March 8th, 2015 Last Updated on: January 19th, 2022
Gregg Deal is a Pyramid Lake Paiute artist and activist living in the Washinton DC area. I have personally followed both his art and activism for a year or so now, and was able to snag him from his crazy busy schedule to answer a few questions for me about what drives him in his work. If you have not heard of Gregg Deal, he is a main voice in much of the “Change the Name” movement against the Washington Redskins Football Team, and uses his art as an avenue for real conversation on Colonial Romanticism, or the glorification of the country that emerged from the genocide of our people.
I've been doing some kind of art or creative thing for a long time. Hell, I spent more time drawing in High School than doing my school work. When I got in to college, I buckled down. Out of school, it was a bit too real for me to have the kind of emersion that college offered. 2010 was where it began, and things really started picking up over the last 3 or 4 years. I did have a point where I had to make a decision about time and effort, and what I was willing to put in to it. I have a wife and 4 kids, so these types of decisions are not made lightly. My dear wife Megan and I had this conversation over and over again. What it came down to is that I know this is my life's work, and this is what I am suppose to be doing. While the conviction we, as a family, show, we have also submitted to being compelled to get back in to this work. We discovered through trial and error that this isn't something we can do part time, but something that has to be in 100% of the time. It's a leap, for sure, but we do it. So how old was I? I guess that answer varies, and the current time was in the last 4 or 5 years. 35-36 years old I guess.
2) How has your Native heritage influenced your art and when did it become your avenue to educate others on Native oppression and the racism against our community?
You know, the Native thing has been a hard road. I think the many different version of the Red road we face is. Us Natives don't like to take the easy route, do we? So when I was in college, I was all about the Native voice. It was this Native voice that led me to discover Indigenous artists like James Luna, all in an effort to secure the content and voice of my work. It really didn't work out that well. Even now looking back it feels forced.
When the Native voice came in to my work, it just happened. I had been living in the DC area for 15 years and now had young kids and was looking at identity and what this identity means to me, and what it can mean to my children. In DC the obvious question is about the football team too. But I liked the idea of taking this identity, something steeped in romanticism, stereotype and pop culture, and decided that I was going to explore it, own it and put it back in to the faces of the masses. The political voice within this work, be it performance art, painting, street art, or printmaking, it happened naturally. It was me. It was my voice and my conversation. It was about me, my family, my friends, and our future. It seems so trite to say it was natural, but it really was, and I don't think that it would have come about without the struggles that came with trying to earn a living, and particularly in trying to earn a living with Indigenous organizations, and the odd business interaction that had. It was as though tearing down my ideas, my ideals and philosophies made room to build it back up on a stronger foundation and in to something more real than it was before.
3) You are well known as one of the main voices standing up against the Washington “Redskins” football team. What inspired you to bring attention through your art to this issue?
This issue is such a tough one for so many reason. Within our own communities there is a debate on the validity of these things, and even in the importance of this issue vs. other issues for our people. I really think this is an important debate to have within our own communities. The real issue here is that this image, this identifying factor for much of American culture and throughout the world, is something that is claimed by those who do not have our communities, and our children at heart. While it seems trivial, and while people want to dismiss it as being overly sensitive or PC, the truth is that this image enables people to be aggressive towards Indigenous people. In much the same way that sexualizing Indigenous women creates an area of sub-human and moral disconnect towards Indigenous women, making them easier targets for sexual assault and abuse, so does the stereotypical image of Indigenous people and the gross misuse of words and actions that make Indigenous people in to little more than a cartoon or a caricature. Of course, these are just words. The real life examples of these things are far more frightening. The thing that has inspired my view on this work is my own children, particularly my oldest. You see, fandom of this team runs so deep that people wouldn't think twice to yell obscenities toward me or any other Indigenous person, use racial slurs, threaten, throw things, whatever. And while people might roll their eyes at that, and say “don't be so sensitive”, it becomes an issue when my child sees this, or heaven forbid, has this done at her. The moment that any child can become a direct victim of these actions, it needs to be discussed. I've been threatened aggressively by a 5'7″ 160 lb man over this issue. I'm 6'4″ 240 lbs. If this doesn't enable and empower aggression, I don't know what does! I believe this issue coupled with ALL the other issues in Indian Country are related, and are part of a current and ongoing fight for equal and human rights. This may be some low hanging fruit, and some may say there are more important things than this issue, but as a parent, I would be hard pressed to find something more important than the health and safety of my children.
This comes in to my work because it's part of my life and part of my voice. Images, and stereotype is so much a part of contemporary Indigenous culture. I don't agree with it, or the use of it, but it's there nonetheless. There are a lot of voices in this and other issues, so to use art as a medium to contribute is interesting to me. I don't think it's anything new, using social issues as content for art. Activists like Charlene Teters did it when she was fighting for mascot change at the University of Illinois. It's part of the current experience and voice. For me, however, I like to find ways that the voice can be provocative to the issue. Pushing content and even putting myself on the line in the name of art, and voice. That coupled with a street art element, using consumerism (street art being like guerrilla advertising where the client is social issues) of street art to combat consumerism of our image? It's a natural fit. It's grassroots, and it's part of the fight. I am happy to have any part in that and to lend my vision to the conversation in that way. It's humbling.
4) Please discuss some of your most poignant art pieces thus far.
The Last American Indian On Earth: This was a performance piece very clearly and honestly about identity and stereotype. The concept was to use elements that exist within the stereotype, build an outfit, and embody that stereotype in public. But it was more than that. It was about documenting the way people interacted with me, and the inappropriate things they say. It was about confronting people with something they often don't believe exists. A relic. A race of humans lost to extinction. That little bit makes it even more real in the reaction and interactions I got. The conclusion to this is that romantically based Indigenous racism is alive and well in America.
Reconcile Mural: This was a mural I did in DC that was about the Washington football team. It kind of caught everyone off guard.
REDSKIN: Another performance piece that was about taking the vernacular of the debate from the point of fans and to feed it to the Indian in the room. The statements are often passive aggressive, and subtle to your average American. The idea in this was to take all these statements, and put them in one place, pointed at one person, thus eliminating the subtlety and hitting the issue head on. The premise was this: 4 non-Indian antagonists using the same arguments and language fans are using to dismiss, abuse, scare, threaten, and argue the issue towards and about Indigenous people. These 4 would interact with an Indian subject in the room for all to see. It lasted 4 straight hours. It sucked. But it made the point.
Various Street Art: This is about posters, stickers, graffiti that is done about the mascot issue, KXL Pipeline and other issues like suicide and substance abuse.
Blood Painting: This is a large paintings that on the surface is the Washington Football team logo. But it runs deep. Quotes on the background from various statements made towards Natives concerning this issue (We should have killed you when we had the chance), the logo made from paint, 24K gold leaf and a mix of my own blood. All of these standing in symbolism of the issue, how the prominence of this type of appropriation, stereotype and dehumanization is normalized through sports and mascot. The gold is a symbol of greed, the blood is a symbol of the blood of Indigenous people that has been shed to get to this point without reconciliation, and the quotes are a simple truth in the midst of this. Racism, particularly towards Indigenous people is alive, well, and enabled.
5) Which of your art pieces has gotten the most attention from your audience?
It varies. Really, it just ebbs and flows. The performance work speaks to the Indigenous experience, for sure, but it also is about messing with people sometimes, and I don’t know any people who get behind that more than Indians. The street art and murals come with a sense of ownership to them. All people, Native and non-Native alike, they connect with those types of pieces, and on some level own them, and I am very proud to have that within my work. That applies to street art in general, especially things like stickers. A simple, but effective tool in grass roots, but people connect with that one little thing that provides perspective, thought and a little bit of civil disobedience (even the most straight laced people will slap stickers around any given city).
6) I’m guessing you have faced real racism head on. How do you cope with constantly being berated with negativity?
I have put my self in some situations with my work to get a fair amount of stuff, but I think on a long enough timeline, most Indigenous people get hit with racism. I worked at the National Museum of the American Indians in Washington DC it’s inaugural year, and it was really really tough. I was part of an all Native staff that dealt with the public. They opened in September 2004 and by April 2005, they had a million visitors. With that many people coming through the doors, you are bound to see and hear some serious crap. We did. The whole staff did. It got so hairy sometimes that we were having some difficulty in dealing with it, like some kind of racial post traumatic stress. I’ve not had it as bad as we did when we were there where we were berated multiple times a day every day, 5 days a week with racial comments, slurs and whatever else you can think of. So no matter what I experience now, I always look back and figure it won’t be that bad. That’s not to say I haven’t heard some stuff since, but I’m cynical about that kind of thing. I want to believe people are inherently good, but I am not surprised when they’re inherently inappropriate and racist. In all that, we aren’t just survivors, as a people we are fighters, and so I deal with it the same way as many others: just fight through it. It’s all you can do sometimes.
7) What motivates you to continue in your art and your activism? What is your ultimate goal?
Quite honestly, it’s my family, particularly my kids. This world we live in, the land we reside on, it’s Indian Land. No matter where you go in America, or Canada or even south of the border, it’s all Indian Land. Unfortunately the land we live on is hostile towards us, and I would like to think that I can at least try to make things a little better for my own kids. Our own people push off the mascot issue as no big deal, but I don’t think it is. I don’t live with my community, I live in an urban area where the main football team is named after a racial epitaph and stereotypical images are abound. It’s no big deal until someone is calling me, my daughter, my sons names, slapping their mouths, painting their faces, wearing headdresses in an effort to mock Indigenous images in the name of good times. But it’s more than that. These things enable aggression, and I’ll be damned before I will allow someone to come at my kids the way people have come at me for having a difference of opinion (even if my opinion IS right, and yours is wrong). My work is my voice. My work is my life’s work, and it exists as an extension of me, so I will always do my work because it’s everything. It provides, it expresses, it reaches, it speaks, it participates in my life and world and beyond. It’s my medicine and I am obligated to honor that.
Thank you Gregg Deal for taking the time to answer these questions about your work.
If you would like to know more about Gregg Deal, or purchase some of his artwork please visit his webpage at www.greggdeal.com
Also look forward to his upcoming residency work with the Denver Art Museum in Denver Colorado, where he will be hosting workshops, creating brand new large scale series art, and possibly murals.
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