Interview: Indian Country Scores High With Dept. of Defense

“Our office is truly not considered as a ‘nice to have,’ it's considered a ‘must have.’” – Stephanie Miller, Director, Office of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion, United States Department of Defense

By NAT STAFF

Native America Today (NAT): Please tell us about yourself, from your roots leading up to your current position with the Department of Defense.

Stephanie Miller (SM): I grew up in a military family, where my father and mother were both naval officers. That certainly inspired me to commit to service in the same way. I started my career as a warfare officer on the USS Bunker Hill and USS George Washington in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Then I came to Washington D.C. and eventually made my way to the Pentagon, where I served as Director of Women’s Policy for the Navy, Director of Diversity and Inclusion for the Department, and Special Assistant to Secretary of Defense Hagel and then Carter. In that capacity, I was responsible for the personnel and readiness portfolio.  Today, I’m the Department’s Chief Diversity Officer and Director of the Office of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion.

NAT: In your work as a diversity officer or before, did you ever visit a reservation or attend functions, like Pow Wows?

SM: Unfortunately I haven’t had an opportunity to visit a reservation in the course of my career. But I did serve as the Department’s Native American Special Emphasis Program Manager and in that capacity, I had the opportunity to attend events that have always really stuck with me. One was the American Indian Science and Engineering Society’s annual symposium. They brought together high school students, college leaders and doctoral degree candidates. I attended their Pow Wow and it was very spiritual and uniting for everyone. Even though I don't have that history within my own background, they made me feel so welcome in participating and being part of it. The other events were sponsored by the Society of American Indian Government Employees.

NAT: Well, not many non-Natives have had that spiritual experience and pleased you did. What was the thinking, the genesis behind creating DoD’s Office of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion?

SM: The Department has had an office that's been focused on diversity and inclusion for years. More recently, our particular office has gone through an evolution to focus specifically on what kind of policies and procedures and oversight we need to have in place to ensure we're meeting our goals. The Department has long seen diversity and inclusion as a strategic imperative critical to mission readiness and accomplishment. We value the diversity in each individual based upon their unique attributes, experiences, their heritage, their faith because that contributes to the execution of the DoD mission.

NAT: If you had to summarize it, what would you consider the major challenge of your office’s mission?

SM: I think that the challenge for us is maintaining broad oversight of so many different facets of military service and career service. It's not just a matter of counting how many of one type of population we have and then giving us a gold star for having high numbers of that one population. We need to be more broadly responsible for assessing how many are going into combat arms, how many are going to join professional military education opportunity, how many are being selected for command assignment and ultimately how many are going on to become senior leaders in the Department. We need to maintain focus on that entire pipeline for both officers and civilians and where it's working well to understand how we can emulate those best practices in other locations where it’s not going well.

NAT: Speaking of AISES, student chapter information is obtainable and could represent a recruiting source. If we provided your office this information, what would you do with it?

SM: Great question and if that's available, we would certainly look to leaders within NAM programs or leaders within AISES and other groups as to how to deliver the information about the opportunities that exist either in uniformed service or as a DoD federal worker.

NAT: Like other federal agencies, does DoD have a tribal relations office and/or a Native American Program Manager?

SM: We have an American Indian Alaskan Native and Hawaiian Cultural Communication and Consultation Program, and we also have a senior advisor and liaison for Native American Affairs. Our current senior advisor is Alicia Madalena Sylvester, an expert within the Department on Federal Indian Law, history, culture and consultation. She’s also an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico.

Mr. F. Michael Sena accepting a feather shadow box on behalf of the Department of Defense, who participated in the 2018 Society of American Indian Government Employees National Training Program. Presenting the award is Ms. Sue Marcus, SAIGE Board Member. (Photo Credit: DoD Press Operations)

NAT: Have you identified any segments of the general population you feel may be underrepresented in your workforces? Some federal agencies report Native Americans have been underrepresented.

SM: Specifically talking about American Indian Alaska Native populations, we're pretty proud because we've demonstrated an increase in representation across our officer corps of 36 percent over the last 10 years, while at the same time the entire officer corps increased by just 3 percent. So you can really see where we had an increase of American Indian Alaskan Natives, and our Officer Corps is our senior level of service.

NAT: This is great news and I’m sure many will be pleased to hear of those high scores.

SM: And we've also seen a 39 percent increase at American Indian Alaska representation within what we call our 01 to 03. That's our initial entry officer level, and we're growing these individuals in the new leadership role.

NAT: How were you able to increase your numbers so significantly?

SM: Over the last several years we’ve certainly seen an emphasis on trying to recruit from populations where we haven’t recruited as much in the past. So I think we've seen a broad effort across the Department to go out where young people are and that includes being out there in the Midwest and in Alaska and other communities where we may not have necessarily done as good a job in promoting the opportunities that are available for military or federal service. I think it has been a concentrated effort from across all the components in the Department to better advertise ourselves and to provide information to young people across a wide variety of backgrounds. What we have found is that so often it's not that people are saying no. It’s that in many cases they don't know what the opportunities are. And when we’re able to just spend a little bit of time, whether it's in school or at an event or at the kitchen table with Mom and Dad just answering questions and dispelling myths or preconceived notions, that goes a long way in educating them about the opportunities that are available.

NAT: What would you say to people considering a military career – whether it be uniform or civilian personnel?

SM: The Department offers tremendous opportunities for leadership and development at an early career phase and that applies equally at a uniformed level and the civilian level. There are opportunities to further your education, opportunities to deploy and serve overseas, opportunities to be in charge of others and develop your leadership skills at a young age and to be a voice in the national security discussions of the day. For me, the exciting aspect has always been whether in uniform or as a government civilian, you work closely in the national security space and with those who are evaluating the tough questions of the day.

NAT: Then I would say enlisting because it’s simply a “job” is far different than joining because you're impassioned and it comes from your heart.

SM: Right and I think that circles right back to where we started, in the sense you know those benefits and sacrifices, and that dovetails with what I have seen from the Native American community. That sense of pride, that sense of service, that sense of putting others before self.

NAT: Well thank you, Ms. Miller. This has been both informative and enjoyable. It’s also wonderful how you developed an internal, spiritual connection to the community.

SM: I would welcome the opportunity again, as it really did touch me. And as an aside one of my favorite authors is Louise Erdrich. I've always loved her writing and learning from her experiences in the Native American community, and her novels about the Westward Expansion. I think more people should be aware of those things.

Native America Today and NAM Programs wish to express our appreciation to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion and Office of the Secretary, Press Operations, for their support in making this interview possible.

 

(Editor's Note: The adjoining story below also appears as a separate post)

 

THE NATIVE AMERICAN: WARRIORS IN THE U.S. MILITARY

 (BY LT. COLONEL BRIAN J. GILBERTSON, UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS)

The Native American warrior tradition continues today as thousands of Natives are serving proudly in the military. The United States military has become, de facto, the only way an Indian can join the society of warriors, where there has historically been a strong sense of honor. That sense has not been lost over time. Native Americans continue to hold deep respect for their warriors, who currently wear the uniforms of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.

James Elbert "Jake" McNiece (Choctaw) of the 101st airborne. (Photo Credit: Websta)

Snapshot of Native American History & Contributions to the Armed Forces

 American Revolution

Native Americans had no universal policy during the American Revolution. Some chose to ally themselves with the British, others served as Minutemen for the colonist rebellion, and others remained neutral. Their contributions to the war went beyond direct participation. Americans often attributed their victory in the Revolutionary War to the use of Indian tactics. That is a bold statement, but the military clearly changed its tactics in battle more significantly than its British regular army counterparts. Indians continued to fight for America after the revolution, not just as allies, but also as soldiers in the military.

The Catawbas tribe and others sided with the Colonialist Patriots, due to their friendship and ties to settlers. The Cherokees sided with the British to protect their land from further encroachment. (Photo Credit: Know It All)

Civil War

As many as 20,000 American Indians served in the military during the Civil War. Similar to the American Revolution, Native Americans held no universal policy during the war. Tribes aligned themselves according to treaties and proper defense of their homelands. Indians held prominent positions on both sides of the conflict. A Cherokee leader, Stand Watie, was a Confederate brigadier general and at one point was given operational control over white troops. General Ulysses S. Grant's adjutant was a Seneca: Colonel Ely S. Parker, who wrote the document of surrender at Appomattox, and was later promoted to brigadier general.

Harvard educated Ely S. Parker (Seneca) was a Union Civil War Colonel who wrote the terms of surrender between the United States and the Confederate States. He was one of two Native Americans to reach the rank of Brigadier General during the Civil War. Later in his career, President Grant appointed him as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold that post. (Photo Credit: www.galenahistory.org)

Ely Samuel Parker (left) with General Ulysses S. Grant and Staff. (Photo Credit: NPS)

Iroquois man in Union Army Uniform (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Union Native American Sharpshooters from Company K, an all Native regiment of sharpshooters. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Henry Wassagezhic (aka Henry Condecon). Company K, First Michigan Sharpshooters. Henry’s Chippewa family name means “Bright Sky.” Both his father and mother were descended from a long line of well respected and revered chiefs. His war experiences from Company K, First Michigan Sharpshooters are highlighted in the book, "Warriors in Mr. Lincoln’s Army." (Photo Credit: Proceedings of the La Pointe band of Chippewa Indians in General Council and Assembled at Odanah, Wisconsin, 1907).

The 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles (left) were a Confederate States Army regiment which fought in the Indian Territory. One of its two commanders was Cherokee leader Stand Watie (right). (Photo Credit: The Miniatures Page, Zazzle)

World War I

In the early 20th century when the world was at war, Native Americans joined the fight to defend their homeland against German aggression. Nearly 17,000 Indians served in the military during World War I. They served at twice the per capita rate, when compared to the rest of the U.S. population. Their numbers were not the only significant part of their war contribution. Some Choctaws, for example, transmitted orders over the telephone in their tribal language. It was America's first experiment with an unbreakable code the Germans were unable to decipher.

Due in large part to their perceived natural abilities and skill at warfare, Indians received dangerous assignments. Native soldiers had a far higher casualty rate than that of any other group: five percent of Natives died in combat while less than one percent of all other members of the American Expeditionary Force in France died. This theme of exploiting Indian courage in battle remained a part of American military methodology through Vietnam.

It is noteworthy that Native American warriors chose to fight for the United States even though about half of them did not hold citizenship during all of World War I. The absence of recognition by the United States government did not stop Indians from feeling obligated to defend their nation. The issue was resolved eventually and by the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, all American Indians were United States citizens.

The Choctaw Code Talkers from Oklahoma  pioneered the use of Native languages as military code (Photo Credit: Wyoming State Historical Society)

The American Indians who served with Company E, 142nd Infantry, 36th Division, during World War I were some of the nation's first "code-talkers." (Photo Credit: National World War I Museum and Memorial)

Choctaw Code Talkers Joseph Oklahombi, Tobias Frazier and Otis Leader (Photo Credit: Oklahoma Historical Society)

World War II

During the Second World War, the most famous and widely publicized story was that of the Code Talkers. Their legacy of transmitting an unbreakable code over the radio waves during the war proved vital to the success of the Americans battling throughout the Pacific. It is arguably still the Navajo people's "greatest symbol and source of cultural pride." While the Navajo contribution of over 400 code talkers remains the most publicized, Native Americans from across the continent played a crucial role in "code talking," including members from Wisconsin and Michigan.

In 1941, armed with optimism and having declared Indians to be fellow Aryans, Josef Paul Goebbels, German Minister of Propaganda in the Third Reich, predicted that American Indians would rather revolt against the United States than fight against a Germany which had promised to return their expropriated land to them.

Alaskan soldiers pose for the camera while in training at Hooper Bay, Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. (Photo Credit: U.S. National Library of Medicine)

Native Americans were not fooled by this ploy. They displayed their loyalty proudly. Warriors responded in unprecedented numbers to America's call for volunteers immediately after Pearl Harbor and continued throughout the war years, because they clearly understood the need for defense of one's own land. Approximately 44,500 Indians served in the military during World War II. This represented more than ten percent of the approximate 400,000 member Native American population.

Participation in the war effort was not restricted to military volunteers alone. From 1942 to 1945, 40,000 Indians, both men and women, left their reservations for jobs in the defense industry. They contributed all means of support including tribal land resources such as oil and timber. Many Natives outside the military took a personal responsibility to assist in the war effort at home. Indians planted a total of 36,200 Victory Gardens to fulfill both their own needs and the government's obligations. Indians were key financial contributors to the war effort as well. By 1944, Native Americans purchased $50,000,000 in war bonds.

There were 400 Marine Code Talkers in World War II from the Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Lakota, Meskwaki and Comanche tribes. Their efforts have been credited in saving countless lives. (U.S. Department of Defense)

World War II brought profound change to people across the globe, and Native Americans were no exception. Al Carroll notes this in his book Medicine Bags and Dog Tags: American Indian Veterans from Colonial Times to the Second Iraq War. He writes, "No other war brought such cultural and social change [to Native Americans] in such a short time." Veterans of the war came back as changed men and women. The warrior societies were reinvigorated and they began to have much in common with Anglo-American veterans groups, such as the American Legion. The bonds of war not only brought them together to re-instill traditions of their past, it gave them a renewed sense of purpose and identity.

When America re-instituted the draft, Native Americans responded with nearly one hundred percent registration rate of eligible men, setting the standard for Americans.  Many did not wait to be drafted and promptly volunteered their service to the military. "Since when," one incredulous tribal member supposedly sneered, "has it been necessary for the Blackfeet to draw lots to fight?" Army officials maintained that if the entire population had enlisted in the same proportion as Indians, Selective Service would have been unnecessary.

Navajos in a U.S. Marine artillery regiment relay orders over a field radio in their native tongue. (Photo Credit: National Archives)

Gregory "Pappy" Boyington (Sioux) was a highly decorated combat pilot and Marine Corps fighter ace who  flew for the legendary “Flying Tigers.” He received both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. (Photo Credit: California Indian Education)

Jake McNiece (Choctaw) applies ceremonial war paint to another paratrooper from the infamous Filthy 13, an elite demolition unit whose exploits inspired the novel and movie "The Dirty Dozen." (Photo Credit: Websta)

The men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima in Joe Rosenthal's iconic photo. Ira Hayes (Pima) is second from left. (Photo Credit: First Aero Squadron)

Korea

About 29,700 American Indians served in the Korean War. They fought alongside fellow Americans with honor. Three who also served during the Korean War received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award given to a member of the U.S. military for valor in action against an enemy force. One of the Natives earning the award was Mitchell Red Cloud Jr., a Wisconsin Winnebago. Mitchell previously served in the Marine Corps in World War II. In Korea, he was a corporal in the U.S. Army when he sacrificed his life to buy time for his fellow soldiers. Refusing assistance he pulled himself to his feet and wrapping his arm around a tree continued his deadly fire again, until he was fatally wounded. This heroic act stopped the enemy from overrunning his company's position and gained time for reorganization and evacuation of the wounded. His actions fill the Ho-Chunk Nation with pride to this day.

In spite of being shot eight times, Mitchell Red Cloud, Jr. (Ho-Chunk) ordered his men to tie him to a tree so he could keep fighting, action for which he received the Medal of Honor. Red Cloud was the third of four Native Americans to be awarded the Medal of Honor in Korea (Photo Credit: Army.Mil)

Another Medal of Honor Recipient: Pfc. Charles George (Cherokee) unhesitatingly threw himself upon a grenade, saving the lives of his comrades who were embroiled in hand to hand combat. Shortly thereafter, he succumbed to his wounds. (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)

Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson Keeble (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate) was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity.” (Photo Credit: Army.Mil)

Vietnam

During the Vietnam War, approximately 42,000 Native Americans served in Southeast Asia either as advisors or as combat troops. Their contribution to the war effort is even more striking when you consider the following. Approximately one out of four eligible Native Americans served in the military forces in Vietnam, compared to one out of twelve in the general American population. Despite the decreased popularity of the war, Indians devoted themselves to the cause.

Believed to be the most decorated Native American soldier of the War, Billy Walkabout (Cherokee) received the Distinguished Service Cross, five Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars, and the Purple Heart. (Photo Credit: Best Teenagers Ever)

Walkabout in the 80s (Photo Credit: Best Teenagers Ever)

Ernie Wensaut (Potawatomi) checking his gear before patrol. (Photo Credit: Forest County Potawatomi)

Prairie Band Potawatomi member Larry Mitchell (center) served with Delta Company. He authored the book, “Potawatomi Tracks: The Ballad of Vietnam and Other Stories,” about his experiences and struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. (Photo Credit: University of Arkansas at Little Rock)

Cherokee actor Wes Studi volunteered for military duty and fought with A Company. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Glen Douglas (Lakes-Okanogan) served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. (Photo Credit: Standing Rock Indian Preservation)

Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and War against Terrorism

DAV life member Tyson Bahe (Navajo) served 5 years in the U.S. Army, deploying to Afghanistan twice as a cavalry scout. “The Native American culture is one of warriors. The elders pass down stories of warrior ancestors, and it is viewed as an honor to serve,” said Bahe. (Photo Credit: Army.Mil)

Staff Sgt. Conrad Begaye (Navajo) being awarded the Silver Star for his actions during an enemy ambush in the Nuristan Province of Afghanistan. (Photo Credit: Army.Mil)

Pfc. Lori Piestewa (Hopi) waiting for deployment to Iraq. Just five weeks later she passed into infamy as the first Native American woman killed in combat. Piestewa was a member of the Army's 507th Maintenance Company, which was ambushed in Nasiriyah. Three soldiers were killed, five taken prisoner, including Piestewa who died in captivity. (Photo Credit: Army.Mil)

Fellow captive Pfc. Jessica Lynch (pictured above). Lynch has repeatedly stated Piestewa was the true heroine of the ambush and fought like a commando. She named her daughter Dakota Ann in honor of her fallen comrade. (Photo Credit: Native American Church)

Among the many tributes nationwide, Arizona's state government renamed Squaw Peak in the Phoenix Mountains  as Piestewa Peak, and a plaque bearing her name is located at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and Fort Bliss, Texas. Her death led to a rare prayer gathering between the Hopi and Navajo tribes, which have had a centuries-old rivalry. (Photo Credit: Army.Mil)

Soldiers taking part in the Native American Heritage Month celebration at Camp Victory, Iraq. (Photo Credit: Steven Clevenger, National Public Radio)

A woman on the Navajo reservation walks to welcome home veterans. (Photo Credit: Steven Clevenger, National Public Radio) 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lt. Col. Brian J. Gilbertson (pictured above) authored “The Native American: Warriors in the U.S. Military” as a research paper while attending the Defense Technical Information Center as a student in the rank of Major. 

ABOUT THE DEFENSE TECHNICAL INFORMATION CENTER (DTIC) 

DTIC has served the information needs of the Defense community for more than 70 years. Their mission is to aggregate and fuse science and technology data to deliver knowledge to develop the next generation of technologies to support our Warfighters. The Center manages the Information Analysis Centers, which provide technical analysis and data support to a diverse customer base.

Cover Design: Mark Martinez

Black Eyed Peas' Taboo Finds His Stand in Native Roots

"Rumble" Executive Producer/Co-Creator Tim Johnson (left) and Taboo 

By Sandra Hale Schulman 

News From Indian Country 

“I owe it all to my grandmother,” says Jamie Luis Gomez, better known as Taboo, an American rapper, singer, songwriter, actor and DJ, best known as a member of the hip hop group Black Eyed Peas.

His Shoshone grandmother showed him his heritage as he was growing up at fairs and powwows and Indian markets. He has carried that heritage onto an international stage, having won six Grammy Awards and sold an estimated 60 million records worldwide. His striking stage presence has always carried some beadwork or turquoise to keep him grounded, but the larger image of the group overshadowed him.

He had some well publicized problems with addiction but overcame it all over a decade ago. In 2008, Taboo was in the process of creating a solo album, but also focused on music he has co-written and performed that has been featured on many movie soundtracks, including Coach carter and Legally Blonde. His autobiography,

“Fallin’ Up: My Story”, was released in February 2011, but his real battle came after its release.

 He was diagnosed with stage 2 testicular cancer in June 2014, he went through 12 weeks of intense, aggressive chemotherapy out of the public eye. Taboo says he was diagnosed after going to the emergency room for what he thought was the flu. He now is cancer-free.

“I had pain but I never dealt with it. I didn’t listen to my body. I went on tour until it got worse. I had tumors in my spine that had come from my testicle.” The six-time Grammy winner had been suffering from chronic pain after  he fell off a stage in 2006. In 2014, he was feeling the pain intensify in his back and abdomen, and went to the emergency room. After a few tests, the doctor told him he had testicular cancer.

“The first thing I felt was shock and confusion. I could only think about my kids,” Taboo said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego. The next day, he went into surgery, followed by an aggressive chemotherapy. “There were times I wanted to give up,” he said. “It was brutal.”

His cancer is now in remission.

This battle gave him new ammo to help provide better health care access on Native reservations. He’s also visits cancer centers to give patients emotional and mental support.

In May 2014, Taboo released his solo single, “Zumbao,” which is “all about having fun, being infected by positive energy.”

In November 2016, Taboo released the single “The Fight” about on his successful battle against testicular cancer. The track was made in partnership with the American Cancer Society, for which Taboo is a global ambassador. The ACS receives all funds generated by the song. Taboo said “I’m so proud to release The Fight because it’s truly an anthem of survivorship. I want to use this song and my story to inspire and motivate people all over the world to live their best, healthiest lives possible.”

Then Standing Rock happened.

“This was my call,” he said “this was something I could get behind and do something about with my people.”

Hip Hop Caucus, creator of People’s Climate Music, partnered with Taboo, to debut “Stand Up/Stand N Rock”. This song and video were created in support of the Standing Rock Reservation and the Sioux Tribe, when they lead a peaceful, powerful, and diverse movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The anthem song was produced by Printz Board, the video directed and edited by Johnny Lee.

Taboo created the song which features actress and activist Shailene Woodley, and the Magnificent Seven, seven Native American artists from across North America. Also making appearances is Wind River actor Martin Sensmeier. The song gave a rallying cry to the movement and was awarded an MTV Video Music Award on live TV last fall.

Taboo At Seminole Fair

Earlier this year at the Seminole Tribal Fair and Powwow Taboo brought the Mag7 for a live performance and to premiere another video song called “We Are One” that calls for unity in these current times of division. Taboo has his own traveling tribe now and they are making some serious noise, much like rapper Litefoot did before he became a national native issues advisor.

Marvel Comics has been doing a series of videos called Becoming Marvel where they show cosplayers putting together and donning their costumes. It shows a lot of the work that viewers don’t normally see that is put into the design and look of elaborate costumes. The latest one features Taboo who grew up a fan of comics, but didn’t see any Native American heroes when he was growing up. But upon when he learned of the Marvel character Red Wolf, he wanted to embrace the character but not by dressing as him or portraying him — Taboo wanted to become Red Wolf. With the help of costume designer Lauren Matesic of Castle Corsetry, Taboo got his chance.

Red Wolf first appeared in Avengers #80 (1970) as a man named William Talltrees. After the success of his first appearance and a move to incorporate more female and minority heroes, Red Wolf got his own nine-issue series, except it was set in the old west. He appeared as an Anachronaut in the Avengers Forever run, but Talltrees was still the Red Wolf of the modern era until now.

Taboo As Redwolf

In the video Taboo speaks about the character in a way that it means more to him than just putting on a costume. The character and the outfit represent his heritage and his grandmother. He caresses his sharp red claws and smears black across his eyes. This seems to be a test, and if Red Wolf were to ever appear in one of Marvel’s live-action films or television series, I think Taboo would be first choice to play the character.

In music, films and life, Taboo has hit his hip hop stride and found his native voice.

Wendy Red Star Gets the Last Laugh

by Sandra Hale Schulman

News From Indian Country

I first saw Wendy Red Star’s work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s sprawling exhibit of native art that ranged from traditional – ledger drawings, headdresses- to wildly contemporary – video and photography. A large photo by Wendy Red Star made me look twice. Seated in a diorama setting with astro turf for grass and an obvious fake wallpaper backdrop, Red Star posed with a blow up deer and a sincere “I am one with nature” look on her beautiful face.

Red Star wore a traditional Crow elk-tooth dress. The elk-tooth dress, an iconic image of Crow culture  is adorned with hundreds of reproduced elk teeth. Traditionally, the teeth were a symbol of wealth, as only two can be harvested from a single elk. So the juxtaposition of the sincere with faux takes this image to an otherworldly realm.

“The look pulls people in, but as you look closer you can see the image deteriorate, and if you are more privy to Native history you can see it right away,” Red Star says.

Born in Billings, Montana of Crow and Irish descent, Red Star was raised on the Crow reservation, she uses humor to confront romanticized representations. She poses popular depictions of Native Americans with authentic cultural and gender identities. Her groundbreaking work has been described as brash and surreal.

Her mother was a nurse who encouraged her daughter to pursue the Crow heritage. Her father ranched and was a licensed pilot who played in the “Maniacs”, an Indian rock band. Red Star is a niece of the artist Kevin Red Star who creates much more conservative native themed art.

In 2004, Red Star received her B.F.A. from Montana State University – Bozeman, majoring in sculpture, then earned an MFA from the University of California in Los Angeles. She now resides in Portland, Oregon.

She has continued to expand the media she works with to include photography, sculpture, video, fiber arts, and performance. She pores over archives and historical narratives to upend their perspectives, taking traditional norms and giving them an unexpected twist. The Four Seasons series, one of which was shown at the Met exhibit, is a prime example – you almost think she is just the model who doesn’t realize the absurd setting she has been asked to pose in until you realize she is the artist too and totally in on the joke.

Another series she created is the “White Squaw” a totally offensive line of mock magazine covers that mash up classic pulp images of noble savages with Red Star’s face smiling and leering in mock pin up mode.

She poses red and yellow painted coyotes with Indian blankets draped across their backs, and paints buckskin dresses black to take these traditional icons into a new unsettling realm. One series has gold deer with their heads cut off, gold tinsel streaming from the wound.

In an interview with Artnet about the Met show, Red Star said “I come from a humorous background, not just my Crow side, but my Irish side as well. I’ve always seen things through this ironic lens. I’m always laughing.

In my own Crow community, we have a whole policing system that uses teasing. To have that element in my work is quite Native, or Crow, and I’m glad that it comes through. It’s universal. People can connect with the work that way. Then they can be open to talking about race. As a brown person, as a brown artist, your work is political. Whether you like it or not. Even if you are doing abstract painting, as soon as someone finds out you’re brown they think, “This is about racism.” The first time I came across this was when I was in undergrad and I was erecting teepees around campus. I had discovered that Bozeman, Montana was Crow territory. I wanted everybody to know that this was Crow territory. I didn’t even think of it as political. I just thought, this is true. It wasn’t until years later that I realized they are saying it’s political because it’s against the colonial standard. I don’t aim to do political work, but it becomes political because it’s talking outside the colonial framework. There’s a whole notion of being ‘authentic. Your art is supposed to look like the 19th century, like we’re a dead culture that never evolved.”

“Wendy’s work isn’t about being a victim, or bemoaning colonialism,” says Terrance Houle, a Canadian artist of Blood and Ojibwe ancestry with whom Red Star has collaborated. “It has a definite Indian sense of humor, and it’s bright and beautiful, and that’s an aspect of indigenous culture people don’t often see.”

Red Star has exhibited in the United States and abroad at venues including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fondation Cartier pour l’ Art Contemporain, Domaine de Kerguéhennec, Portland Art Museum, Hood Art Museum, St. Louis Art Museum, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, among others. She served a visiting lecturer at institutions including Yale University, the Figge Art Museum, the Banff Centre, National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Dartmouth College, CalArts, Flagler College, Fairhaven College, and I.D.E.A. Space in Colorado Springs. In 2015, Red Star was awarded an Emerging Artist Grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation. In 2016, she participated in Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy at the Portland Art Museum, and recently mounted a solo exhibition as part of the museum’s APEX series.

On The Net:
www.wendyredstar.com

Sandra Hale Schulman is an arts writer, curator  and film producer. She is also a spokesperson for Native American causes on TV and radio.