July 04, 2010

Detroit's stereotypical Penobscot Building

Blogger Stephen Bridenstine reviews the Penobscot Building in Detroit. The builders grew up in the Maine woods and named it after the tribe that lived there. But the building's Indian imagery mostly evokes the Plains or Great Lakes region.

Stephen includes a lot of images in his posting. Here's a typical one:

He nicely deconstructs what this building tells us:Once again, we have a prominent example of non-Native individuals appropriating an Indian style or motif to express their nostalgia for a long ago time (in this case, for the logging camps of northern Maine). Why couldn't they have used a Northwoods or lumberjack theme? Wouldn't that have been more appropriate considering their history?

It's unique that they specifically decided to go with the Penobscot name (based on the river, named after the tribe). But once again, the Indian designs come out as a complete grab bag of styles, designs, and symbolism very little of which has to do with the actual Penobscot people of northern Maine (who were certainly around in the 1920s to serve as design consultants!)

Why would the "Penobscot Building" include sculptures of Plains Indian style headdresses, southwest Indian geometric patterns, and animals ranging from foxes to turtles to eagles?

The answer is simple. The designers weren't actually going for a Penobscot theme but rather a generic "Indian" theme in which the most visually striking but culturally divergent elements are pulled together to fulfill the designers' notions of Indianness.

In so many ways, the Indian figures throughout the Penobscot Building represent America's thoughts and feelings about Native people in the early 20th century. The cold stone bodies represent a people immobile, stuck in place and unable to change. The stoic expressions represent a people devoid of emotion and sentiment, yet somehow appear both proud and sad. They are forever linked to both Nature and the primitive ways of the past. Like classical Greek columns or Gothic spires, they are rich with meaning and symbolism, put on display for all the world to see.

The Penobscot Building is above all an artifact. It is an item from the past whose elements can reveal the secrets of a time long ago.
Comment:  It's almost comical how Americans love their pan-Indian images centered around the Great Plains. The Penobscot is yet another example of how deeply rooted our stereotypical beliefs are.

How hard would it have been to get this building right? If you want a Penobscot theme, use Penobscot and Maine woods imagery. If you want a Great Lakes theme, call the building the Chippewa and use Chippewa and Great Lakes imagery. Whatever theme you choose, stick with it. Don't mix and match cultural images as if all Indians are the same.

For more on Native-themed architecture, see The Maya Revival Style.


dmarks said...

I had known about this, but had forgotten. I went there once.

It's a very interesting building in a city that destroys interesting architecture.

Now, should the imagery be removed, or...?

Rob said...

I think the imagery is too well-integrated into the building to remove it. But the owners could post plaques explaining where the stereotypical images came from. Something along the lines of:

"Although the building was named for a Maine tribe, the Indians in the artwork come from the Midwest. The artists were heavily influenced by popular images in Western paintings, Wild West shows, and early movies. Critics now say the Penobscot's artwork presents an unrealistic, romanticized vision of Native Americans."

The building could even host a display of genuine Penobscot art and culture. With texts noting the differences between the Penobscot Indian style and the Penobscot building style. These steps would go a long way toward ameliorating the problem.