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From the Rez: James Luna's Hybridized Indian Performance Art

James Luna. Photo by Gordon Johnson.

Once, more than 20 years ago, James Luna ensconced himself in a glass display case, bare-skinned except for a loincloth, laying on his back corpse-like in a bed of sand.

He did this for several days in San Diego's Museum of Man, staring at the ceiling while tourists in Bermuda shorts and white tennis shoes strolled past doing double takes at this curious Indian exhibit. They snapped shots of him with Instamatics.

He intended the act as a comment on the objectification of Indian culture in museums, and to underscore the fact that Indians aren't dead artifacts, but very much alive and evolving. More than a few museum-goers just thought him crazy.

Once, in 1990, Luna shaved half his mustache, and slicked back half his hair, then posed for photographs as half Indian-half Mexican. Once, in a staged performance piece, he got down on his knees and prayed -- arms outstretched in cinematic Indian fashion -- to an open refrigerator filled with Miller Lite beer.

Luna, 61, a Luiseño from the La Jolla Indian Reservation in north San Diego County, is a performance artist specializing in the unexpected. He considers it his mission to challenge boundaries. He lives in a house surrounded by oaks high in the hills beneath Palomar Mountain with his girlfriend Joanna Bigfeather, and a friendly German shepherd, Venus, who keeps coyotes at bay. On clear days, from his deck he can see the blue Pacific some 30 miles away.

On his nightstand, he's nearly finished reading "Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan," the author of "Trout Fishing in America." He can't wait for the fourth volume of the Lyndon B. Johnson biography to come out. He's read the first three and found them fascinating. Luna is a man who appreciates history. Luna is not some Rez weirdo, trying to bilk beer money from passersby with crazy antics in front of the La Jolla store. He's a highly regarded artist known and respected not just in the United States, but internationally as well. He's had major installations and performances in Canada, Venice, and New Zealand.

He graduated from University of California Irvine with a bachelor's in fine arts in 1976, and got his master's degree in counseling from San Diego State University in 1981. In May, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM, along with M. Scott Momaday, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer of "House Made of Dawn." Sometimes, with a smile in his eye, Luna refers to himself as Dr. J.

These days, Luna spends most of his days traveling the country trying through his art to explain the Indian ethos to the uninitiated and trying to express his own Indian soul to other Indians. He's got a perspective some might call quirky, an eye for the outlandish, and a gift for unconventional storytelling.

In many ways, Luna is a hybrid. He grew up in urban Fountain Valley and Huntington Beach, but moved back to the La Jolla Indian Reservation onto family land in 1976. Born to a Luiseño mother and Mexican father, cultural diversity came early to Luna. To the Indian side of his family, his father was sometimes the crazy Mexican. To the Mexican side, his mother was sometimes Indio loco. As a kid, he didn't think too much about it, it was just the way it was.

But as a kid something, maybe an aptitude that niggled, something anyway, attracted him to pen and paper. He doodled, then drew. He drew what he saw and practiced on eyes; eyes soon covered his school notebooks. He moved on to portraits, and his drawings drew attention from elders. Once he drew a picture of his great-great grandfather, Jose Maria Trujillo from the La Jolla Reservation, seated in a chair.

"He had the big mustache," Luna says, "and I remember his prominent hands, and I remember saying: 'Wow, there's my family's hands, there are my hands.'" He drew in pencil in an oval because the photograph was in an oval frame. When he finished he looked it over and was pleased with the outcome. His high school teacher praised the work.

Praise and encouragement led him think he might have talent. He started to believe in himself. "I wasn't afraid to be a different," Luna said. "Other kids want you to conform, but if I would have, I wouldn't have gotten anywhere." He figured may as well be bold.

His grandmother got kind of upset, though, because he gave the drawing of her dad away to a girl he was trying to woo. The girl and the drawing are gone. But his art, then and now, opens doors. He remembers Mr. Hornby, an art teacher: "kind of an old fuddy-duddy who looked like Vincent Price, but a guy who encouraged me."

Luna tells of being particularly struck by the race riots of the 1960s, and for Hornby's class he did a tempura piece that incorporated a collage of race-riot photographs. The piece stirred classroom debate and that convinced Luna he didn't want to paint pretty landscapes, he wanted his work to matter. Over time Luna's work evolved from pencil and pad, to pen and ink, to tempura and oil paints, to performance art. So what the heck is performance art?

Even the definition stirs controversy, but loosely defined it's anything performed in front of an audience.But let's see how Luna takes an ordinary can of Spam into the realm of performance art. The creative process is often a collision of ideas, some aspects merging, other aspects bursting, other aspects spinning off forming new ideas. Luna remembers sitting down at a rib house for dinner one night and a couple of tables over a black man was going through a quiet ritual as he prepared to eat. He poured sugar and cream into his coffee and stirred with intent. He precisely salted and peppered his food. He opened his napkin and gentled it onto his lap. The man was about to put his fork into a mound of cole slaw when he stopped, put down the fork, folded his hands and bowed his head for grace. "It was such a simple act of beauty," Luna said, "the idea stuck with me." It was a ordinary performance that became everyday art.

As a kid, he remembered what a treat it was when his mother served the family Spam. He thought he might use his Spam experiences in a performance piece. Ever the history buff, Luna researched Spam to uncover its context. He discovered that during World War II, as beef became scarce, Spam grew in popularity. Wherever there were servicemen, they introduced Spam. To this day, many Hawaiian restaurants have Spam on the menu. Local Indian people took to Spam too. It was inexpensive and didn't need refrigeration. Many Indians didn't have refrigerators back in the day.

Spam and eggs or a good Spam sandwich remains an Indian delicacy. Over time, Spam, eaten with the family, has become imbedded in the Indian psyche. It has emerged as a cultural artifact, a taste of the recent past, a taste of home.

Luna set to work scripting a scene that included construction of a Spam sandwich. Seated on a milk crate, he opens a plastic lunch box, the kind schoolchildren carry their PB&J sandwiches in. Slowly, with priestly decorum, like the black man in the rib house, he prepares lunch. He peels back the can's pull-tab lid to cut off a thick slab of Spam and places it on a slice of white bread. He spreads mayo on the other slice of bread along with a slice of American cheese that he's removed from the plastic wrapper.

His sandwich is ready, but another thought crosses his mind. Before eating, he pulls out his diabetes kit, pops his finger with a pin prick to drip a spot of blood onto the reader to get his sugar count. The number in the readout makes his eyes bulge. On stage, in front of the audience, he gets his insulin needle and jabs it into his gut.

He probably shouldn't eat the sandwich. In a two-ounce serving of Spam, 140 of its 180 calories is fat. There's 790 milligrams of salt, half a day's worth. The white bread is gonna turn straight to sugar. There's more fat in the mayo. He shouldn't eat it, he shouldn't. But damn it will be good.

He tucks a napkin into his shirt collar and bends for a bite. But before sinking his teeth in, he stops, sets the sandwich down, folds his hands, and prays.

Luna packs that scenario with so much cultural info. How Spam has become Indian food. How obesity plagues so many Indians. How diabetes is the scourge of Indian people. How the past, the way Indians used to eat, conflicts with the present. How people need to stop and think before they eat. The Spam is no longer commonplace. It's elevated to a symbol, a metaphor for Indian lives, and not just Indians, for all, tapping into universalities.

James Luna | Photo: Gordon Johnson
James Luna | Photo: Gordon Johnson

Although Luna performs around the country to mostly non-Indian audiences, he says his art is aimed at Indian audiences, allowing others to eavesdrop. Some people just don't get it. They just don't have enough understanding of the culture to get his references. But those in the know do get it. And it makes them think.

And too, by sharing Indian ways with non-Indians, he provides the path to cultural understanding -- a bridge over the cultural divide. And that, he believes, is a good thing.

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