An exhibition by artist Gregg Deal at the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose attempts to deal with the problematic issue many Indigenous people find themselves confronting: What does American Democracy mean to them?
The title of the exhibition - “Merciless Indian Savages” - is a direct quote from the Declaration of Independence, specifically from the list of 27 grievances that are laid out against the Crown. The last of those 27 grievances accuses King George III of exciting “domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”
While that passage very succinctly sums up the feelings of the writers of the Declaration of Independence toward the Indigenous people, it also equally succinctly sums up Deal’s intent with the exhibition. Factor in the juxtaposition of “all men are created equal” in the very same document, and the question of ‘what does American democracy mean to Indigenous people’ becomes even more pertinent. It is a question without an answer for many.
“Indigenous people weren’t considered people at all. At the time, that document was drafted for rich white landowners, and even poor white people were excluded. The actions of early settlers pointed to the desire to extract land from the Indigenous people.”
That desire, which Deal calls the “English way” (which was unlike the way other groups - the Spanish, the French and the pilgrims - interacted with Indigenous people) culminated with the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
Not much has changed for Deal when it comes to that exclusion. “I often say that I’m Indigenous having an American experience. Yes, I’m American, but I consider myself Numu (Paiute) first and foremost. I’m Indigenous to this continent, and that happens to make me American, whether I like it or not.”
That view causes a problem for some people, especially those that are invested, for one reason or another, in the power dynamic that has been created. “Romantic nationalism is predicated on our extermination or complicity,” Deal says. “And it rears its head in one form or another almost every day.”
Deal often hears the phrase “why can’t we just all get along'' in relation to his work. He says there is a lot to reconcile before we can talk in those terms. As for what that reconciliation looks like, Deal says that in itself is a big question. “There is no single answer,” he says. “Every tribal nation is different and has different ideas on what reconciliation should look like.”
Personally, Deal says while it is a difficult question, he settles on education as a starting point. “Given what is happening right now in the country with regard to legislation being proposed to prevent certain things being taught in schools, I think education would be a good place to start.”
A member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Deal has an impressive resume, having lectured at some of the most prestigious institutions in the United States including Dartmouth College, Columbia University, and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. “Merciless Indian Savages” is open through May 2022.