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Critic Joseph Kosuth observes that to understand conceptual art in the United States, you must also understand the sixties and “appreciate conceptual art for what it was: the art of the Vietnam War era.”2 In the same way, understanding the work of Luna and his peers requires appreciating Indian conceptual art as the art of the Indian movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Both linked to and distinct from the antiwar and civil rights activism of the time, the rebellions, takeovers, and demonstrations that swept through Native communities across North America profoundly changed Indian consciousness. It would not be an exaggeration to call it a cultural revolution.
The three most celebrated events all took place during a forty-two month period between November 1969 and May 1973. Each was wrapped in a self-consciously theatrical sensibility, with a sophisticated understanding of what it would take to convince the international news media to pay attention to the political grievances. At the former federal prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, it meant a nighttime invasion of dozens of college students who refused to leave no matter what. Three years later, on the eve of a presidential election, it meant hundreds of Indians, some with Molotov cocktails and other improvised explosive devices, occupying the Bureau of Indian Affairs, daring police to attack them, just blocks from the White House. Three months later, it meant taking over the village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the place where U.S. soldiers massacred hundreds of Sioux Indians in 1890, and this time facing heavily armed U.S. marshals and the occasional Phantom jet.
In other words, it took a lot to get the world to pay attention.
The Indian movement was far more than just political theater, and its ramifications are still being felt. It is a common observation that the Indian movement is partly responsible for the existence of a national museum devoted to Native Americans in Washington, D.C. The political space of the museum, however, was also present in each of these very different events, occurring in very different places.
At Alcatraz, the students wrote a clever proclamation that offered to purchase the island for twenty-four dollars in glass beads and red cloth, and explained what they planned to do with the property. Restaurants, job training, and a spiritual center would rise from the rocky ground. There was also this: “Some of the present buildings will be taken over to develop an American Indian Museum which will depict our native food and other cultural contributions we have given to the world. Another part of the museum will present some of the things the white man has given to the Indians in return for the land and life he took: disease, alcohol, poverty, and cultural decimation (as symbolized by old tin cans, barbed wire, rubber tires, plastic containers, etc.). Part of the museum will remain a dungeon to symbolize both those Indian captives who were incarcerated for challenging white authority and those who were imprisoned on reservations. The museum will show the noble and tragic events of Indian history, including the broken treaties, the documentary of the Trail of Tears, the Massacre of Wounded Knee, as well as the victory over Yellow-Hair Custer and his army.”
At the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., occupiers seized the building’s impressive collection of Indian artifacts and appropriated arrows and clubs for use against a police attack. They also gave the building a new name: the Native American Embassy. Only a few of the objects could be used as weapons, but when the siege ended and the protesters left town, they took with them every artifact they could carry. The collection ended up in living rooms all over Indian Country. Although many Indians who took part in the occupation expressed regret at the massive destruction inside the building, few showed remorse about removing the paintings, rattles, blankets, and pots from a place where, in their view, they never belonged in the first place. Looting? We called it liberation.
At Wounded Knee, a store called the Wounded Knee Trading Post and Museum was one of the most despised institutions on the reservation, and one of the first casualties of the occupation. Furious Lakotas ransacked the store and left the display cases broken and empty of headdresses and other artifacts.0