Ryan Red Corn Explains “Smiling Indians”
The big picture idea is we’re trying to combat the control of media. There are two ways of doing it. One is the reductionist view, which is you take it apart, and when you get down to the bottom it’s about criticizing established media. I remember once I went to a conference and there was a panel on indigenous media. All these people who had their master’s degrees were talking about media, and it was all just such low-hanging fruit. It’s easy to pick on Bonanza, I Love Lucy, team mascots. It’s easy to say “Indian mascots are bad,” but do you have anything positive to point to? So rather than just complain about what’s negative, you could produce something yourself.
Is this the other way of combating the control of media?
Yes, that’s the flip side: Creating something new to combat the established media, rather than simply criticizing it. It’s what you might call a bandwidth issue.
What do you mean by “bandwidth”?
Take a visual inventory of Native images—which you can do by just running a Google image search on “Native American.” That will tell you what images recur and what images rank highest. And what you see is that Curtis really controlled, and still controls, that image. And his pictures are really good; they deserve to be celebrated. All jokes aside, he was an amazing photographer. But they shouldn’t dominate our idea of how Indians look or who they are. I think people can only process a certain amount of media. We need to add more of our own images to compete against Curtis’s. We have to be aggressive about it—my attitude has always been, create, create, create. Create more and better art and you’ll take up more bandwidth and tip the scales.
That’s a tall order given that the Curtis imagery is so dominant. To some extent it’s like you’re trying to rewrite an official history.
Yes, but there are some good Native photographers right now, in the, I’d say, under-33 crowd. By the time they’re finished they’ll have tipped the scales. I’m confident of that.
But I wouldn't be so negative about being negative. It's easy to criticize old images while creating new images. And obviously I don't think criticizing negative images is a waste of time. We're getting these things removed from the public's consciousness slowly but surely.
And, of course, a lot of people aren't artists who can create alternative views of Indians like this video. What are they supposed to do? Protesting stereotypical images is better than nothing, I'd say.
I definitely don't agree that sports mascots are "low-hanging fruit." Has Red Corn ever debated with the majority of mascot lovers? I have and it can be exhausting. I may have swayed a few minds, but most of these people won't listen to reason. Challenging them is like hitting your head against a wall, not plucking fruit.
For more on the subject, see Are T-Shirt Protests Worth It? and Do Protests Work?
Below: "A still from Smiling Indians by Ryan Red Corn and Sterlin Harjo."