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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:


Professor unites culture, art

Thursday, December 20, 2001

By Brent Watters Staff writer

When a piece of cultural art is placed before the students in Arthur Bourgeois' class, the students can be sure that what they will learn will exceed the basic comprehension of the physical object that sits before them.

Bourgeois, who is a professor of art history at Governors State University takes art appreciation to a new level, by making objects come to life by having his students reenact ceremonies of the culture that produced the art piece.

Bourgeois, who has taught at Governors State for 26 years, refers to his method of teaching as the "vacuum approach."

"I get the students to focus on the object and gather all the information possible on it. That leads us into learning about the people and the native folklore and ceremonies for which the object is part of. We then return back to the study of the actual physical characteristics of the object itself," said Bourgeois, a resident of Richton Park.

"Often it's not the direct question about the object that gets the information. It's asking about the stories that surround the object that makes the object come alive before the students," he said.

Bourgeois' coursework focuses on African, Asian, South Pacific and Native American art and culture.

What makes Bourgeios' teaching style unique is that he strays from the traditional lecture and book approach and instead gives students a real hands-on lesson.

It's not uncommon for Bourgeois' students to dress up in the traditional native garb of the culture being studies, pitch a bonfire and reenact various native ceremonies.

This approach began six years ago when Bourgeois thought it would be interesting to talk to students while dressed in the traditional garb of the Blackfoot Indian.

"I wanted to lead them through the Black Iniskim (calling the buffalo) ceremony and let them get a real feel what the ceremony is really about," he said.

Bourgeois told students that a special guest speaker would be coming to talk to them about the ceremony and that he would be leaving the room.

Bourgeois left the classroom, slipped into his office and changed into a traditional Blackfoot warrior outfit and a black wig.

He reentered the classroom speaking only in the traditional language of the Blackfoot, leading students through the ceremony.

"I told them the speaker didn't speak much English and they would have to remember the native phrases I had taught them earlier," Bourgeois said.

"Everyone's mouths dropped when I entered the classroom. The students really got into it," he said.

After the ceremony Bourgeois changed into his normal clothes and returned to the classroom.

He realized he was on to something when one student said to him, "Professor, that was terrific. It's too bad you weren't here to see it."

Since then Bourgeois has incorporated the students into his reenactments by having them talk in phrases, dress, sing and play music of the group that's being studied.

"The students truly get a real sense of the culture when they dress up and become part of ceremony," he said.

Bourgeois' own interests in the study of cultures derived from his curiosity as a boy growing up in Michigan. He wanted to know about his own French Canadian and Algonquin background and became fascinated with the folklore surrounding the various native tribes of the area.

When he was pursuing graduate school degrees at Wayne State University in Detroit he knew that he wanted to study anthropology. But he knew the difficulty he'd have finding a job in that field.

Instead of walking away from his passion and taking on a new major, Bourgeois took on art history as a second major.

"I tell students it's difficult to find work as an anthropologist, even as a teacher, because many schools don't have an anthropology department. But every school has an art history department, and that's where you can find work," he said.

"I figured that by studying the art of a people you can use the objects to study the culture," he said.

After receiving his degrees, Bourgeois entered a doctorate program at Indiana University where he was provided with the opportunity of studying abroad, learning about African rights of passage ceremonies.

Bourgeois spent a year in Central Africa with several tribes, not only as an observer, interviewing elders and observing rituals, but also as a participant of the ceremonies. One of the families that Bourgeois interviewed adopted him and allowed him to take part in the ceremonies.

Though fulfilling, the trip proved physically exhausting as Bourgeois lost 30 pounds eating canned rations and native dishes.

Bourgeois' travels have also included visits to various parts of Europe and Central Mexico and have resulted in two books and 14 articles published.

Over the years Bourgeois has accumulated an impressive array of cultural art that will soon be exhibited in GSU's soon-to-be-built multi-cultural center.

"Many of the pieces that I have collected and those that have been donated to the school can easily be considered major museum pieces. It's a very exciting time," said Bourgeois, who is married with two children.

Brent Watters may be reached at bwatters@dailysouthtown.com or (708) 633-5973.

Alice and Randy Huffman respond

CALL TO ACTION: Professor Twinkie teaches ceremonies, plays Indian

For pictures of what this guy and his students do, go to: http://www.twinkbusters.freeservers.com/governors/playing.doc. See also: http://www.twinkbusters.freeservers.com/governors/indian.gif.

(NOTE: After we and others sent our letters to him, his bosses, and the Blackfeet Tribal Council, HIS site "disappeared"—the above URLs are copies of his stuff.) The university where this professor works is south of Chicago.

Governors State University
1 University Pkwy
Park Forest, IL 60466
(708) 534-5000

Send your letter about this to Arthur Bourgeois, his *bosses*, the Blackfeet Tribal Council, and the reporter:

To: A-Bourge@govst.edu

This is the letter we have sent. Others have written too:

Sent: 12/22/01 2:05 PM
Subject: "Playing Blackfoot"


We read with interest the article below and wonder why you feel it is an appropriate thing to dress up as what you are not in order to "play Blackfoot" or any other culture you choose. How is it not more respectful and a thousand times more accurate to ask a Blackfeet person to speak to your classes, one who knows what can be taught to non-Blackfeet people and what can not? When/If you teach about Catholic art, do you dress up like a friar, priest, or pope and perform a mock Catholic ceremony in front of your students in order to "teach" them about the art? We venture to guess, of course you do not do this. For one thing, the Catholic students in your class would rightfully be offended. For another, you probably already recognize the arrogance and bigotry involved in such an action.

We fail to see why you do not immediately recognize the arrogance and bigotry involved in pretending to wear "a traditional Blackfoot warrior outfit and a black wig.... and [lead] students through the [Black Iniskim (calling the buffalo)] ceremony." You, as a non-Blackfeet person, can not accurately represent Blackfeet beliefs and ceremonies, nor should you try. A teacher who tries to "take art appreciation to a new level, by making objects come to life" should strive to do so in an accurate, respectful way.

In short, you and your students need to leave the Halloween costumes and wigs at home and ask a Blackfeet person to address your class. Give that person and the Blackfeet culture enough honor and respect to allow him/her to present true and accurate information about the Blackfeet people and culture, without mocking Blackfeet ceremonies and spirituality. Do this for all the cultures from which the art comes that you and your students study. It is *only* by doing this that you will *truly* "take art appreciation to a new level, by making objects come to life."


Alice & Randy Huffman
American Indian Movement and Support Group of Ohio and Northern Kentucky
Cincinnati, Ohio

CC: Roger K. Oden, Dean, College of Arts and Sciences
Joyce Kennedy, Division Chair, Liberal Arts
Mary Bookwalter, Coordinator for Art
C. Wichmann, Coordinator for Integrative Studies
Stuart Fagan, President, Governors State University
Blackfeet Tribal Council

Bourgeois and the Huffmans exchange views

Below is Arthur Bourgeois' response to our letter and our reply. See the message entitled "CTA: Professor Twinkie teaches ceremonies, plays Indian" for the full context.

----- Original Message -----
From: Bourgeois, Arthur
Sent: Sunday, December 23, 2001 6:36 PM
Subject: RE: "Playing Blackfoot"...not exactly

Alice and Randy,

Thank you for bring the article to my attention, I hadn't seen it previously. The incident reported in the Daily Southtown happened six years ago and was not repeated. No disrespect to Native American peoples was intended and no complaints were received from enrolled student. Had I someone who could appear in my class I would have jumped to the occasion. The article fails to mention that students tried their hand at various craft techniques regarding feather, bead, quill work and painted decoration and I permitted them to enthusiastically display this work. Moreover, the selection of photographs put up by a student to the temporary website were not of the Blackfoot Iniskim despite the subheading and was intended mainly for class viewing. Both the Iniskim and Ojibway pipe ritual have been discontinued in my Native American Art and Societies course. I regret that both the article and website are causing such consternation. Intense involvement with the art of various world cultures, however, does continue. And by the way, in my medieval course, several years ago one student did obtain and model a Bishop's crosier, miter and vestments, nothing mocking was intended in his dramatic processional and discussion of each element proved most informative.

A. Bourgeois


Date: Sun, 23 Dec 2001 21:13:31 -0500
Subject: Re: "Playing Blackfoot"...exactly

Arthur, Thank you for taking the time to respond to our concerns. We are glad to hear that you did not repeat the offense to Blackfeet people. We are not surprised, however, to hear that the students in that class did not complain; you taught them that such a mockery was appropriate. Within a town that is less than 2 hours away from the University of Ilinois where the racism of "chief illiniwek" is strongly defended as "no disrepect ... [is] intended" and is insisted to be "an honor" in spite of the objections of Native people living today, and within a state that allows 266 schools to use "indian" mascots for their fun and games, we would be surprised to hear if any student did object! The article went into considerable detail describing your "Blackfoot" costume party and ceremony reinactment, about which you seemed to be very proud. The pictures, while perhaps intended for students only, are part of a public forum (the Internet) and are clear and blatant proof of the offenses you perpetuated. It should also be understood to be your responsibility to ensure the accuracy of the captions since you *are* the instructor. In this offense, you instructed a number of students that such mockery is acceptable; we can only wonder what stereotypes remain in their minds; we are afraid to think of the possibilities of offenses that they perpetuated, instructed by your example. We also find your claim of having no access to Blackfeet people to be spurious. You will find information below about the American Indian Center of Chicago's *48th* Annual Pow Wow. (Emphasis: This year's pow wow was the *FORTY-EIGHTH* pow wow held in Chicago.) The university where you work is only approximately 30 miles from Chicago, perhaps a 45-minute drive. Rather than dress up in Hollywood-Indian costumes and mock Blackfeet people and ceremonies, you and your students could easily have attended that year's pow wow. You could also easily have contacted a person at the Blackfeet Tribal Headquarters; it does not take a long time to obtain this information from the Internet, as we know. Blackfeet tribal members live throughout the country; a little foresight and investigation on your part would have gone a long way. We strongly feel that if you had taken a few minutes to think about what you were doing and a few additional minutes to think about the many options available to you, including contacting American Indian student groups in nearby universities and the tribal headquarters of the Nation being covered, the offense you perpetuated never would have happened. In short, it never *should* have happened. While we have focused in this and our previous letter on the Blackfeet people and the offense to them, the same principles apply to the other cultures you and your students cover. It will not require much effort on your part to establish dialogues with persons within those cultures and work with those persons to enable you to present accurate and respectful information to your students. We know that the article and the pictures from the website will be sent to persons within the other cultures you mock with your costume parties and reinactments; we hope that as persons contact you, you will take each opportunity to establish a contact and a dialogue. You should also take steps to establish such contacts yourself. We cannot help but find it interesting that your original interest lay in Anthropology. Just as Anthropologists have learned over the years, respectful relations that include dialogue is crucial between them and the cultures they choose to study. We trust that you and your supervisors will rethink the strategies you and perhaps others have previously used and strive to establish respectful dialogues with persons within the cultures you wish to study. Only in this way will you and your university become known for—rather than perpetuating offenses of racism and bigotry toward other cultures—"tak[ing] art appreciation [and education] to a new level."

Sincerely, Alice & Randy

Rob's comment
To me the crux of the matter is this:

Since then Bourgeois has incorporated the students into his reenactments by having them talk in phrases, dress, sing and play music of the group that's being studied.

"The students truly get a real sense of the culture when they dress up and become part of ceremony," he said.

Even if the dress is authentic, can students authentically talk, sing, and play music in a foreign culture after a lesson or two? Do they go through the same fasting and purification rituals as someone doing a real ceremony? Do they understand the difference between doing a ceremony in a classroom and doing it in a natural setting, with a people's survival depending on it? Do they understand the entire sweep of the culture that led to this particular ceremony?

Moreover, as the Huffmans suggest, has Bourgeois rigorously kept all knowledge that's supposed to be secret, secret? Has he kept the roles strictly segregated by sex: men in male roles and women in female roles? All very doubtful, I'd guess.

The upshot is that students may think they've got a sense of the culture, but they probably haven't. They may have a sense of what one ceremony looks and sounds like, but that's a far cry from understanding the underlying mythology and lore. To assume the superficial trappings of one ceremony is akin to the culture itself is stereotypical thinking.

As the Huffmans say, one could imitate a Christian ceremony also—say, a High Mass. I wouldn't necessarily say this imitation would mock Christian spirituality. What I would say is that the imitation would give you only a vague glimpse into the Christian culture, not "truly a real sense." You wouldn't get a real sense until you immersed yourself in the culture for years.

The same applies to anyone who imitates an indigenous ceremony: wannabes, Y-Indian Guides, dance or ice-skating shows, etc. I'd say it's better to study the ceremony from without than to try to imitate it from within. That way, you won't delude yourself into thinking that simply aping a ceremony provides deep insight into a complex culture.

Another thought on the subject (5/1/03)

I read your page about Dr. A. Bourgeois' course studying Native American art and culture.

I was once chastised by an African American for playing a traditional African American fiddle tune from a stage during a concert (I am a caucasian). I felt almost sick after hearing his complaint. I felt as if I had violated him somehow — because that is apparently how he felt. In fact, I felt bad for him for hours...and I had been so cautious in introducing the number to be respectful of those who created the tune — and their unique performance style with the instrument — and their energetic way of interpreting the tune in field recordings I had heard.

I still regret having offended that man. But, nevertheless, I played the tune many times in public after that day — though I thought of him just about every time that I put bow to string. Though I haven't played before an audience in years, I still love that tune; I treasure the recording I have of long-gone African American fiddle and banjo players performing the tune; I even treasure the unpleasant experience I had with the man who took exception to my thinking I had license to play the tune in public. I learned to play that tune and tried to imitate the authentic playing of it because I admired it and those who created it.

I wonder if Dr. Bourgeois may perhaps respect Blackfeet in a similar way? Dr. Bourgeois' ritual may have been ill-conceived — and my poor white-boy interpretation of a very fine and energetic fiddle tune from a culture not my own may have been ill-advised on a particular day when one man found it offensive (or perhaps generally). But if we erred, Dr. Bourgeois and I erred out of a kind of love. Our admirations were maybe less than well-conceived...and certainly not well-received...but, friend, you are being pressed harder by far more sinister enemies.

I apologized to the man who didn't like my fiddling that day. Dr. Bourgeois expressed, in his response to you, his regret that reports of his classroom activities were giving rise to bad feeling. Mistakes have possibly been made. Apologies and regret have been expressed. You could be as loving in your righteousness as Dr. Bourgeois was in his offense.

I hope you will consider updating your web page.

I am

Nick Battaglia
Park Forest, IL

Related links
Indian wannabes and imitators
WASPs in kelp headdresses

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