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Selu

March 23, 2010

Earlier, I was shifting some books, and noticed a photo in Susan Powers’ Art of the Cherokee: the bronze sculpture of Selu at Qualla Boundary, in NC (Eastern Band Cherokee). With stereotypes and all, I almost hesistate to mention it, but it was apparently commissioned by Harrah’s Casino.

I was struck again by what a great sculpture it is, not even having seen it in person.

Here’s a link to that image’s page, and one to the gallery with more views of it.

Apparently, it was unveiled in 2003, and created by Ray Moose working in close conjunction with two Eastern Band painters. Jenean Hornbuckle “created numerous drawings, photographs, and even a buckskin dress to give accurate detail to the finished piece” (from the Powers book), and fellow painter Nikki Nations modeled and gave creative input.

I was particularly impressed when I first saw a photo, because the artists appropriately portrayed Selu as strong-looking, with very typically Cherokee build and features. They did not try to make her look more European, thinner, nor otherwise conforming more closely to what the dominant culture considers feminine these days. She is very plausible as Selu, and she is absolutely beautiful. She has dignity and gravitas.

She can help Ani Tsalagi women appreciate who they are, and how a lot look. It works for me. :) We don’t get much encouragement in that direction these days.

I can’t help but be reminded of the excellent What If Black Women Were White Women?.

Someone (I can’t find the sculptor) did almost as good a job on a fairly recent sculpture (’90s vintage?) of the sachem Powhatan, for Jamestown Settlement:

Closer view of his face:

That depiction was not quite as pleasantly surprising, though, since it does fit with prevailing ideas about masculinity. A wider variety of physical characteristics qualify as masculine. I was glad they apparently got an actual Eastern Indian person to model, anyway. I hope it’s also the work of one or more local artists.

Earlier today, seeing the Selu photo again, I was struck again by how absurd it really is to be that impressed by a realistic portrayal (with good cause). It’s good realistic sculpture, but should not feel like such a huge blast of fresh air. The closest relevant bit from Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack is “45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.”

I would add, quite simply: “I can expect to see people who look like me respectfully depicted in works of art.” (Not to mention expecting to be taken at least semi-seriously if one complains about caricatures.)

The Selu piece got me thinking about one bit of appropriation which has never sat well with me (or a number of other people) back home: Radford University’s Selu Conservancy (now also Selu Observatory, it seems). A lot of this discomfort, I’ll admit, also comes from the university’s repeatedly demonstrated level of respect for local people.

Selu is a really important mythological figurenot a goddess, in a system with no deities. Short and sweet answer to the deities question there: “There were / are no “Gods” and there are / were no form of “Worship” to them. Natives believed in “Spirits” but did not worship them in any form, they simply respected them in their own domain / way.” In reality, there’s as much room for (relevant) deities as in Taoism or Buddhism. It’s all about the metaphor.

Still, using her name is rather different from snagging the same old ancient Greek and Roman figures; those are legitimate parts of the Western cultural heritage. There are still plenty of Cherokee around in the vicinity to ask if this is OK. They consistently prefer to pretend this is not so, though we would probably get dismissed just as badly–and for the same reasons–as Indian people rather than generic Horrible Hillbillies.

According to the Selu Conservancy’s history page, “Selu Conservancy was named by poet Marilou Awiakta for the mythical Cherokee ‘grandmother corn-spirit.’” She is the author of Selu: Seeking the Corn-Mother’s Wisdom, which is probably how anyone at RU became aware that Selu exists at all. At least they did apparently consult some actual Cherokee person, but she is from East Tennessee–not from Virginia’s New River Valley where they were naming things! Marilou Awiakta had/has no authority to speak for any other people involved. To my knowledge, nobody connected to the university ever bothered to ask anyone locally if this was OK (nor did Marilou Awiakta, AFAICT).

Not having much explanation of exactly how Ms. Awiakta was involved here, I don’t feel a big urge to seek out and support her writing, for that matter–even though it sounds interesting. Based on experience, I am more inclined to blame the university for this particular show of disrepect, however.

The situation would have been very different indeed–if probably an occasion for some eye-rolling–if anyone appropriate had been consulted. A public call for opinions, assuming local opinions would have been heeded at all (unlikely), would have done the trick. Just a little respect can salve an awful lot of feelings, and make people far more kindly inclined toward you.

As it is, I bet there are a disturbing number of people driving to the Selu Conservancy in their Jeep Cherokees, and never thinking about the layers of appropriation and liberal racism. At all. Though this is hardly the worst example of cultural appropriation ever, that’s the main reason I got irked: make a show of your great multicultural sensitivity, while dismissing and behaving very rudely indeed toward anyone you don’t consider enough like you.

I am probably not the first to consider how many people could do with meeting an animated, nine-foot bronze Selu. More laughing than smiting is involved in my mental versions of this. The laughing might disturb a lot of folks more.

_____________

* I almost referred to Wikipedia there, until I read the whole article. Egads. They’ve got “worship” of a more personalized face of the panentheistic Great Mystery (not to mention a female personification of evil). Hint: “worship” applies no better than “sacred” does in a lot of cases; to paraphrase Pratchett, would you worship the sacred table right in front of you, without whom we are naught? If that’s not an honest “explaining things in terms familiar to monotheists” mistake, it’s from introduced monotheistic influence (yay for forced assimilation!). The term “Yowa” looks suspiciously similar to the claptrap you can find from LDS Cherokee Family (yeesh!), which I ran across by searching on it! A gloss from another dodgy-looking site: “God: Yo-wa, Yihowa, Yahweh”. Hmm, wonder where they got that word? *snort*

Yeah, it’s from Wikipedia, but it’s still remarkably craptastic–in a way very plausible to people steeped in some kind of monotheistic system. Which also describes a lot of what pass for scholarly sources, unfortunately. I continue to get irritated by the bizarre, biased ‘splainin’ which frequently substitutes for even trying to understand what other people are talking about.

See Meloukhia’s What Is ’splainin’? And Why Should I Care? for exactly why this is infuriating, no matter the source.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jefferson Armistead permalink
    March 24, 2010 5:38 pm

    Dear urocyon,

    Please consider this a formal invitation to actually come and visit the Selu Conservancy…

    Jefferson Armistead
    Director, Selu Conservancy
    Radford University

    • urocyon permalink
      March 24, 2010 6:13 pm

      Thank you. I may do that the next time I’m back in Virginia.

      Extra bonus points for class. :) Yesterday’s irritated rant-of-the-moment looks pettier by contrast.

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