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Gregg Deal: The Last American Indian on Earth

Taking the stage at CreativeMornings/Washitnong, DC during a month dedicated to Heritage, Gregg Deal’s talk begins and ends with his takeaway: Family.

Now it’s early(ish), you’re in a new place, you know (or suppose) that the topic’s going to be heavy because, it’s heritage and we’re in country so tied up within it. You see your speaker and he begins to show you photos of his kids, explaining his experiences with his recent of three kids being born, saying:

Treading water and then someone handing you an infant.

And that’s when you realize it’s just like your last CreativeMornings: You’re going to laugh and you’re going to learn something while doing it.

Gregg Deal is an artist. And, most recently, a performance artist. As his talk reminds me, his path to being an artist was and is an organic one. He did not make up his mind in grade school, as kids hailed racial epithets at him that he’s going to be an activist, a performance artist, a graphic artist who uses his personal experience to enrich his craft. He is those things and more because he moves purposefully in his work.

o-DEAL-900 Gregg Deal perfomring ‘The Last American Indian on Earth.’

Gregg begins his talk with the topic “Humor.” Immediately after the slide are the words “Kill Whitey,” an unsettled but steady laughter comes out of the audience. Gregg points out: humor makes things approachable. He follows up with an adorable photo of his son on Halloween dressed as a Federal Worker). There’s a lot more laughter and awes for that one.

gregg-deal-colonialism-work Some of Gregg’s work, which can be purchased here.

The next group of slides focuses on “the stereotype” and the need to breakdown that stereotype. As Gregg introduced himself (among as father and artist) he is a member of the Paiute Tribe of Pyramid Lake.

My identity is not what I chose, it was thrust upon me.

Gregg reminded the audience that being a victim is something that’s really easy to do, but taking power in your identity is the harder struggle. He shows us a video entitled “Indian Land Grab.” And the stereotypes are as bizarre as they are familiar. He notes, that this image of American Indians is exactly the same one as one hundred years ago.

While deriding “Dances with Wolves,” for its blatant appropriation, Gregg deftly moves into a more contemporary frame of reference: social media. Describing the Age of Social Media, particularly problematic as a new medium of reappropriation of culture.

"The Last American Indian on Earth Selfie" The Last American Indian on Earth Selfie, by Gregg Deal.

That’s when Gregg brings up having fun with the name tags. This month’s name tag asked us what our American Indian name would be. He joked, he “hacked it” to see where all the racists are. There was laughter again. Later, talking with Gregg, I’d watch his eyes dart to my name tag, as my heart skipped a beat, wondering, “Am I a racist?”

He then launched into his art and performance work. Gregg goes into the heartbreaking moments working for National Museum of the American Indian. I won’t detail them here, but if you haven’t already—you need to watch the video of his talk—if not only for this insight. I guarantee you’ll watch the whole talk.

GreggDeal2 The Reconcile Mural, by Gregg Deal.

This all leads into his latest feat performing through the US as the “Last American Indian on Earth.” The goal was to play the part of the stereotypical American Indian that US culture had conjured up. Dawning a pair of illustrated Vans, a headdress made of fake blue feathers made in China, and a PVC piping vest, Gregg took to the streets of DC with a GoPro and his wife as photographer.

The Last American Indian on Earch Performance by Gregg Deal on Vimeo.

A woman asks eagerly what his “tribal” name is, to which Gregg replies: “Walking Eagle.” He explains its his favorite because the only time an eagle walks is when he’s too full of shit to fly. What he draws our attention to after watching the video, is how livid the part-Cherokee woman is when she encounters him, but how he suddenly becomes hugged and patronized once she realizes he’s also American Indian. The danger is it creates a dichotomy of us and them. That she can’t relate to him unless there’s shared heritage.

Heritage is about questioning these things.

Which brings us back to how Gregg began his talk, with family. Gregg reminds us a very simple point: his humanity. To begin a talk by saying he’s human, though, would miss the point. The thing he is human and that’s obvious to us, but it takes humor and his personal life to open us to the whys and dangers of stereotypes and (even) heritage when it’s used to reappropriate a culture. It’s dangerous because it removes our humanity.

When Gregg appeared on television to talk about his work as the “Last American Indian on Earth,” he knowingly asked his wife if he may take a public stance on the Washington Redskins team name. He needed to ask her because engaging as an activist on that level brings a level of interaction that puts his family in danger. We’re talking death threats. In the end, Gregg brings us closer through humor and art to talk about the invented differences that bring us apart.

If you haven’t at this point, take a look at his video (above). Visit his site for more information about his artwork and—especially if you’re from Washington, DC—shoot Gregg a tweet to learn how to get sticker protesting the Redskins team name.

For more information on Gregg Deal and his work, you can follow along via his Instagram account here or purchase his art here.

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