May 07, 2013

Where Are the Tipis?

Tomahawks and Tipis: Native American Representations in Commercial Culture

By Ruth Nolan"Are there still Indians here in Palm Springs?" Yes. "So, where are all the tipis?"

According to the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum's Executive Director, Dr. Michael Hammond, inquiries about the Palm Springs area Indians, who are mostly of historical Cahuilla origins, and how to find tipis in Palm Springs, are the two most frequently asked questions museum staff and interpreters receive from the thousands of international visitors who stop by this small, but fierce, downtown Palm Springs museum. A new exhibition, "Where are the Tipis? Changing Perceptions About Indians" is a quirky, first-of-its-kind art show at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum that was created in response to the oft-asked questions.

The goal of the exhibition, according to former museum curator Dawn Wellman, who helped research and curate the show, was simple. "We wanted to answer tourists' questions, to dispel some of that and let people know that not all Indians are Plains Indians and wear feathered headdresses, ride horses or carry tomahawks," says Dawn Wellman. "It is an exhibition that is rich in humor and optimism, as well as historical fact."
Myth vs. reality:Gordon Johnson, a Cahuilla-Cupeno and distinguished author of "Rez Dogs Eat Beans: and Other Tales," notes the value of the exhibition. "Exhibits like the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum's are important to dispel the stereotypes and wake people up to the fact Indians are evolving, they are not stuck in time," he says. "Many people form their impressions of Indian culture from watching movies--old cowboy and Indian movies at that. It is surprising, even today, people expect and are disappointed when they don't find Indians riding horses and living in tipis. Many want Indians to live up to the romanticized 'noble savage' image they've been spoon fed by media."

In contrast to this expectation, Cahuilla Indians of the Palm Springs and surrounding areas traditionally lived in dome-shaped or rectangular type of structure, according to Cahuilla anthropologist Dr. Lowell Bean, known as a "kish," up to 15-20 feet across and by covering bent willow branches with palm fronds and other available plant materials. In addition, tipis, made from large animal hides, are largely traditional to our country's northern Plains Indians, who had, until the 20th century, ready access to free-ranging buffalo. In addition, in contrast to the elaborate, beaded leather clothing common to the Plains Indians, the Cahuilla dressed in little clothing--made of palm fronds, deerskin and tule--during the frequent warm desert weather, and in colder months, wore capes made of deerskin or rabbit fur to stay warm.
Comment:  Again, the message is clear. Movies and other forms of media are the primary source of Native stereotypes.

For more on the subject, see NMAI Symposium on Racist Mascots and Indians Testify About Negative Images.

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