Cannupa Hanska Luger is an Indigenous artist based in New Mexico. He explores “cargo cults”—the phenomenon of Indigenous islanders worshipping U.S. soldiers and their foreign food and supplies—to reexamine the notion of which cultural developments we consider “advanced.” His exhibition Speechless opens this Saturday, Oct. 7 at the Nevada Museum of Art, with an exhibition preview and talk Friday, Oct. 6 from 7-9 pm.
Could you explain the concept of cargo cults?
Well, cargo cults came out of the World War II era. During the war, there were a lot of military campaigns taking place in the South Pacific. Armies were landing to jockey for position in the region, and the Indigenous populations were witness to this.
From what I’ve read, U.S. military cargo equipment and supplies were airdropped and airlifted on the islands. This created drastic changes to the lifestyle of the islanders. Many had never seen outsiders before. So when soldiers gave the islanders clothing, canned foods, medicine, and other goods, it appeared to be a gift from god-like beings. After the war, “cargo cult” leaders emerged, taking advantage of the islanders’ belief that foreigners were the only beings who could produce such riches.
Cargo cults exist. It’s been Indigenous people reinterpreting technology of another country. It’s what happens when paradigms collide. The reason I was using the cargo cult narrative is because it’s described through a Western lens. In the 1940s, ’50s era, the Western anthropological gaze looked at the Indigenous populations as primitive.
You’ve been quoted as saying, “We are all in a cargo cult.” Could you talk about this?
If we weren’t a cargo cult, Jeff Bezos wouldn’t be the richest person in the world, the producer of cargo. It’s thinking about the impulse to emulate celebrity on social media platforms and generate this idea of self-worth without understanding how that works. It’s like, if I can pretend to be it, it will come. It’s about developing a kind of cohesive, sculptural installation experience that plays with that.
Among your exhibition works, you’ve created a large-scale radio tower made of lodgepole and white pine poles that’s not actually a radio tower. Is this a kind of silent amplifier?
They’re sculptural objects—tall speaker stacks that transform the idea of a speaker being a component that produces sound. Something that would produce a lot of sounds, and yet, no sound is emitted from it. I’m playing with that technology. What does it mean to communicate? When you have proximity to power, what’s the communication? Who’s your audience, and who are you listening to? All of those components are filtered through my cultural context. How do you build a form and figure that communicates to creation itself? The question remains—what is the more advanced technology?
You mentioned that you built the speakers yourself or retrofitted existing speakers. That you removed all the electronic sound components, replaced them with ceramic parts, and then wired them together with braids. Why braids?
Braids, in our community, are sources of power. It’s your history, your hair grows as you grow.
Also among the Speechless installations are Native American bustles using handmade paper feathers that were completed during your residency at Dieu Donné in New York City. What inspired you to create these?
I’m looking at this through an Indigenous perspective of considering what it means to be in an exhibtion, to be in collaboration with other people. Among the objects that I created during the residency were paper bustles (regalia). A powwow bustle is a feathered piece of regalia that’s worn by some of the dancers. But the bustle itself is a form of communication, and each feather is earned. It’s speaking without making any sound. Through observation, information is transmitted.
You were born in 1979, on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, and you now live and work in Glorieta, New Mexico.
I moved to New Mexico to go to school at the Institute of American Indian Arts, which is in Santa Fe.
You’ve written that you credit your mother and your ancestors for providing the confidence to pursue a livelihood as an artist.
Yeah, my mother’s an artist. She raised five kids on an art career, so that does provide a little bit of confidence in the idea that it is possible. That is one of the harder leaps to make. Choosing a career in art is questioning whether or not it is a possible, viable job in society.
Do you consider yourself an artist and political activist?
My political activism is just embedded in the fact that I’m an Indigenous person in North America, and by default, inherently, a political entity, whether I like it or not. And that’s true for almost all of us. But we are registered with the Department of the Interior as a population, so we have a strange relationship to the country that we live in. We’re inherently political in that sense. And so, I don’t consider myself an activist. I think other people are more inclined to do so. I’m an artist. I like making work, and the primary function of art is to communicate and communicate ideas. And the ideas that I generate are built out of my Indigenous culture and background and filter, and so, there is an inherent political positionality in that. But ultimately, it’s being an entity in society that is highly politicized.
I’ve read you are of Mandan, Hidatsu, Arikara, Lakota, and European descent.
I’m an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota. I’m river people. We’re the human beings that lived along the river prior to contact. So that’s my anchor in my hub. Our region, our location, has a lot to do with the cultural context that we’ve developed. So our protocols, our cosmology, our ceremonies, all of these things are kind of embedded and entangled in the land as an extension of the land, rather than the U.S. kind of myth and history of settler colonial narrative. We still belong to the place, and that’s vastly different than the notion of a place belonging to somebody else.
Cannupa Hanska Luger’s exhibition Speechless will be on view at the Nevada Museum of Art Oct. 7 – June 2. Luger will give a talk during an exhibition premiere on Oct. 6, 7-9 pm. Tickets are $15, $13 for students, free for tribal members and museum members.
Photos courtesy Nevada Museum of Art.