additional perspectives, the artist himself was vicious and aggressive beyond any reasonable justification. He swore at us and used racist epithets while trying to embarrass and condemn us to his audiences. He even, ridiculously, tried to provoke a physical confrontation. He obviously had no use for flesh-and-blood Indians who might muddy the colorful, cartoonish, red savage images of his Old West fantasies he so fetishizes.

On the final day of the installation, he removed the image of Custer and the faceless Indian, boasting that he complied with our objections (at least a couple of them) and complained loudly throughout the day that he would never bring his art back to San Francisco because of all the trouble caused by all those "goddamn drugstore Indians".

I don't even know what that means!

(And I'm from Oklahoma. I thought I had heard them all.)

Mark Anquoe said...

Its also interesting to read about how the "wild west" shows still exist, in their updated form.

They are certainly not the red minstrel shows of the old days, but its disturbing how many of the same complaints seem to exist within such a similar context...

mark said...

here's that link again, in case the url isn't showing up correctly (my browser isn't showing the whole thing)

Rob said...

Thanks for the update, Mark. Ross's behavior confirms my suspicions about him. Did you have any inkling that he'd be this bad? ;-)

I'm not sure what he meant by "drugstore Indian" either, so I Googled the term. As I thought, it refers to the wooden Indians--often with exaggerated features--that used to be found in drugstores. In other words, a caricature of an Indian.

In this context, I guess he thought you were acting ostentatiously "Indian." I.e., that you were showing off or parading your Indianness. Perhaps he thought your protest was more of a stunt than a heartfelt effort.

But I'm just speculating. And the comment is ridiculous if you think about it. A few "drugstore Indians" complaining about a lineup of 100 wooden cutouts that resemble drugstore Indians? How ironic is that?

Yes, I've read about the Wild West shows in Germany. Although they bring in authentic Indian performers, they also love their "cowboys 'n' Indians" imagery. I don't think they're interested in anyone but the usual Plains Indians.

P.S. Your URL is there even if you can't see it all. If you highlight and copy the line, you'll get the whole URL.

mark said...

did you happen to notice that in the article's photo we see the words "candy" and "clown" marquee-like on either side of the tipi? Coincidence? Maybe. But certainly begs interpretation, enit?

no faceless indian cheap carnival gimmick as such, but certainly a cheap carnival atmosphere as the preferred or standard environment to present Indian culture...

Rob said...

No, I didn't notice that.

The photographer certainly lined up the dancer, the tipi, and the Candy Clown booth well. Whether he or she intended to send a message is impossible to say.

Anonymous said...

Jeez, this is about the stupidest thing I've seen lately. Not only is this too stereotypical for words, it's just another example of the continuing marginalization of indigenous California tribes. For crying out loud, if you're gonna insult Indians, you should at least insult the local Indian tribes and not the Hollywood variety!! Can't some unfortunate accident happen to this exhibit? [like perhaps washing it out to sea from some big old wave...]

Oh yeah, he intended a message, all right. Has anybody Googled this "artist" to see what anti-sovereignty group he belongs to???

Conny said...

I can't even begin to express how much I, as a native German, am embarrassed by the wannabe-Indian-cult in Germany. *cringes*

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