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White Cherokee Mythology

On Saturday, Nov. 1 I attended the ‘Masters Art Show’ at the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee. Before the awards presentation each artist stood before her/his artwork and made a few remarks about the artwork they were presenting. Virginia Stroud explained her painting, ‘The Boat People,’ which represents a group of southern Cherokee refugees arriving at Ross Landing in Indian Territory circa 1839. In the painting the Cherokees are exiting a steamboat with their “negro” slaves under the watchful eye of U.S. Army troops.

Stroud went on to tell the story of how she had shown the painting to a Cherokee Nation art-buyer in hope of selling it to “The Nation,” for display at one of their casinos. The art-buyer then told Stroud that the painting could not be displayed at a Cherokee Nation casino since black slaves were being represented. Not willing to let historicity stand in the way of selling a 6200 painting Stroud said she removed the black figures and again submitted it. Again it was rejected and so Stroud re-inserted the black figures and entered the painting in the ‘Masters Art Show.’

Aware as I am of the social and ethnic complexities of the late-capital Cherokee Nation I was still amazed that a master artist would tell such a story to a room full of people.

Such a story tells a lot about american history, the south, and eastern Oklahoma. It shows how the Cherokee Nation has internalized southern racial coding and their own version of white supremacy. It was amazing, but not at all surprising.

Of course, a legalistic corporate entity such as the Cherokee Nation can buy or not buy any art it wants. But to tell an artist that their art can only be purchased if it excludeds the representation of black people is a bit, shall we say – outre’ for 2008. And then the plot thickens, as even an artist of the stature of Stroud, who prides herself on historical accuracy, was by her own admission willing to make her painting ahistorical – if the price was right.

Because contary to white Cherokee mythology black slaves did accompany their Cherokee masters to Indian Territory. That’s common knowledge to 19th century history buffs, but it is common knowledge that cannot be admitted in the corporate offices of the Cherokee Nation.

Overall a pattern emerges- artists and writers with Cherokee Nation CDIB (Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood) cards will be rewarded financially if their work conforms to the white Cherokee mythology. Artists and writers without CDIB cards or those who insist on historical accuracy will recieve nothing. That’s 21st century racial hierarchy – Cherokee Nation style.

Then to compound the irony – Stroud’s ‘The Boat People’ won best in show. Personally I found the painting interesting but unremarkable. I thought the judges had made a “political decision.” We are, after all, still fighting the Civil War out here.

J. MURRAY lives in Oklahoma.