Speak to the Unspeakable: James Luna and Geraldine Ah-Sue in Conversation
My name is Geraldine Ah-Sue, and I was the producer for Raw Material: Manifest, the podcast’s award-winning second season. Because the season focused on the ways art, community, and social justice intersect, internationally renowned Payómkawichum, Ipi, and Mexican-American installation and performance artist James Luna naturally came to mind. Through performances such as The Artifact Piece and Take a Picture with a Real Indian, Luna challenged art institutions and spectators alike to rethink the ways in which Native people are viewed — both literally and metaphorically. What is the space that Native people occupy in the American imagination today? How does this translate to museums? And how does this carry over to how we think of contemporary art and its makers?
Part of Luna’s brilliance was the way he incorporated humor and play to confront the history of Native people in the US — an approach I admired. I was nervous about reaching out to him, and even worried about how to address him. “James” seemed a little informal, “Mr. Luna” a little too formal. When we finally spoke, I admitted my dilemma, to which he responded, “how about ‘your highness?’”
Luna passed away in March 2018. It was a privilege to cross paths with him, even if for just a brief moment. Here is an edited transcript of our interview together.
Geraldine Ah-Sue: Well, your highness, if you’re ready, we can jump right into it! Where are you recording?
James Luna: We’re in my studio here on my property. It’s a separate building from my house. I’m looking around right now; it’s a little crowded. You know, there’s never enough room! And I’m getting ready to make a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico in June, to the Institute of American Indian Arts, which has my personal archives.
GA: Have you always lived on the reservation?
JL: No, I moved here 1977. I was twenty-seven at the time. I actually grew up in Orange County. But one of the things that we never lost was our connection to the reservations. Both my grandma and grandpa lived next door to us. And then on the other street lived my Mexican grandparents. Living next to both my grandparents shaped me culturally.
My grandmother came from a family of eleven. And my father had a family of ten. So there were plenty of aunts and uncles and cousins all around. But the reservation connection continued because we’d have people come to visit or do seasonal work in the area. Or, we would go down to the reservation for what we call “doings,” which might be a funeral or a festive occasion of some kind — a fiesta or something like that.
So, that was really important to me — not to lose that bond.
GA: Do you have any memorable stories from your childhood?
JL: Yeah. You know, when people talk about Indian culture, somehow I think they get this romantic vision of sitting around a campfire, with the elders sharing information with you. But, it wasn’t like that. There was a lot of information being passed, particularly with the relatives coming by. And one of the things that was embedded in me was know who you are. And know who your family is. When I moved to the reservation, that became very important. Because people would ask me, “Well, who are you?” And then I would give them my lineage, and they would go, “Oh. Oh, we know them. Oh, yes!” And since our families were large, I ended up being related to everybody!
Looking back on it, the other thing that was instilled in me was communal living and family get-togethers. The core family was really strong, and that stayed with me. It was all about family. I think what was instilled in me was a world outlook. You know, you can be a full-blooded Indian and not be an Indian, because knowledge wasn’t passed to you. It isn’t about hunting and fishing, though, you know, some tribes still do that. It’s a world outlook, made through practice and example. It’s about being humble. I look at my grandparents, and they were the epitome of that. And maybe economically, we were not so rich — there was a lot of things we didn’t have, and we did without — but, that’s part of it, too.
I didn’t pick up the language, because my grandmother in particular would be beaten or punished for speaking the language when they were in Indian school, so they didn’t see it as a vital thing; English was more important. And they had no people — nobody to speak to on a daily basis. They were from different tribes. When I grew up, I knew even less. But you know, there’s another language, just like “Spanglish.” There’s an Indian English slang. So when I say, “Oh, we’re going to the mountains for some doings,” we know what that means. And depending on how we say it, it could be something religious, or it could be some kind of family gathering. And then there’s a whole slew of gestures and grunts and things like that, that I grew up with, that helped me communicate better when I got here to the rez.
GA: What’s an example of a saying?
JL: Mmm, well there’s… Well, that’s one right there! “Mmm.” But it’s in the context. Like, “Yeah, I’m gonna go over here and I’m gonna hang around with the boys.”
“Mmm.” And what she says in that, ’cause I know what she’s thinking: “Don’t be going over there and drinking.” And then I’ll pick up on it and go, “Oh, no, we’re not gonna be drinking.” And she’ll go, “Sure.”
That sound and the mannerisms and things — we got a whole communication thing going there. And that’s kind of common in Indian cultures.
GA: You’re talking about a kind of internal communication, which makes me think of how different that experience is to outsiders. What are some stereotypes that you come up against?
JL: Well, one is the “stoic Indian.” Going back to that humbleness — it’s about respect for people. You let them talk before you interrupt. That’s part of the training: giving people the floor to finish talking, and not interrupt. You know, people sometimes think that being quiet means being dumb. But that’s not the case at all. So, for example, when my grandfather spoke, he didn’t speak much, but when he spoke, everything got quiet and what he said always seemed to be of importance. But also, going back to the whole quiet language we have between us. I mean, I can be in a room with another Native and, you know, look around and we’re looking at each other and there’ll be this instant eye contact and little nod. It isn’t like we’re not talking or being involved, but we’re still communicating.
So, in my work, I use performance and mannerisms, you know? I was trying to be the actor that I’m not, and then became aware of the tone of my voice, the cadence and the pauses. And so it became comfortable for me to tell our stories in that kind of language and mannerisms. Then I started thinking to myself, “Well, so exactly what are you doing here?” And I’d think, “I’m being myself. But I’m also trying to show people something.” “Oh, you mean you’re letting them in?” And I’d think, “Yeah. I’m letting them into something that they may need to know, something that they don’t generally understand.” Then I’d get into subjects that were important, and that also broke stereotypes. And one of them was humor! Because I think Indian people are the funniest people in the world. And if you’re around us long enough, there’s this really funny, dry sense of humor about the strangest things or, thinking about stories that are tragic and figuring out how to talk about them. I found that we were talking about things that were tragic in a funny way. And then I realized what was happening: it was to ease the pain. In our world outlook — and maybe our world — there’s a lot of things that were, and still are, painful. One of the things that people say about me is, “he’s kind of funny,” or, “you know, he does stand-up.” But no, that has nothing to do with it. I’m an observer. I do social satire. I like to think that my work primarily comes from real places and real circumstances.
GA: Tell me about Take a Picture with a Real Indian.
JL: Take a Picture with a Real Indian started out with a trip to New Mexico for a job interview. My son and I were driving across the landscape, and we got to Navajo and went off the beaten path. And out of the middle of nowhere, there was this Indian guy in a war dance outfit — or what I called a “funky” war dance outfit. He was an Indian dressed up to dance. He was waving at cars so that they would come into their little plywood lean-to that they made for their jewelry and other trinkets that they were selling to tourists. And it saddened me. It was like, “Oh, man. Do we have to do this? Do we have to dress Indian to sell our wares or be perceived as Indian so people will stop and take our picture and then perhaps buy our jewelry?” And I thought, “yeah.” You’re not just going to stand out there in your street clothes and wave at cars, you know? And this guy and his family are making a living. And I thought, “well, this is the price we pay.” But then I thought, “well, you know, you’ve sold your red ass trying to get a good grade or get the attention of some lady.”
Later that same year, I went out to DC for something, and I saw what I thought was the greatest kind of public entertainment thing. It was “Take a Picture with President Bush.” The first Bush, not the son of the Bush. You could stand next to this cutout of Bush, with the Great Mall in the background, and take a picture! And I thought, “wow! This is great!” I didn’t take the picture, which kinda kills me still to this day. The next year, I was invited to do a show on tourism at the Whitney. And I started thinking about tourism and our role in it. I’ll tell you, when people figure out that I’m an Indian, I’m not Mexican or Hawaiian or Filipino, or whatever they think I am, then come the questions! And then when I tell them I’m an artist, they go, “Oh. You make jewelry? You do beadwork?” With no perception that I could be a contemporary artist. And then they get more personal and ask things like, “Oh, what’s your people?” And I say, “Well, my tribe is…” and then they say, “Oh, never heard of it. Are you full-blood?” And I’m thinking, “what difference is it to you?!” So you’re kinda free fodder. Or, there’ll be other instances where I’ll be in a situation and I’m around other Indians, and somebody will come up with a camera and start taking pictures without asking. You know? It’s like, we’re a commodity for the taking.
And so I thought, “okay, well, that’s part of the tourism thing. And that’s the reality I live in.” I started thinking about the show and I thought, “I’m gonna do an installation performance called Take a Picture with a Real Indian.” And during this period, I’ll invite people to take a picture with a real Indian. I’ll dress in a very minimal Indian outfit that could be general Indian, so to speak; just a breechcloth and my hair down, and a necklace maybe. Then I’m going to come out in my street clothes and just be me on an everyday basis. And then I’m going to dress up like the Indian that everybody really loves to see, with the feathers, and I’ll have a war dance outfit on. And I’ll pose, without saying anything. The payback is we take two Polaroids: they get one and I keep one. At the conclusion of the performance, I’ll have life-size cut-outs of me on the platform where I was standing, and the photos will up on the wall.
GA: Was there anything that surprised you about the performance?
JL: What I wasn’t ready for were the people. Because I began to realize what I was giving up. I was kind of humiliating myself. At the same time, these people humiliated themselves. You know, they were really like, “Ooh. Ooh, okay. Well, should I? Wait a minute, this isn’t right. But well, what the heck?” And so the first one got up with me, “Oh, yeah, okay, great. With an Indian, okay.” But then when I came out in my street clothes, there were very few takers. And this is in New York, mind you. And then finally, when I came out in the war dance thing, there was this unanimous, “Ooh! Yeah! I’ll take a picture with an Indian!” It was the audience that became the piece. And in between the poses, I decided, well, I’m not going to be quiet. And this is one of the pieces that I say:
“Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture here tonight in New York City. Take two. Leave one. Take one home. America loves to see her Indians dance with them. America loves to say, ‘our Indians.’ America loves to name their cars and trucks after our tribes and people. America doesn’t know me. Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture tonight, free.”
That helped me grasp the power that an audience gives you, and realize what you can do with it.
GA: Did it change the way that you saw yourself? Or the audience?
JL: Well, yeah, it was about interaction. People love that. If I’m going to perform, even if it’s on a stage, I make a point of getting off the stage, or bringing somebody onstage, so that there’s interaction. I’m not going to be up there performing, or entertaining them. Involvement really became important to me. And, because it’s a public intervention piece, you don’t know what you’re going to get. And there have been cases when it becomes too playful, so when I do the monologue, I have to get caustic, to bring everybody back down to the ground. You know, “Wait a minute there. This is a very serious thing.”
One of the last times I did it, I was standing there, and someone handed me a long scarf. And I wrapped it around my head, and I pulled it down, and invited people to take a picture with a real Arab. A real Arab terrorist. You could feel the chill through the room. People could be much more playful about it with an Indian, but if I were a Black man, or Asian, or anything else that people take a little more serious, it would be different. But that was the point: take us as serious human beings. Not a figment of your past, but someone that’s in the present, you know?
GA: Right. So then let’s talk about The Artifact Piece. Can you describe it?
JL: Well, that was another piece that I had written over the years. It was in San Diego and I had gotten word that there was a call for art in a public place. And I thought, “okay. I have this piece…” But going back through my notes, it really wasn’t clear how exactly I was going do it. I knew it was going to be about being an Indian on display, but as a contemporary person. That much I had. And “in a public place,” for me, meant a library or a post office, or some kind of thing where there’s people coming through. So, I submitted my proposal and they liked it. I was selected. As we talked, they said, “Well, you know, it’s going to be pretty hard with the post office. That’s federal stuff. Have you ever thought about proposing it to a museum, maybe an anthropological museum? Like, the Museum of Man in Balboa Park?” And I thought, “well, no, because they won’t go for it!” And they say to me, “Well, all they can say is ‘no.’” And you know what? The Museum of Man jumped at it. They thought it was a great idea, because there was a movement within archaeology and museums to work more with indigenous peoples. Not just talking about them, but also looking at them in the here and now, as informants of the present.
I thought, “this is a whole other thing that I hadn’t bargained for!” The curator came down, we talked, and he goes, “Well, how are you gonna do this?” And actually, I hadn’t decided about my presentation of lying there. But I knew I wanted objects that would speak to a being present-day Native man. And the artifacts of a present Native man would be me. It’d be pictures of my family. There’d be my bachelor’s degree, there’d be my favorite music, there’d be mementoes. From the objects, you’d see they belonged to somebody of a certain age, because they’d be from the seventies and the sixties. And the viewer would think, “well, he’s not so different.” But then with the Indian stuff, that’s what made it different. That was the point, that we walk in two worlds. We’re not limited to one. I started thinking, “well, one of the things that they don’t understand is that our culture is alive and well.” And so I displayed my personal medicine objects. The real things, because I wanted people to understand that they were in use now; they weren’t from the past.
But then it came to the main display, which was me. I’d be lying in a bed of sand. I constructed my sandbox, where I would lie. And then thinking about the performance itself, I would just sort of be there as a display — unannounced — where the unsuspecting Saturday families would come to see the Indian artifacts and bones and beadwork and whatever else they usually had on that particular floor. It all gelled.
Again, not thinking about the audience and the feeling of vulnerability. Being out there in a breechcloth and lying in the sand, and what people would think, and just being out there. That was quite a learning experience. It was a very trying — physically, mentally, spiritually — experience for me. It was very difficult to spend those couple hours out there. Because it was very cold, for one. And then, just people looking at what I considered my ugliness, you know? I was overweight at the time — the first one that I did in ’87. And there were my moldy toenails, and my scars and, you know, I just wasn’t looking good. But that was part of it. I wasn’t there to be a Disney Indian brave. I was just there as a regular Indian person that looked more like me than some romantic notion of a long-haired, six-five warrior.
But that vulnerability of people looking at me and, you know, feeling it. I decided that I would up the ante because I’m in control here. I wanted to take it a little bit further. So in the sand, I had these prose that I had written, alluding to different scars on my body done during alcoholic frenzies. You know? “Scar on his forehead caused after falling on his face, after drinking a fifth of whiskey when he got the call that his father had died.” “A lump or a welt on his finger from a failed marriage of two alcoholic people, trying to make it.” And so it brought in emotion. Real things. These weren’t just Indian things; these were real things. I’m talking about how people see each other, not just how people see Indians. At a lecture once, I asked, “how many people have been affected by substance abuse in their family? Either immediate, cousins, friends, you know, or acquaintances? Raise your hand.” And the whole room raised their hand.
GA: Was part of the piece also just that you were live, or, alive?
JL: Oh, yeah. There was a moment there where some kid touched my toes and ran away giggling, because they couldn’t believe that I was alive! And what it feels like to be a live artifact. Talking about the vulnerability, people would touch me or lean over me. And they would talk! You know, talking about me as though I wasn’t there: “Is he real? Oh, God, he is — are they paying him? This is — this is not right. We didn’t come here to see this.” It gave people something to see, whatever that means to them. Because in the museum, you don’t see us. We’re invisible. You see our belongings, or our things. Our bones, in the worst context.
GA: But even the bones as an artifact relate to a living flesh body. Do you think that your body was still like an artifact for viewers?
JL: I like to think that that piece changed people’s thinking. Not all people who saw it, but enough people. It kind of vaulted my career into the stratosphere, and I became called on to be “the voice” about that and other subjects. I don’t think it was fair to me. At the same time, it made people think. And that was another thing that I learned. I don’t think I have the power to change people’s minds. What I do have is the power to make people reconsider.
GA: So what are you working on now? What’s exciting you now?
JL: Well, I’m in a tour of a performance called ISHI: The Archive Performance. Ever since I remember doing my own study of our people, Ishi’s story captivated me. When I learned what it was really about, I’d see pictures of him and they would make me angry. And when I came to learn more, even in that epic book by Kroeber, there really wasn’t Ishi’s voice in there. They were speaking for him. And the only thing that they have of his voice is a recording of him singing. They were never able to break his silence. No one could figure out his language. But you know what? I had these theories. I was thinking of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where Chief is silent until the end. And Jack Nicholson gives him gum, and Chief goes, “Ah. Juicy Fruit.” And I’m thinking, just like Jack Nicholson did, “Chief, I knew you could talk! I knew you understood.” I thought, was Ishi maybe playing that up a bit? And so one night, I was going through photos of him, and his voice came to me! Whether it was real or imaginary, afterwards, the pictures became different. What was he feeling? You know, the humiliation, being in a kind of test tube. What was he keeping inside, and why?
And so in the performance, I group the photos, put titles to them, and do a monologue or actions. And you know what? It’s a way different piece than I’ve ever done. I’ve used video montage and things like that before, but not in the same way, where the photos speak as loud as I do. The monologue can be a couple words or it can be something where I just let it all out. I catapult Ishi into the here and now. I’m in the yard with my hair down and a breechcloth; I’m mowing the lawn, drinking a beer. I come to the barbecue in a later scene and I’m barbecuing, drinking wine. I offer a rib to whoever’s behind the camera. I come into the studio and I light matches, then blow them out, because Ishi thought the greatest invention in the world was the match — which I have to agree with. And I’m sitting there drinking wine, blowing out these matches, one after another, obsessively. And then the final one, I’m vacuuming my living room, drinking wine, and turn off the thing. And then I look at the camera angrily. Because it’s like, this is not really my world, but I’m here. And this drinking, it kind of hits you after a while. “God, this guy’s really drinking a lot!” Because I was thinking, “What if?” I’m very pleased with this piece.
I’m working on two other things. The new installation is called Self-Indulgence: It’s All About Me. It’s a satirical, wise-ass look at fame. One of the pieces that I’m having made for it is a Hollywood Walk of Fame star with my name. I haven’t come up with an insignia yet for what a performance artist would be. There’ll also be my Heavyweight Champion of the World Performance Art Belt, which will be beaded and have turquoise and silver on it. There’s my beaded princess tiara and then… Yeah, they’re all tongue-in-cheek.
The other thing is a one-man show. I’ll be a series of Indian men that I’ve known in my life, or have imagined. I’ve been doing this elder impression I call Old Guy. I transform into Old Guy by simply putting on over-sized glasses, a cap, suspenders, a cane, baggy pants, and I shuffle and spew knowledge. There’ll be the gay Indian elder, of which I know a few. And the AIM guy, the militant Indian. There’ll be the street Indian. I’m toying with the idea of playing a woman in there, if I could get the right tone in my voice. I’ve known some really great cantankerous elder women that I’d love to formulate.
GA: As an elder yourself, do you think anything has changed about Native communities in the contemporary art world today?
JL: Well, there’s some really great Indian art out there that people haven’t seen, you know, that I get an opportunity to see. What’s changed is the number and the quality of it. What hasn’t changed is that we’re still invisible. Name a major museum that has put on a contemporary Indian art survey, or presented a one-man show of a Native artist. And you know, I’ve seen us go through the multicultural movement. But when’s our moment?
GA: Looping back to the beginning of our conversation, I was reading an interview you did with the Smithsonian for Take a Picture with a Real Indian. In it, you talk about the vulnerability of performance, that you mentioned earlier, and wanting to run and hide. But you don’t. You stay standing there, for better or worse, because you have a purpose. And that purpose, you say, is part of being an artist. What is the purpose of art?
JL: Well, I think art is a mirror to whatever’s happening in society at the time. You know, artists can speak to the unspeakable. We can speak to the sublime. And we’re also recording it. But also, I think we’re leading the charge in making changes. And maybe that’s why people are so frightened by it, and that’s why they want to deny it and censor it. But, I’m an activist, an art activist. Art is my weapon of choice.