Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Sterling HolyWhiteMountain on Blood Quantum, Native Art, and Cultural Appropriation



“Entrenched” by Evan Thompson

Sterling HolyWhiteMountain interviewed by Matt Strohl

Sterling HolyWhiteMountain grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwest Montana. He holds a BA in English creative writing from the University of Montana and an MFA in fiction from the University of Iowa. He was also a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. His work has appeared in volumes 1 and 2 of Off the Path: An Anthology of 21st Century American Indian and Indigenous Writers, The Montana Quarterly, and The Atlantic. Prior to being a Stegner Fellow he directed the writing center at Blackfeet Community College. He is currently at work on a collection of stories.

To start out, can you tell us about your background and what you’re doing now?  And could you give a brief description of your work?

I grew up in East Glacier on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwest Montana. My dad is Blackfeet, my mom is of German-Danish descent, second-generation American. Both of them have lived most of their lives on this reservation. I got a BA in English-Creative Writing from the University of Montana, and an MFA in fiction from the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa. The past four years I ran the writing center at Blackfeet Community College, and worked on various fiction and non-fiction pieces during that time. But I’ve just moved to the Bay Area, as I’ve got a Stegner Fellowship, so I’ll be writing on that for a couple years.

My work—both fiction and nonfiction—is largely about the conflicts that dominate Indian Country on the inside. I’m aware that most people on the planet don’t understand what’s going on where I’m from, and they don’t understand the dynamics between tribes and state and federal governments, so I try to get at the fundamentally human issues inside of these situations, because you have to give people something to hold onto in the middle of this ocean of difference.

If you read my short stories—which so far are in two anthologies of Native fiction curated and published by Adrian Jawort, a Northern Cheyenne fiction writer and journalist—you will find all kinds of Blackfeet- and Indian Country-related things there—politics, law, sovereignty, economics, systemic conflict, cultural conflict, sexual conflict, the ways that American ideas about race play out, etc. All the stuff that won’t leave me alone, so to speak. So when something about blood quantum laws shows up in my work, it’s not because my primary purpose is to educate people about blood quantum—which could be a happy side effect—but it’s that I can’t stop thinking about the realities of how those laws play out in individual lives and relationships (including my own). I say this because there’s such a strong push right now to explicitly politicize art in every possible way, and I feel the need to push back against that.

I’ve written some nonfiction also, which has been published in The Montana Quarterly and on, and this past fall in the Atlantic online—that stuff is pretty straightforward, and always sovereignty-oriented, even if that’s only a subtext. I write it because it’s clear that even among the few Native voices out there discussing issues in Indian Country most are not talking about tribal sovereignty in a coherent way, if at all, and as I see it there’s nothing more important politically and legally and for the future of tribal nations than our sovereignty.

You mentioned blood quantum laws. I don’t think very many Americans are aware of this controversy, though Elizabeth Warren’s recent DNA test stinkbomb is raising awareness about related issues. Can you further articulate your concerns about blood quantum here?

SH: As is often the case with Indian issues, in order for me to answer this in a satisfactory way we have to go back in time. Blood quantum laws are based on beliefs developed in feudal Europe, when everything was about royal and peasant blood, and the idea of “blood” was used to consolidate power in the hands of the aristocracy. Those beliefs, which later became essential to eugenics and underpin the current iteration of white supremacy, were applied to indigenous people in the U.S. during the later treaty era, when the U.S. government was concerned about paying as little money to tribes as possible for these land transactions, if we can call them that. The simplest way to explain this is the government was only going to pay money according to the number of people who had enough “Indian blood” to qualify as being fully “Indian”. Later on, in the early- to mid- 1900s, many tribes adopted these laws as a method for identifying their tribal membership—a perfect example of how the colonized come to see themselves as the colonizer does. It’s a transition directly related to language loss, and coming to see ourselves through the English language.

There’s no way to talk about blood quantum in Blackfoot, because it’s not a concept that belongs to us, that comes from our cultural history. In our language belonging has everything to do with who you are related to, and who claims you as a relative, and being related to someone doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with “blood.” So, in my case, men who are older than me are referred to as niisǔ, which is something like older brother / uncle, and women who are older than me are referred to as ninsst, which is kind of like saying older sister / auntie. This was a system we developed over millennia on the northern plains of North America, and it was the best way we found to survive and live with each other, to make sure everyone was taken care of, to make sure everyone was responsible for each other. When my cousin and I asked a fluent Blackfoot speaker if there was a way to say “blood quantum” in our language, he created a term that means “the government is watching your blood.” It was a remarkable moment for us, and profoundly illustrates the differences between how we view ourselves in our own language and how we view ourselves in English. It also points to how nimble our language is when confronted with new concepts—and how desperately indigenous people need their languages to resist the constant encroachment of whatever colonial force they find themselves under. Not to mention it’s a reminder of why language itself is one of the first things colonial powers try to destroy. Of course, very few people speak Blackfoot fluently at this point in time, almost all of them over 70. And if our language dies, our ability to fight a colonial view of ourselves becomes incredibly difficult.

Most educational benefits available to Native people in the U.S. are given relative to bq, i.e. if your tribe uses blood quantum laws, and you don’t meet your tribe’s bq requirement, meaning you don’t have enough imaginary Indian blood, then you don’t qualify for educational benefits because you’re not a tribal member. This means, as time goes on, and more and more people are born without enough “blood”—because you can’t endlessly marry within your group—there will be fewer and fewer Indians who qualify for educational benefits. Combine this with the fact that many (if not most) Indians simply don’t have the money to go to school unless they want to accrue serious debt, and you have a situation in which many young Native people don’t have access to an education that will support their intellectual, ethical and artistic development.

On the other side of the blood quantum issue, we have situations like the one that took place a little over a year ago, when a well-known Native writer suggested on social media that the Indian Arts and Crafts Act—federal legislation that is supposed to stop non-Indians from selling art under the auspices that it’s Native-made—be extended to include writers, which would mean, unless you’re enrolled, you couldn’t call yourself a Native writer. This would mean I couldn’t legally call myself a Native writer, even though my dad is Blackfeet, and has served on our council several times, and even though I grew up on our reservation. I’m not being an essentialist here, I’m just saying that this is how these dynamics play out on the ground, and this is how Native people who might have anxiety about their “authenticity” can use bq laws to undercut someone like me. Having lived the life I’ve lived, if I can’t be legally classified as an American Indian in every possible way, then something is seriously wrong with the system. And we need to look at that, as Indian people, as citizens of distinct tribal nations, and ask ourselves how much longer we’re going to let this continue. Just because bq laws are utterly fucked doesn’t mean a large percentage of Indians haven’t bought into them. And, for what it’s worth, my take on the issue of tribal membership is that the Mickey Mouse Club has members; nations have citizens. It’s time for Native people to decide what they want to be, as the inheritors of these tremendous, though often flawed, treaties.

To provide another angle on that issue, though, at least with regards to being legally classified as a Native artist: I’m not interested in being an Indian, or a Native American anyway. I’m interested in being what I already am: Piikuni, which is our name for ourselves in our language. We get into trouble when we start using colonial systems of definition to solve our problems, because these systems were created in such a way as to be divisive, and this situation is no exception. To quote Richard White, “Americans invented Indians and forced Indians to live with the consequences of this invention.”

Can you elaborate on how these laws have informed your work?

Blood quantum shows up in ways that reflect my experience of growing up on a reservation as an unenrolled Indian, and receiving mixed messages from the community about “what I am”—to my relatives, of course, I was always Blackfeet, whereas to people from families who might not like mine for political reasons, or to people who might resent me for personal reasons, or to people who judge someone merely by the color of their skin, I was “white”, or a “breed”. (Incidentally, the common American thing, to talk about being part Indian, to talk about how much “Indian blood” you have, and to judge “authenticity” according to skin color, that plays out very differently in Native communities; most often, you’re either Indian, or you’re not, and whether you’re included has more to do with where you grew up, and who you’re related to, and whether or not you actually spend time with people in the community, or whether you just look down on people there, “act good” in Blackfeet parlance. This is why blood quantum laws are so devastating, because they legally exclude certain people, like myself, and give people who make a life out of lateral violence a legal justification for their hatred.) In Native communities, calling someone “white” is one of the worst things you can say, the ultimate signifier of exclusion and disgust.

It’s very difficult to explain to a white person how connotatively wicked that simple term is when it’s uttered by a Native person, directed at another Native person. It’s even difficult at times to hear in a joking manner, from people who like you, because there’s a sense that you couldn’t be anything less or worse, or that you are the ultimate kind of traitor. But it doesn’t necessarily refer directly to white people, which is probably even more strange to hear. This goes back to the treaty era, of course, when the U.S. government found the Indians who would sell out their relatives for a few pieces of gold, so to speak, by signing treaties that might utterly devastate a tribe. There’s a thing people in Indian Country will say, to describe an Indian who is being conciliatory toward white people, who’s being spineless for the sake of sucking up to administrators or politicians, in particular, who is saying whatever they need to say for the sake of money, or prestige, or attention: White Man’s Indian. I grew up hearing variations of that epithet, and I learned early on it was one of the worst things you could be. This is why the term for Euro-Americans in many indigenous languages doesn’t actually refer to the color of their skin, but the way they lived, their value system, how they behaved. The whole mode of life was so alien to indigenous people, and because many of those first encounters did not go well, the term used for these newcomers was sometimes the same term for that tribe’s trickster character, because tricksters were liars, and didn’t know how to live the right way, and couldn’t be trusted. So being called “white” in a Native community doesn’t necessarily refer to the color of your skin, but more often refers to how you’re behaving, your actions, what kind of values you’re expressing—whether or not that accusation has any validity. I’m not sure that’s something most Americans would grasp even if they spent years living in a Native community.

But, to return to this idea of the Indian who says what people want to hear, of course there’s a place for them in American society, they satisfy certain needs, such as filling a spot at the shallow end of the diversity pool (notice how rarely Indians who appear in public in the U.S. have light skin), or the need certain white liberals have to be flogged before the masses to assuage America’s collective guilt over our shared history (Sherman Alexie built his public career around this need). America has always had a need for an Indian who will stand up in public and say what people want to hear, rather than what they need to hear. So that kind of internal complexity, which is an essential fact of my life—I can’t not put that in my work, I would be betraying myself and the people I know, the communities I’ve been in, in the most heinous way, by not putting that kind of stuff in my work, even if it involves showing who we are in an unflattering way. There’s always talk of healing in Indian Country, but healing can’t begin without honesty. Anything less is just another John Wayne film, it’s just more Cowboys and Indians.

What do you think of the labels ‘Native art’ or ‘Native lit’?

To me, Native art is a social, economic, and academic category that’s become a cage Native artists willingly step into for the sake of being with other people like themselves, in the hope of making some money and getting a little bit of attention. From an academic and intellectual perspective, if we want to see the conversation expand and take on the kind of complexity it deserves, the work needs to be compared to art produced in other colonized zones around the world, not just to other Native writers in the U.S., so we can see where the overlap and difference is, and how those differences relate to systemic and cultural variations. What does literature produced by Southwestern Native artists look like, compared to literature produced by Pacific Islander, or Sami artists? (We are talking modern art here, of course, not traditional tribal arts.) I’ve had a theory for some time that literature produced by Natives has far more in common, in terms of surface themes, with literature from Palestine and various parts of Africa or Ireland, for example, than it does with the work of other American writers. I’ll never forget the first time I read “The Dead,” and realized Joyce was critiquing people involved in Gaelic language revitalization. And that was in 1914! But that’s all academics, that’s intellectual work, and doesn’t deal with the question of a work’s aesthetic value, something that is ultimately decided by artists, critics, and serious fans, over a long period of time. From that perspective, work produced by Native artists needs to be compared to everyone else working in their medium or genre, past and present, just like any white artist’s work would be. Modern art is a global phenomenon, and limiting comparisons only to artists who are of the same race or ethnicity or nationality, that’s a disservice to everyone involved.

Also—I’m not saying there’s no value in being with people who understand where you come from, and everyone needs money, everyone wants attention, but the work has to be more than that, larger than that. Placing your need to belong above your need to make good art is detrimental to your work, it means you’re following your desire to be socially safe, rather than your need to take aesthetic risks, which is how you develop and progress as an artist, how you stand the best chance to contribute something meaningful to the world. Artists shouldn’t feel safe, at least not in terms of their work. We need to feel the discomfort and angst that goes with not belonging, of not being sure what the ultimate value of our work is. We need to take our work into the places we don’t want to go. As T.S. Eliot said, anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity. And we need to feel the disappointment and pain that comes with realizing we’ve fallen short of the greats—not to mention our own expectations—because almost everyone does, all the time. It’s an essential and humbling experience, one that makes us better artists, in the long run, even if only incrementally. I can’t stress how important the feeling of isolation or alienation, the sense of being alone in the universe is to the creation of good art. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, you have to enter the wilderness at a place of your own choosing, and proceed from there. So, from an artist’s perspective, the most important thing is always to make good art, and that means you need to exist independently of all these categories, no matter how much others try to put you into one, no matter how much you want to belong. You need to follow the deeper currents of your mind and heart. It’s good to stay on your reservation to learn your language and traditions, to be around your relatives; but there’s no faster way to cripple your art than by staying on an artistic reservation.

Do you think it’s important for artists to study aesthetic theory? Why or why not?

I do. Aesthetic theory is one of the only intellectual pursuits related to art that doesn’t merely deal with the meaning of a work, or the political import of a work, neither of which have ever helped me develop as an artist. If anything, explicit political concerns get in the way of aesthetic concerns, which, in the case of fiction have much more to do with voice, tone, structure and character development, than with whether or not you have “the right” to write something. Aesthetic theory—which I plan on studying more of once I get settled in here at Stanford, in a rudimentary, self-directed sort of way—as far as I can tell, is dealing with philosophical aspects of art. And I think that helps because there are certain issues artists deal with that are primarily philosophical and psychological, which have more to do with the nature of the medium they’re working with, or what’s happening during the process of creation, or what’s happening in the process of perception, rather than, how does this look when you view it through a Deconstructivist lens, for example. It’s a matter of what is happening and how is this happening, rather than how can we analyze this to show the text’s meaning. I learned more about the way beauty drives my work by reading and discussing the Symposium for a week than I did writing compare and contrast essays in nine semesters of English courses. That kind of training in critical analysis is important, in certain ways, but trust me when I say those critical frameworks are not what fiction writers are thinking about when they write.

Obviously, cultural appropriation is a hot topic right now, and appropriation from indigenous cultures is often taken to be especially pernicious. Do you have any thoughts you want to share on this issue?

I have almost no interest in the appropriation conversation; as it exists now, I find it dull. I tracked it closely for years when it blew up, and I was always disappointed with the simplistic nature of the critique. Why are artists so often erased from conversations about art? When artists respond to these controversies by arguing that we shouldn’t censor artists because that’s “a very dark path”—as Coco Fusco did in her profound response to the protests over Dana Schutz’s Emmett Till painting—why don’t those policing the issue listen and take this perspective seriously? The appropriations critique—because it doesn’t start from a place of appreciation, because it views art merely as a political tool, because it erases artists’ perspectives from the conversation—is anti-art. Many of my artist friends feel the same way, but most aren’t willing to speak about it publicly because the anti-appropriations people are so violent in their disagreement, and seem to be more than willing, when able, to destroy the people who don’t agree with them. When artists are becoming afraid to speak, that’s something we should be deeply concerned about, and we need to take a close look at the social conditions that are causing this fear . Appropriations critics seem interested in establishing a new order, where the content of art is constrained and determined by a specific political agenda. My response to this attitude has always been that art is not here to meet your latest social demand.

As for the indigenous aspect of that conversation, there is a legitimate criticism regarding the use of traditional designs / items—the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, in its various incarnations, was created to combat this exact thing. But the Native people spearheading the appropriations conversation have failed to distinguish between traditional arts and modern art. Because of this, the conversation regarding the appropriation of traditional tribal arts—a discussion that is all about who has a right to create what, which within tribal traditions is a legitimate conversation, because many designs can only be created by people who have been given the “right” to do so, often through ceremony—has spilled over into a conversation about who has a right to represent what in modern art mediums. For instance, can a non-Indian write about Indian characters or situations? Can an Indian from one tribe write about characters from another tribe? And so on. But what they’ve failed to recognize is that there is a massive difference between the processes and forms of knowledge involved in traditional tribal arts as opposed to modern art, so much so that they shouldn’t be compared in any but the broadest terms. There’s so much that’s not being unpacked in the appropriations conversation, and because the people involved are often more interested in a hanging than they are in a fair trial, I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon. Which is why the conversation is, in many ways, already dead. It wasn’t allowed to achieve the kind of complexity it deserved; it was forced to remain a simple morality tale, and as a result too many intelligent people saw the holes in the argument, and abandoned it.

What I wish Native critics would do, instead of focusing so much energy on critiquing white people—as if most white people really care—is to focus on learning their respective tribal histories and traditions, so they can pass them on. That kind of action is positive, in the sense that it’s not founded in anger, or tearing someone or something down, and would enrich the lives of the native people involved, help them feel better about themselves, and provide stability to their sense of self, which is something a lot of indigenous people in the U.S. need, particularly those who live far from reservations.

You only need to do a quick scan of what people are talking/writing about to see how many Indians’ primary concern is the fact they don’t know who they are, so to speak, or where they come from; and if it’s not overt then it’s an obvious subtext for anyone who recognizes the signifiers—these are the terrible echoes of the colonial A-bomb. It’s clear to me that some of the most vocal appropriation critics have serious doubts about their own authenticity, and the decibel level of their critique is often directly related to how much doubt they have.

The solution for most has been, at least as far as social media is concerned, to vent that angst by ripping white people. Hipsters will wear fake headdresses forever, but we still have the real thing. And that’s what we should be focusing on: learning the real thing. What many Natives involved in the appropriation conversation are actually looking for is positive reinforcement re: their identity. They self-authenticate by situating themselves in a particular way in relation to white people, a process that is often, but not always, related to growing up away from a reservation. (You would be surprised how many people on reservations couldn’t care less about the appropriations issue, and that’s not because they’re ignorant.) The problem, of course, is that getting thousands of likes and retweets on Twitter, or hundreds of shares on Facebook, isn’t actually going to authenticate your identity in a substantial way. You’re only going to find that by strengthening your relationship to the history that gave rise to your identity in the first place, by trying to engage your community, wherever it is—not by engaging in slap downs. It’s a difficult process, but I know people who have done it. And of course, once again, none of this has anything to do with art, not really. From what I’ve seen, the serious critics of appropriation are almost never serious artists working in modern mediums, or serious lovers of art.

Lastly, to beat this dead horse a little longer, but this is something I’ve never heard discussed publicly, and it seems significant, particularly for anyone who wants to see how complex the Indian side of this conversation is. There is a problem with having an Indian from a particular tribe speak for all Indians from all tribes. It’s never not been odd to me that some of the most vocal and prominent critics of headdress appropriation, for example, come from tribes that didn’t traditionally use headdresses. Why are these people so offended? I get it, but also, I don’t. This might seem small, but it’s not, because the Native side of the appropriation conversation is founded on the idea that this is something that should be offensive to most if not all Native people. For example, if I see someone appropriating a Haudenosaunee cultural item, like a wampum belt, I can see how this is problematic, and how it would be offensive to a Haud person, but it actually means very little to me personally. There is very little, if any, overlap between Haudenosaunee culture and Blackfoot culture. I know next to nothing about them in a granular way, and I don’t expect them to know anything about Blackfoot people. So the idea that I should be defending them from appropriation, it doesn’t make sense to me, except in the broadest sense—that this kind of appropriation is evidence of the long history of colonialism, land and resource theft, etc. But ultimately I think that’s their job, to defend themselves, and from what I can tell, they are more than capable of doing so, as are the Navajo, and the Lakota, and the Salish, and so on and so forth. If they asked for help, that would be a different story—but that’s not how the appropriation narrative works, that’s not how the story is sold. It’s a narrative that is, despite minimal effort not to be, founded in pan-Indianism, the idea that all Indians are the same, one of the very things many Native activists are fighting.

This was my problem with the protests at Standing Rock, incidentally; the idea that all Indians were supposed to come to the defense of the Standing Rock Nation—but why? It was sold as, “They are Indians, and we are Indians, so we should support them. And white people need to support them, because this is their fault, and this water belongs to everyone.” It’s a powerful idea, but it’s too romantic for someone like me. And the truth is, if that situation had occurred on my reservation, or anywhere else, the response would not have been the same, which is related to the fact that, because of certain historical events and figures that live large in the American imagination, and because of how colonization of the midwest and west played out in terms of when it happened in the overall American colonial process, the Lakota have come to represent all plains Indians, and plains Indians have come to represent all Indians. Notice, for example, how often articles about Indian Country are focused on Pine Ridge, despite the fact the difficulties they have exist everywhere in Indian Country. Did I go to Standing Rock? Of course. But I did because I saw the situation as one rooted in the treaty violations that define the foundation of the United States, and I viewed supporting that resistance as a stand for tribal sovereignty everywhere—which was unfortunately not the common view.

I’m interested your thoughts about relationship between art and politics.  There’s a burgeoning cottage industry of writers who sit ready to drop a thinkpiece on anything that doesn’t toe the line. Given how severely socially unjust our country is, I certainly understand the vehemence with which people approach these issues, but I fear the attitude that social justice trumps all aesthetic considerations. There is something philistine about expecting a work of nightmare surrealism, for instance, to conform to political ideals. Do you have any thoughts about how to strike a balance between political and ethical concerns on the one hand and artistic concerns on the other?

The prime example for me of this philistinism is a common response I saw to the third season of Twin Peaks. Even before Twin Peaks came out two summers ago I knew there was going to be a backlash because it’s very easy in this political climate to do a simplistic analysis of Lynch’s work that results in him being dismissed and condemned as a misogynist, or a racist—neither of which I agree with. A troubling number of “critiques” right now are about making simplistic, 1:1 connections between the surface content of a film or novel and a current social problem. The subtext is that these critiques are asking art to function at the level of mere allegory—Everyman-type stuff. They want morality tales with clear messages, unambiguous situations and outcomes; they want art that clearly takes the side of the “good”—which in this case is whatever aligns with their politics in an unambiguous way. They don’t want modern art. They don’t want good art. They certainly don’t want Lynch. The more I read these “critiques” the more I believe the people writing them don’t love art. I’m not even sure they like art. They approach art merely as a way to push their politics. You see this everywhere: media, state and federal politics, social justice groups, and of course universities. What they fail to understand—and this is one of the things that leads me to believe these critics don’t have extensive experience with art—is that in this kind of society one of the primary purposes of art is to show us the things about ourselves we don’t want to see. Blood Meridian is one of the greatest examples of this kind; I’m not sure anyone has visited the shadowlands of humanity and come back with literature so aesthetically remarkable, beautiful and troubling. Art is really the only place we can go for that kind of complicated honesty. If there’s a social function for art, that’s it. So, from a certain point of view, no contemporary male artist in the U.S. is more against the horrors of misogyny than Lynch, exactly because he shows us how awful it is, and he’s unequivocal in that judgement.

As for your question, I don’t think it’s the job of artists to balance politics and/or ethics with aesthetics. I think it’s the job of artists to make aesthetically successful art. You can have a work that is aesthetically successful and isn’t explicitly political, such as The Old Man and the Sea, or John William’s Augustus, one of my favorite books, both significant works of art that don’t “do” anything politically without the benefit of a politically-minded interpreter. And you can have significant works that have a kind of political aura, but remain first and foremost an aesthetic experience; Soderbergh’s Che, C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, or Delillo’s Libra are great examples of this. You can certainly view these through a political lens, and in the case of the latter examples they deal with political situations, but none of those works are didactic expressions of the artist’s politics—they’re about complex people in complex political and cultural situations. Art that’s only interested in expressing a political stance doesn’t interest me, because it doesn’t allow for a multiplicity of interpretations over a long period of time, which is one of the primary factors I think determines the value of a work of art.

It’s interesting to ask why right now, at this particular moment in history, we are seeing so much political pressure being placed on the arts. As our political and social systems destabilize, we seem to be expecting art to do the work of these systems. It speaks to the significance of art; we recognize the power art has over us;, in some way we don’t quite comprehend we are still the people who painted beasts on the shadowy walls of a cave, and art, when it really works, takes us to that nonrational place in ourselves. This is also why we find art dangerous: because of its ability to bypass our rationality, art has a tendency to destabilize our perceptions. And that kind of danger is particularly troubling during a moment such as this. I’d rather people protest and call their congressmen and women and run for office than expect artists to fix the world. But that’s the hard stuff, and most people aren’t going to do that.

Can you recommend a book, an album, and a movie?

Book, primary rec: The Sport of Kings, by C.E. Morgan. She gives herself all the freedoms artists aren’t supposed to give themselves right now, and it’s beautiful. Secondary rec: Seiobo There Below, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai.

Album, primary rec: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert, Bob Dylan. The albums that have become the most interesting to me are the ones that I can’t stop returning to. Secondary rec: Blonde, Frank Ocean.

Movie, primary rec: Twin Peaks, Season 3. Lynch’s proclamation that it’s a film should be given credence. Secondary: John Carpenter’s The Thing. Kurt Russell is one of the greatest American actors, and he’s in top form here.

We like to ask interviewees to fill in the blanks as they see fit: “Aesthetics is for the artist as ______ are for the _____.”

Aesthetics is for the artist as Tony Soprano is for David Chase.

One quotation to close with?

From nowhere we came; into nowhere we go. What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.

– Issǔṗōm”ksikkǎa (Crow’s Big Foot, Nīītsiṫapii Headman)

Image credit: “Entrenched” by Evan Thompson
Edited by Alex King


  1. Sterling Holywhitemountain is certainly one of the vanguards of contemporary Blackfoot intellectualism. While reading his analysis of life on the modern reservation juxtaposed to our historical belief systems I am heartened to know the future and past of our People will be well represented by his ability to give a voice that both understands our historical world view and the present social order to a wider world. Mr. Holywhitemountain deserves and has the rights to speak as the artist he is and the leader he will become.

  2. Great interview. I found Holywhitemountain’s thoughts on appropriation particularly insightful, despite perhaps his initial reluctance to engage in the debate.

  3. This is one of the smartest conversations I’ve read in a long time—much to ponder. Thanks for the link to Coco Fusco, too.

  4. Pingback: Best Reads from Lately – Stephen Graham Jones

  5. This was fascinating to read. My understanding of blood quantum has grown considerably. Helps to answer some of the questions this white woman has about tribal disenrollment and what seems to be pushback from some of the Coast Salish tribes against federal recognition for the Duwamish. While context for current political events is always welcome, the deep dive into charges of cultural appropriation also made my information-hungry brain happy to explore the links for better understanding. I work to see the nuance in many issues but I often come back to black and white thinking that colonialism/imperialism/capitalism is the source for so much hurt.

  6. Wow. Just holy fuck, what a great interview.

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