This post could have been written on Monday, which saw the celebration of Columbus Day and when my son, Eneko, learned all about the ‘discovery’ of America at school. Yet I am posting it today, October 12th, as the anniversary of the actual day in 1492 that Columbus set sail. In the same issue of Art in America that I blogged about yesterday, Anya Montiel has written a piece called “After Columbus” about how Native artists and curators marked the quincentennial anniversary of this controversial event in 1992. One of the exhibitions Montiel describes was called The Submuloc Show/Columbus Wohs, produced by Atlatl, a national Native arts organization based in Phoenix, Arizona. The show was curated by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Salish), who wrote in the catalogue the following statement:
Columbus personally began one of the world’s major holocausts…[his men] beat, raped, tortured, killed, and enslaved 300,000 Taino Indians within 15 years.
The exhibition title, in its inversion of the name Columbus to Submuloc, was also used by artist Corwin Clairmont (Salish/Kootenai) in a work included in the show. As Montiel notes, Clairmont describes the backwards spelling as ‘an attempt to reverse the disastrous 500 years of Columbus’ impact.’ For Clairmont, Submuloc is Columbus’ true name, a sub-human, child-killing Moloch!
This exhibition and other like it in 1992 were part of a series of politically orientated projects, such as the 1993 Whitney Biennial, that were focused on the inclusion of racial and gender diversity. Even though this period of exhibition history has been the subject of some recent surveys of 1990s art, as Montiel notes at the opening of her essay:
Notably absent from these retrospective surveys, however, were Native American artists.
In the footnote to this statement, Montiel acknowledges that one of these retrospectives at the New Museum in 2013 (NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, did include James Luna and Jimmie Durham. Although, she adds that Durham’s ‘Native background is disputed’.
This dispute surrounding Durham’s Native identity is bound up with the topic of Columbus Day and its critique by Native Americans, especially given that he wrote a poem called Columbus Day.
Durham’s poem was posted on a website about American Indian Children’s Literature in 2006, but has since been removed, with the blunt statement: Durham is not Cherokee. I removed his poem. Following this, these is an extended account of the issue, based on the poem’s inclusion in a recent exhibition of Durham’s work:
The traveling retrospective Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World and its accompanying catalog has launched a new conversation about Durham’s claims of being Cherokee, American Indian, and a person of color. Now art writers, museum staff, and scholars are making these claims on his behalf. These false claims are harmful as they misrepresent Native people, undermine tribal sovereignty, and trivialize the important work by legitimate Native artists and cultural leaders. Durham is neither enrolled nor eligible for citizenship in any of the three federally-recognized and historical Cherokee Tribes: the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians of Oklahoma, and the Cherokee Nation. Self-determination of citizenship is a basic tenant of any sovereign nation including tribal governments. The three Cherokee tribes, whose history is thoroughly documented and accessible, stem from a history of self-governance that predates the establishment of the United States.
While it is important to acknowledge this position, what still remains is the power of the poem in how it offers an alternative perspective on the dominant narrative about Columbus taught in schools, especially in its act of naming Columbus’ victims. Of course, for those who dispute Durham’s Native identity, when he speaks of the need ‘to declare a holiday/For ourselves’, this is a problem. Yet what about the lines that follow?
As I read this poem to Eneko over dinner, and he was visibly adjusting to the perspective of the murdered Natives from what he heard at school about Columbus, I was reminded of the myth of Midas and his barber, retold in the Roman satirist Persius’ first Satire as a covert attack on the Emperor Nero. (You can read it here in an earlier Minus Plato post about our current President Nero). Just as the wind blows through the reeds to announce the fact that the king has donkey’s ears after his barber whispered the secret into a ditch, Durham’s poem, in spite of its author’s contested identity, remains an important source for a similar wind, that howls and blows through this country saying the true names of Many Deeds, Greenrock Woman and Laughing Otter.