An Evening on Lumbee Art & Identity

Trista Reis Porter, PhD | Assistant Curator of Exhibitions and Collections | Greenville Museum of Art

The evening’s events began with the synchronized beating of a drum. The Grey Wolf Juniors drew the crowd into the Greenville Museum of Art (GMA)’s West Wing Gallery with “Going to Practice,” a song from the intertribal Cedar Tree Drum Group. While the Grey Wolf Juniors refer to one another as “brother,” each member hails from a different tribal community; these intertribal connections made this performance an appropriate introduction to the evening’s Downtown Dialogues in the Humanities and Arts. This co-sponsored event on November 7, 2018 between the GMA and East Carolina University was focused on Lumbee art and identity, but much of the discussion echoed broader experiences of people identifying as Native American.

Downtown Dialogues was held in conjunction with the opening of the GMA’s new exhibition, Postmodern Native: Contemporary Lumbee Art, a group show of three voices among the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River. Artists Ashley Minner, Jessica Clark, and Hatty Ruth Miller each evoke a richly-rooted, yet constantly shifting sense of Lumbee identity. Prior to working on this exhibition as a curator, I was familiar with the history and prominence of the Lumbee people in North Carolina and acquainted enough with their culture to know it wasn’t going to be all dreamcatchers. Indeed, Minner, Clark, and Miller all defy expectations of what Native art looks like, even by referencing those expectations directly. 

I have come to learn even more about the important ways in which one’s identity as Lumbee is often linked to where they are from and who “their people” (or family members) are. Downtown Dialogues panelist Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery, a Lumbee historian whose recent book investigates moments in southern history through the lens of the Lumbees’ journey, spoke in depth about these two questions and how they provide context for meeting and understanding other Lumbee people. These questions are not simply small talk, but rather, key to communicating something central to their identity and how they understand themselves not just as Native American, but as belonging to a specific tribe. Based on the crowd response that evening, which included people from a variety of southeastern tribes, this seems consistent with many other Native peoples’ experiences as well.

The title of the exhibition, Postmodern Native was coined by Clark and is meant to challenge reductive stereotypes about Native people and art. Though she was unable to attend Downtown Dialogues, she previously stated, “We all fail to live up to the stereotype; we dance at powwows just like we dance to Lady Gaga in the local nightclub… there is no one story or
meta-narrative that can apply to all Native people.” In her work, Clark contrasts subtle details of everyday life for those who identify as Native American—for example, a child in regalia and a father in a t-shirt in Unity Powwow—all of which deepen understandings of how different individuals of Native identity relate to tribal and intertribal traditions.

Similarly, Ashley Minner’s work examines what is beneath the surface of individual appearances. Photographs of her peers superimposed over their own handwritten text in The Exquisite Lumbee project reference expectations of what people of Lumbee identity look like. They convey, in her words, “our hopes for one another and the depths of ourselves.” Additionally, her Lumbee Legends series, which documents stories of her family members’ pilgrimages from Robeson County, North Carolina to Baltimore in the early 20th century for work, plays on visitors’ typical perceptions of “pilgrims” in opposition to “Indians.”

In contrast to Minner’s photos and Clark’s photorealistic style, Hatty Ruth Miller’s abstract use of form, symbolism, and color in her paintings explores Lumbee history and beliefs. She often mentions the influences of Vincent Van Gogh and his relationship with art as opening the doors for her to create. She also references her family and ancestors and their spirituality as a significant source of inspiration for her work.

Postmodern Native, as exemplified in Clark, Minner, and Miller’s art and illuminated by the Downtown Dialogues discussions, touches on many complexities of being Native today. For example, while panelist and art historian Dr. Jessica Christie discussed the influences of technology on how Native people participate in tribal and intertribal traditions, a question from the audience prompted a discussion about race and the difficulties of fitting, as a Native American, into a black-white racial binary so prominent in southern history and society. These complexities are not always immediately evident on the surface of Clark, Minner, and Miller’s art in Postmodern Native, but they do exist deep among the artists’ diversity of works and distinct explorations of Lumbee identity through depictions of people, places, religion, and traditions.

Postmodern Native: Contemporary Lumbee Art will be on display at the GMA until March 10, 2019. Museum Hours are Tuesday – Saturday, 10:00am – 4:30pm.