A First-hand Account of James Luna’s Petroglyphs in Motion, as performed at Site Santa Fe in 2000

 by Lara Evans

Yes- it has been TEN years. Imagine this scene:

Site Santa Fe has undergone an alteration since my last visit to the space.  The large open area is filled with rows of chairs that face each other over a wide, empty central aisle in preparation for a performance art piece by James Luna, a Luiseño Indian from the La Jolla Reservation north of San Diego, California.  The center aisle is lined with lighting fixtures at floor level.  The lights are angled upward, fulfilling the function of footlights, and if I’m not careful about directing my gaze, I am briefly blinded by the afterglow they make on my retinas.  The audience is mostly hushed and is an interesting mix of Indians, chic art students (some of those are Indian, too), and the Santa Fe uppercrust.  Conversations are carried on in low voices while we wait for the performance to begin.  A drummer takes his place on a raised stand alongside the walkway.  I don’t mean a traditional Indian drummer; I mean a modern Indian drummer, with a full drum kit with cymbals and a cowbell.  The drummer sets a beat and runs with it.  The artist, James Luna, appears from a doorway next to the center aisle.  He is wrapped up in a wool blanket, completely obscured by it, and holds the curved end of a cane out of the small gap where his head would be.  He meanders down the walkway, and disappears from sight.  When he returns, he wears very little.  He moves slowly, smoothly, toward the back wall and places his palm, fingers outstretched, against the white wall slightly above head level.  He turns and makes his way down the long aisle.  He doesn’t walk, run, or strut.  He tenses all the muscles in his body and makes a slow-motion sort of run, as if each step is a struggle against an enormous weight before him.  Before he reaches the end of the aisle, there is a slight sheen of perspiration over his body.  He places his hand against the wall again in a very deliberate gesture and turns back the way he came, still moving with that painful slow motion “run.”  Once he returns to his point of origin, he repeats the hand gesture and disappears from our view.  The drummer has kept up a heavy beat the entire time, shifting rhythms and tones to suit Luna’s actions.  The performance follows the pattern set by its first few minutes.  Luna traverses the walkway in various modes of dress, with movements appropriate to the attire.  On one trip he is an Indian businessman, yelling silently into a mobile phone.  At either end, that phone is placed very deliberately against the wall to create a reference to the four directions rather than the open-handed gesture performed previously. 







While Luna is out of our view, my attention is taken up by the drum rhythms woven by the musician who occupies a platform off to the side.  Luna re-enters as an Indian man in neo-traditional ‘buckskins.’ He saunters up and down the catwalk playing a very soulful saxophone, even though his instrument is a yellow toy saxophone instrument and the notes exist only in the imagination.  He passes a cup through the audience and they give generously, and include non-monetary items like business cards and a woman’s phone number on a business card, handed over  very flirtatiously.


            Luna’s next persona also passes around a cup, though the audience seems stunned and there is a disapproving hush as he staggers about in the characteristic movements of a drunk.  He mimes urinating against a wall.  I described the audience reaction to this section as disapproving, though there was more variety than that.  Stunned is certainly accurate, but the reactions of myself and some audience members might be well-described as confusion, and wondering “where is he going with this?”   Because this was a performance art event, and because he clearly expected us to participate – his cup was presented so insistently – we had to each individually decide what to DO.  Even failing to do anything seemed to be “doing” something.  A moment ago we had been to willing to respond with generosity, humor, approval.  What was different now?  Luna was presenting us with a drunken Indian man, begging for change. 

video still

 This is something that anyone living in an urban area of New Mexico has experienced in the real world.  What does our hesitation in this performance say about us?  About the world we live in?  Is this about approval?  Disapproval?  Pity?  Compassion?  Do I put some coins in the begging cup held out by the ‘drunken Indian?’  Will that imply approval and acceptance of that stereotype?  It seems lacking in compassion to simply do nothing.  Is it possible to act with compassion while not furthering the stereotype?  But the moment passes. The cup is gone, and I have done nothing.  The drum solo continues and the audience, including myself, only have a short time to wrestle with our consciences before Luna reemerges in yet another guise.

So many “characters” make their way up and the “catwalk” that they create a swirling impression of the complexity and plurality on “Indian” masculinity.  Luna brings himself out as a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair.  A medicine bag hangs from one handle of the wheelchair.   With slow dignity, he pushes himself through the crowd, gaze fixed in the distance, a stoic warrior-type who served his country years ago, and is still proud, still dignified.




Another time, Luna emerges wearing animal-print briefs with a furred tail attached behind.  In a bent-over posture, he sniffs the air, looks around warily, and then is startled by the emergence of a blonde-wigged woman in red dress who begins chasing him with a broom.  They disappear out of sight and return.  This time, Coyote has a banana dangling between his legs.  He chases the woman, making lewd gestures toward her and toward the audience with his banana.  She runs around the room in mock-horror with this oversexed, coyote-tailed man chasing her.  Most of us are laughing.  The exaggerated sexual content – Coyote holding the banana and shaking it in the woman’s direction, her exaggerated mock horror – surprises us.  The laughter is part discomfort with the sexual content, part relief that it is so ‘over the top’ that we don’t have to take it seriously, and partly a need for a respite from the seriousness of some of the previous personas.  I experienced a thrill of recognition that Luna was presenting us with the sexual side of the Coyote that I am familiar with from the Coyote tales in the region where I was raised.  Coyote as Trickster is often ‘cleaned up,’ so to speak. He is more or less de-sexualized for public consumption.  Luna was giving us the highly sexed side of Coyote, whose sexual drive is so ridiculously extreme that he will try to have sexual intercourse with ANYTHING.  I experienced this as an “in” joke, something that likely only someone who was familiar with Coyote from the oral traditions of California tribes would recognize.  There were other layers of meaning to this segment for people unfamiliar with this version of Coyote to pick up on.  For instance, this sequence could be understood as a reference to the sexualization of Indian Warriors, and dominant-culture fears of white women being “polluted” by men of color.  When the woman chases Coyote away with her broom, the broom becomes a symbol of domesticity/civilization, and Coyote a symbol of wilderness/nature.  This segment brings to mind the constant conflicts between people who have had their homes built on the edge of town, in suburbs that encroach on animal habitats and who then complain about the wild animals who encroach on their property: deer, skunks, mountain lions, bears, and, of course, coyotes.  Some of the laughter may have been generated by this association:  the irony of people encroaching on natural habitats, and then reacting as though they are being terrorized by nature when the opposite is true.

There is the possibility that this performance overall could have come off as disjointed, unrelated vignettes or a costume show. However, the repeated hand-gesture against the wall at each end of the catwalk worked to connect the personas.  Even when it was not practical for a particular persona to make the gesture, there was always a pause of acknowledgement at each end.  I understood a number of the personas to be representing different aspects of the trickster Coyote.  This overarching theme created enough structure for the piece to hold together without resulting in a linear theatrical narrative.  I experienced moments of laughter, humor, irony, skepticism, uncertainty, embarrassment, self-analysis, and, during it all, I felt the drummer’s ever-changing rhythms thudding and clanging through me.

 Performance Sequence of Events for Petroglyphs in Motion: 

1)         Shaman.[1]  Wearing beaded moccasins, enveloped in a Pendleton wool blanket, carrying a cane or shepherd’s crook protruding from the opening above the head. See studio photograph (in which a golf club has been substituted for the cane) and still-frame from video. Movement characteristics: slow, looping path up and down the runway.  See Figures 13 and 15.

2)         Runner 1.  Wearing snakeskin-patterned briefs, beaded moccasins. Movement characteristics: slow motion running, muscles tensed and straining.  See Figure 3.

3)         Runner 2. Same clothing as #2, plus a beaded peyote rattle.  Movement characteristics: slow, looping path, more relaxed movement than the previous Runner. 

4)         Business Man.  Same clothing as #3, with the black handset of a phone instead of the rattle.  Gestures extravagantly while mouthing words into the phone. Deliberately pauses at each end and places the handset vertically, then horizontally against the wall at each end. Movement characteristics: walks as though pacing while on the phone.  See Figure 3.

5)         Runner 3. Same clothing as #2, #3, #4, hands empty. Movement characteristics: an all-out run to the end of the walkway and back.

6)         Saxman.[2]  Yellow fringed buckskin shirt, dance-apron of a glittering black fabric, faux-snakeskin trousers, red cloth cap with red feathers and a beaded headband, playing a yellow and purple plastic toy saxophone, also carrying a paper cup.  Movement characteristics: pretends to play the instrument, passes around a cup.  See Figure 4.

7)         Drinking Man.  Blue bandana headband, flannel shirt over the clothing from #6, sunglasses, tallboy can of beer and the same donation cup.   Movement characteristics: mimes urination against the near wall, lies down to feign sleep against the far wall, rises passes the cup through the audience, hands off the beer can to someone in the audience, staggers, burps.  See Figure 10.

8)         Cigarette Man.  Wearing bathrobe, slippers, sunglasses, a different bandana headband, carrying cigarette, pushing and oxygen-tank, holding an oxygen mask in one hand.  Coughs occasionally, puts oxygen mask up to mouth. Movement characteristics: ambles slowly in looping path up and back down the walkway.

9)         Leatherguy.[3]  Black leather vest, small whip, metal armbands, snakeskin patterned briefs, black leather belt covered with silver metal studs. Black-brimmed hat, sunglasses, yellow leather loafers.   See Luna’s studio photograph. Movement characteristics: street swagger, occasionally smacking the small whip across the palm of his hand.  See Figure 6.

10)     Coyote.[4]  Wearing a red t-shirt with the sleeves cut into fringe, same briefs and loafers as in #9, with coyote tail attached to the seat of the shorts.  Coyote emerges, then is chased by a blonde-wigged woman in a sexy red dress.  She carries a broom and swats at him. Movement characteristics: he runs away from her, ducking her broom. See Figures 5 and 12.

11)     Randy Coyote. With the addition of a banana attached to the front of the briefs.  Coyote chases the woman, occasionally stopping to shake the banana at the audience.  Movement characteristics: overtly sexual.  See Figure 12.

12)     Cool Coyote.  Red hat with a brim, red trousers, shimmery black shirt, sunglasses, coyote tail hangs from the rear of the pants.  Movement characteristics: be-bops down the path, moving to the drum rhythms with some additional dance moves.  See Figure 9.

13)     Vietnam Vet/Indian Warrior.  Red pants from #12.  Shirtless. Seated in wheelchair with one leg tucked under.  Dimestore imitation of a Plains-style feathered headdress, sunglasses.  A medicine bag hangs from one of the handles of the wheelchair.  Movement characteristics: slowly wheels himself down the path, ignoring the audience.  See Figure 13.

I have a lengthy and detailed analysis of this performance piece that I am working on for a future post – especially if anyone expresses interest in knowing more about this work!  I am adapting from my dissertation, so it takes quite a bit of re-writing to make that sort of writing interesting.  Maybe this summer I will get the time to search out a publisher for this work. let me know if you have any advice on that front.

And by the way, thank you to Mr. Luna for his generosisty with his documentation of his work over the years, his willingness to answer my questions, and his frankness when I’m barking up the wrong tree. I guess the important thing is to just keep barking!

[1] Luna’s term for this persona.

[2] Luna’s term.

[3] Luna’s term.

[4] Luna’s term.

4 thoughts on “A First-hand Account of James Luna’s Petroglyphs in Motion, as performed at Site Santa Fe in 2000

  1. Hi Lara,

    Your blog is very well researched and written. I think this is the first coherent blog dedicated purely to Native American Art, I have found. My favorite Canadian Native American artists working today are Rebecca Belmore and Brian Jungen, both from British Columbia.

    I too have added a link to your blog on my website!


  2. You are kind. I wish I could Lara, but I am Canadian and the Grant is only for Americans. It is too bad. You could apply, the subject matter of your blog is virtually non-existent in the art blogosphere or in Contemporary art discourse for that matter.

  3. Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Christian, iwspo.net

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