OPINION: Jimmie Durham is not Cherokee
Jimmie Durham is not a Cherokee artist. A major retrospective exhibition of his work called “Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World” is being shown in the United States. It has been exhibited at high profile museums such as the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and beginning in November, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
Research into his genealogy reveals no connection to any Cherokee ancestry, cultural ties or community.
Despite this, he has a successful career, which relies heavily on Cherokee identity, language and cultural themes, most of which are unfortunately inaccurate in his portrayal. His work is critically acclaimed among the elite in the mainstream art world in New York City, Los Angeles and across Europe. In the early part of his career, Durham shored up his Cherokee facade by being active in the Native American Church and the American Indian Movement, though he would eventually have a falling out with such groups after questions of his identity arose.
The Indian Arts and Crafts Act was passed in 1990, which prohibits artists from promoting their work as being Native made if they are not enrolled in a federally recognized tribe, for this very reason. In 1993, Durham finally admitted he was not an enrolled Cherokee in a letter to Art in America magazine. He wrote, “I am not Cherokee. I am not an American Indian. This is in concurrence with recent U.S. legislation, because I am not enrolled on any reservation or in any American Indian community.” He is not eligible for enrollment with the Cherokee Nation, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians or the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians – the only federally recognized Cherokee tribes. With that, it would seem this whole issue should have been resolved, but the art establishment continues promoting him as an artist who represents the Cherokee people.
The exhibition catalog for “At the Center of the World” contains essays by prominent art critics and historians as well as some of Durham’s own writing, including an essay in which he writes, “Oklahoma Cherokees can be mortifyingly stupid.” A large portion of the catalog focuses on the Cherokee themes and connections in his work. So while the curator of the exhibit acknowledges Durham is not an enrolled Cherokee citizen, thereby technically following the regulations of the IACA, the artist is still being cast as “Cherokee” through the critical examination of his work. This is intellectually dishonest. Even after outcry from actual Cherokee artists and scholars, including an open letter in Indian Country Today and articles in such mainstream art outlets like ArtNet, Hyperallergic and Art in America, the art establishment continues to dismiss the concerns of actual Cherokees.
Most Cherokee people have likely never heard of Durham. It might seem that what the mainstream art scene thinks or does is of little importance to our everyday lives. We have many excellent artists in our community, and through programs like the Cherokee National Treasures and the Cherokee Art Market, for example, we as a tribe honor and promote our own. Cherokee artists can certainly hold their own against the likes of a Jimmie Durham and create thoughtful, world-class works of fine art. Each of the federally recognized Cherokee tribes has established guidelines for tribal citizenship. We also have established community connections through familial ties, community involvement and cultural mores, both spiritual and social. By ignoring the valid critique and vocal outcry of the Cherokee community these museums, historians and curators are actively undermining our tribal sovereignty. The prominence of Durham in the art canon as a “Cherokee” allows false information to proliferate to the public. A chart compiled by First American Art Magazine, which is published by CN citizen America Meredith, shows that in scholarly literature about Cherokee art, Durham’s coverage far overshadows actual Cherokee artists.
Durham might be one of the most prominent examples of an artist making false Cherokee claims to further a career, but he is a symptom of a much larger problem. This is not an issue of identity policing or censorship. If a non-Cherokee artist chooses to create art that is properly and respectfully informed by Cherokee culture, they are free to do so. The issue arises when that person falsely claims to be a Cherokee. It is imperative the CN ensures the voices of our Cherokee art community are heard so that more Jimmie Durhams cannot rise to prominence at the expense of actual Cherokee people.