James Luna and the Paradoxically Present Vanishing Indian

Elizabeth S Hawley


James Luna’s performances interrogate how representations of Native Americans have been made to fit western assumptions about the “real Indian.” Using his recognizably Native body as a marker of both presence and endangered existence, Luna links Peggy Phelan’s conception of performance as the presence of loss with the centuries-old stereotype of Native Americans as the “vanishing race”—a stereotype that continues to exert influence. In Take a Picture with a Real Indian (performed in 1992, 2001, and 2010), he invites viewers to have their photograph taken with him wearing one of three options: war dance regalia, a loincloth, or khakis and a polo shirt. Few people choose the third option. The performance foregrounds what has become a tradition of Native Americans performing/posing their native -ness as Otherness for the camera, strategically employing imagery that plays to nostalgic Western views of Native peoples as perpetually vanishing. I argue that Luna’s performances comment not only upon western preconceptions of Native Americans, but also upon the ways that Native Americans have historically reasserted their agency by manipulating such expectations, staging themselves to fit the stereotype.


Native American; Performance Art; Agency; Vanishing Indian; Reenactment; Photography; Pose

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5195/contemp.2016.170

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