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Indian Art Spokesman Marches to Own Drum

December 31, 1988|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

Paul Apodaca is not a person you can easily ignore or forget.

"People have no trouble knowing who I am, or what I represent," says the 37-year-old curator of folk art at Santa Ana's Bowers Museum in his characteristically booming voice.

"The moment I walk into a room, and they get a gander of me, that's already a kind of statement in a county like this. People know that I'm not your typical white Anglo Orange Countian!"


His strong, blunt-featured face reflects his Navaho and Mexican heritage. His black hair, worn in a manner that suggests both pride and defiance, falls down around his shoulders and heavy beaded necklace.

And his message on the lecture circuit is not to be taken lightly: The plight of the American Indians, he says, is still a tragic one of economic exploitation, cultural denigration and cruel misconceptions.

This kind of outspokenness is typical of Apodaca, one of the most ubiquitous ethnic minority spokesmen on the Orange County arts scene. Each year, he brings much the same message to scores of groups, in settings from grade school and college classrooms to women's clubs, corporate luncheons and arts workshops.

It is the kind of activism that has brought him recognition outside Orange County--he is on the multicultural advisory panel of the California Arts Council, and last year won an administrative training award from the Smithsonian Institution.

"Minority representatives in the arts are certainly more visible, and some of us now have the blessings of mainstream organizations," says Apodaca, sitting in his small Bowers office. "In that respect, you can say that what is happening is gratifying."

But, he adds, there is the flip side to this trend.

Although Southern California has the largest urban concentration of Indians in the nation, he says, they are still one of the most ignored minorities in this region. Orange County has an estimated 24,000 American Indians, Los Angeles County, 80,000, according to the Southern California Indian Council.

"In that context, you realize just how scarce everything really is--the handful of (Indian) studies programs, the tiny number of cultural coordinators like me hired to work in the mainstream. That, I'm afraid, is terribly unsettling."

Apodaca's operational base is his Bowers office. For 8 years, he has been affiliated with the city-owned museum in Santa Ana, one of the most venerable cultural-historical institutions in Orange County.

But not all mainstream institutions, he says, are as sympathetic to Indian arts as is Bowers.

"Within many art circles, there is still the feeling that Indian art is not worthy of study as great art," says Apodaca, curator of folk art at Bowers since 1985. "People like to still think of it as 'merely crafts,' some kind of folk curios, and never more than that.

"But the art of the Indians throughout this hemisphere, and dating back hundreds of years, is one of high intelligence, sophistication and innovation--a historical fact that even now is rarely recognized," Apodaca says.

Apodaca joined Bowers in 1980 as an artist-in-residence, a post underwritten by a California Arts Council grant. His specialty: re-creating the ancient Indian art of sand painting. These intricate works, involving powdered stone and dry pigments spread over beds of sand, depict human, animal, sun and other petroglyphic themes.

Apodaca also took part in key shows that sought to underscore the complexities of early Indian arts. He was an assistant curator of the 1986 "Colombia Before Columbus," a Bowers project billed as the largest Colombian ceramics exhibit held in North America. In 1983, he assisted in "Ancient Skywatchers of California," a touring show, co-sponsored by Bowers, about the role of astronomy among California Indians.

Then last year at Bowers, Apodaca mounted his own paean to the Indian past--"First Voices: Indigenous Music of Southern California," described as the first full-scale show on the subject. His exhibit, an audio and videotape project, combined with displays of ceramics and other artifacts, focused on folk songs of such tribes as the Serrano, Mojave and Cupeno.

The images of Indian personalities, says Apodaca, are yet another matter.

Although there is an encouraging trend toward accuracy in some school textbooks, he says, "you still have books and other materials that perpetuate the images of Indians as shiftless and drunks--people wholly out of control.

"These are works based on some of the most distorted and demeaning accounts that go back to the last century and that haven't been updated in the slightest."

Hollywood, he argues, remains one of the worst media offenders. Stereotypes of the "same ludicrous types are still there, even in films purported to be more sympathetic to Indians," he says.

However, the independently made "Broken Rainbow," which won the 1985 Academy Award for best feature-length documentary, proved to be a milestone, says Apodaca.

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