By Simon Moya-Smith
To do so, they'll dance in their traditional regalia for the few tourists who come by, then offer to paint their pale faces. Red, yellow, green and black geometric shapes—none of the traditional images that warriors would paint on their faces before taking on the U.S. Cavalry in those bloody nineteenth-century battles that still stain American soil.
This face painting "is more modern and commercialized," says Elvira Sweetwater, who's Diné (Navajo). "It all relates to art."
She charges $4 a face, and says that other Native Americans will demand $18 to do the same. "Mine's not that high. I just share it," she explains. "You know what I mean?"
But academics and activists alike say they wish she wouldn't share the revered practice of face painting with non-Native Americans at all, and would stop putting on these performances so that non-Indian tourists can play cowboys and Indians outside a trading post owned by other non-Indians.
"On the one hand, you've got to make a living," he notes. The Sweetwater family is "playing a role that is an expected one. They're playing a role created by America and the American West, in particular. They're filling a spot."
Still, he explains, it's never acceptable for a Native American to paint the faces of white kids for profit. "There are certain precursory ceremonies to the painting of faces," he says. "So that's problematic. To expect some non-Native family to be able to differentiate between some random geometrics and a pattern that could be related to a particular ceremony is not an easy thing for them to grasp."
Traditional Native American face-painting designs are spiritual and not strictly geometric. The designs are either familial or a representation of the individual who wears them.
The face-painting portion of the Sweetwaters' show "should probably be something that they should stay away from," Van Alst says. "Eating candy and getting your face painted, that's carnival. But don't confuse Indian people with carnival."
Had certain events in history not occurred—for example, had Christopher Columbus not landed here in 1492—Native Americans today wouldn't be in a position where they sell their culture just to pay a bill, he notes. "Is it entirely on them, or does the legacy of colonialism have a role to play in this?" Van Alst asks. "All of the films, the cartoons, the cultural representation of Native American people has brought us to where we are today."
I'd say the Sweetwaters' act is problematical at best. A tipi with Kokopelli on it, a totem pole, powwow dances, and face-painting. It's sort of like the greatest hits of generic "Native culture." If the trading post sells dreamcatchers, headdresses, and toy bow-and-arrow sets, it would be just about "perfect."
The headline sums it up pretty well. Not teaching Native culture, but blurring the lines of Native culture. That's not the kind of education Americans need.
Is this educational?
Elvira the mother talks about education:
If that's what she's teaching--that most of her act is false--then great. But wouldn't it be easier to change the act than have to explain it away.
If she's not teaching that most of her act is false, that's another problem. I'm guessing she's not.
For more on face-painting, see Half-Naked Drummer Dressed as Indians and "War Paint for Today's Business World."