“Plastic Indians”: the Commodification of Indigenous California Culture

via the Plasticity of the Visual Language of the 1960s and 1970s

Fig. 1:  John Gast, American Progress, 1872, oil on canvas, 12 ¾ inches x 16 ¾ inches, Museum of the American West, Griffith Park, LA no. 92.126.1 Library of Congress Control no. 975.075.47. Source: The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism, https://aras.org/sites/default/files/docs/00043AmericanProgress_0.pdf

In the 19th century, a mass migration of white Americans followed the winged angel of Manifest Destiny to the promised land of the West. She struck her rows of telegraph poles into the soil and mapped the sky in

wires whilst pioneers staked their homestead claims and drove railroad spikes into the earth. They believed this movement of bodies, culture, and religion to be their God-given destiny and right. In the bottom left hand corner of John Gast’s American Progress (figure 1), a band of indigenous people flees to the edge of the continent alongside hoards of buffalo, foreshadowing the mass extermination of both. This history has resulted in the perceived invisibility of (or the choice to ignore) today’s indigenous Americans due to systematic suppression and yet we imagine the “Indian” of the Great Plains as depicted by Gast. Vine Deloria sums up the absence of the real indigenous body:

These themes function satirically in Simon J. Ortiz’s literary piece The San Francisco Indians, in which his Native American protagonist meets the white “Chief Black Bear” and his “tribe” of hippies who sought out “real” indigenous people who could help them in their spiritual ceremonies. Ortiz satirises the “Plastic Indian” in this piece: the non-indigenous person donning the costume of the “imaginary Indian.” He parodizes the extent of the commodification of indigenous culture, playing with the idea of manufactured, packaged, and bought identities on which white Americans, including hippies, were capitalising. 

“To be an Indian in modern American society is in a very real sense to be unreal and ahistorical.”

 V. Deloria, Custer Died for Your Sins. University of Oklahoma Press, 1969, pp. 2.

This “Indian” represents a product of our collective imagination that has gone from the signifier to the signified; the “Indian” has been so over-stereotyped that it has reached the realm of Baulliard’s simulacra. This is no longer a human being, but an idea of an object that has burrowed deep into the heart of West Coast culture via its arteries of capitalism and consumerism and veins of the hippie and New Age movements. The same treatment of signs and material extends across 20th century California’s entire visual catalogue: the colonisation of the indigenous and the natural through the finishing of rough surfaces in a high-shine capitalist varnish. Each time an idea is reappropriated it becomes smoother, fine features evaporate, a plasticity is cultivated, and a new idea with little to no basis in reality replaces the original. I shall use the visual and spiritual language of the hippie movement, the Light and Space movement, and the use of finish fetish to expose the role of surface in the colonisation, appropriation, commodification, and/or erasure of indigenous Californian culture, such as that of the Chumash of the Los Angeles region, through visual methods such as analysis of surfaces.

I will use the term ‘surface glazing’ as a synesthetic description of California’s appropriation of indigenous culture, landscape, and identity in order to evoke the plastic sheen or sleek lacquer so coveted by pop artists. The term inspires associations with the thick fumes of varnish as raw wood is permanently sealed and preserved and with plastic-wrapped commodities identically stacked on supermarket shelves. Surface glazing, in partnership with finish fetish, appropriates the indigeous for use in a capitalist world. The lacquer preserves what is beneath whilst altering this surface interaction with its environment, therefore manipulating its power and purpose. California’s history blends this appropriative surface glazing of indigenous cultures and landscapes with complete erasure and rebuilding. The key is the ability for non-native Californians to pick and choose what to throw out and what to preserve and varnish for their own use.

Fig. 2:  Chumash home at the Wishtoyo Chumash Village. Source: Wishtoyo Chumash 
Foundation, https://www.wishtoyo.org/chumash-village-1 [accessed 11 Nov 2020].

Once something is commodified, the next stage is transportation and distribution of that product to the market. The action of glazing allows one to pick and choose what is preserved in clear lacquer and what is erased by the presence of opaque resin. This allows for these appropriated cultures, now commodities, to move; for example, the significance of the Plains tipi as a symbol for ‘Indian’ culture is imported to California, a region in which no indigenous nations used tipis, and yet the tipi is preserved and commodified as a signifier for the ‘Indian.’ For example, the Chumash people of the southern California coast dwelled in dome-shaped structures (figure 2). Yet the Chumash objects and symbols that were preserved were for the benefit and progress of American movements, and all Chumash credit dissolved into that sticky glue labeled ‘Indian.’  In Playing Indian, Philip J. Deloria aptly argues that

“[Tipis] carried a full cargo of symbolic value. Tipis shouted “Indian,” and all that it entailed, in a way that Northwest coast log homes, even those marked with Indian totem poles, never could.”

 P. J. Deloria, Playing Indian. Yale U.P., 1998, p. 155.

The signifier and sign create the stereotype, the idea, of the signified: and in the act of stereotyping, an entire population is homogenised. These manufactured identical ideas are now ready for mass distribution and consumption.

Fig. 3:  Photograph of hitchhiking hippies. Photographer and date unknown. Source: My 
Modern Met, https://mymodernmet.com/vintage-bohemian-fashion/ 
Fig. 4:  Irving Penn, Hippie Family (F), San Francisco, 1967 platinum–palladium print, 
private collection. Source: Christie’s Auction House, 

Scrutinising the appropriation of indigenous visual and spiritual culture requires one to review the California landscape from an ethnobotanical perspective. The same may be said about much of California’s art scene throughout the hippie movement. The costume of the “Indian” was a convenient mask with which to validate the erupting drug culture in the guise of spiritualism. A link between altered consciousness and visual material was often the result of plants; the Chumash are one of hundreds of North American indigenous groups which use soothing or mind-altering plants in medicinal and spiritual practices. Just as in much of the ethereal art of the 1960s and 1970s, the Chumash artistic tradition was bound at its core to spirituality and, in effect, to healing. The concept of healing can be explored through the surface as well: the open wound healed over in smooth skin once again, but always with a resulting scar. Healing was important within these mid century movements, in particular in relation to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. Young Californian hippies sought to find peace amidst chaos through healing plants: smoking joints, burning incense and sage, or enjoying psychedelic trips from hallucinogens. Many of these practices had their origins in indigenous spiritual ceremonies. The hippies were attempting to heal the nation, in the words of Arun Saldanha, by “transforming themselves through drugs, music, travel, and spiritualities borrowed from other populations” without due credit, therefore claiming these ‘borrowed’ cultural artifacts and traditions for the great American melting-pot. The political context in which religious traditions and spiritual substances, such as peyote, were “borrowed,” was problematic: the indigenous Self Determination movement, which commenced in the 1960s, was a period in which the Native American Church and traditionalist Native American groups were fighting for the freedom to practice their religion. Yet another “borrowed,” commodified, and mass-distributed cultural material was the stereotype of indigenous fashion, the most obvious examples being the iconic fringed jacket, beaded headbands, and long hair adorned in feathers. (figures 3-5). Adopting the fashion vocabulary of what Miriam Hanh calls the “imaginary Indian” permitted hippies to express their nostalgia for a simpler past; thus, the sign of the “Indian” is labeled as not only simple, but a ghost of history. In this way, the identity of the culture appropriated by the hippies was glazed over by a narrative of idealism and ignorance, leaving behind a smooth, easy-to-swallow surface. Tara Colleen Browner synthesizes this appropriation succinctly:

Fig. 5:  Jim Marshall, Photograph of two hippies on Haight Street, San Francisco, 1967. Source: 
Inside Hook, https://www.insidehook.com/article/art/recalling-birth-peace-60s-unseen-photographs

“Indians were only one of many groups seeking social justice during this era….Natives became the focus of America’s ‘alternative’ youth of the age—hippies-and the reservations were invaded by Whites of all ages seeking spiritual growth.”

T. C. Browner, “Transposing Cultures: The Appropriation of Native North American Musics, 1890-1990.” Order No. 9610086 University of Michigan, 1995. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 16 Oct. 2020, pp.12.

The American hippie exhibits the same spirit of Manifest Destiny as their ancestors: a God-given claim to America, however it may be defined. The surface of the earth was theirs, its plants, its divine connection with its inhabitants. Deloria argues that “Indianness—coded as a spiritual essential—was the common property of all Americans.” Even in the phrase “flower power” we see an allusion to the produce of the earth’s surface, plucked and appropriated. I should note that this is not to generalise the entire hippie movement as flawed; I aim to expose some of the many contradictions between the movement’s purpose and ideologies and the resulting commodification of the group itself. Many happenings and objects from the hippie movement contributed positively to social causes such as the Civil Rights movement, pacifism, and indeed the struggles faced by many indigenous people. Reetta Humalajoki summarises the conflicting facets of the hippie involvement in the Red Power movement by outlining positive contributions before continuing to scrutinise the negatives:

“The same period saw the growth of the Red Power movement, with Native activist occupations of, for instance, Alcatraz (1969–70), the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices (1972) and Wounded Knee (1972), drawing increasing media attention to the issues of American Indian sovereignty and treaty rights.”

R. Humalajoki, “Consumption as Assimilation: New York Times Reporting on Native American Art and Commodities, 1950–1970.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 53, no. 4, 2019.
Fig. 6:  Album cover of Potlatch by Redbone, 1970. Source: Rate Your Music, 

In many instances, the hippies opened up a space for the celebration of indigenous culture; such is the case of Jimi Hendrix, half Cherokee himself, aiding the Vegas brothers in forming the all-native band Redbone and contributing to an elevation of the diasporic Native American identity (figure 6).  This identity emphasises a united front amongst indigenous nations in their strife, but actively works against the homogenous stereotype of the “Indian” by reclaiming appropriated pieces of culture and, in the case of Redbone, relocating them within the reality of their multicultural native group. This goes as far as reappropriating the cajun word “redbone,” a derogatory term used to identify a person of a mixed-race background. Redbone is merely one example countered by the countless instances of indigenous homogenisation through the simplification and commodification of their culture, such as LIFE Magazine’s December 1967 cover “Return of the Red Man” and its corresponding article (figures 7 and 8). It discussed both the discovery of documents from the 1840s belonging to a Jesuit priest who observes the indigenous people of the Northern Rocky Mountains as well as presenting a “rediscovery” of indigenous culture through the hippie movement: 

Fig. 7:  Cover of LIFE Magazine, “Return of the Red Man,” 1 December 1967, printed serial. 
Source: Fonts in Use, 

The legal use of the mind-expanding drug peyote in religious ceremonies of certain Indian tribes has obvious attractions for the drug-oriented hippies. Thus in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury section a “white Indian” may sport a feather a headband, which is believed to provide “good vibrations” during an LSD trip.

 R. Richman, “100 Years Later, a Double Rediscovery.” LIFE, Return of the Red Man, 1 Dec. 1967, pp. 61.

Whilst this seems to be a blatant and harmful appropriation of religious items and rituals, the article also provides an interesting account from the Shoshone chief Rolling Thunder: “Hippies…are the reincarnation of the traditional Indians who have fallen. They are the ghosts of warriors who have come back to reclaim their land.” This exposes the complicated nature of this issue and the grayscale of opinions than cannot be sorted into two clear sides. Rolling Thunder’s words also aid the scholar in avoiding homogenisation of indigenous voices. The article defines the term “plastic hippie” as a “non-genuine hippie who invades their domain.” Clearly, both the creators of this term and those of the previously discussed “plastic Indian” are concerned with the commodification of their cultures and illustrate their concern by alluding to mass manufactured plastic material. The New Age hippie further problematizes the hippie as a concept due to its further removal from a basis in reality. The hippies of the 60s and 70s commodified and appropriated indigenous culture, and the New Agers commodified and appropriated the product of the former, thus resulting in a culture and aesthetic based firmly in capitalistic reproductions of stereotypes and oversimplified, plasticised ideas. It is within this plasticisation of concepts from which the Light and Space movement profits; the commodification of the spiritual in a resinous medium. The spirituality of the Light and Space movement coupled with the manufactured aesthetic of the American Pop Art commodity is where the tension lies. 

Fig. 8:  Surrounded by posters with Indian motifs, Julie Christie models a hippie Indian leather 
breechclout and beads, “100 Years Later, a Double Rediscovery.” LIFE, Return of the 
Red Man, 1 Dec. 1967, pp. 66.

California artists were, actively or passively, engaged with or responding to the hippie movement and the political context of the 60s and 70s. Regardless of whether their pieces form an obvious dialogue with this context, they were born of this context and profited from it. The fascination with surface that runs wild through the Light and Space movement and Pop Art can be attributed to a culture engaged in sensory-enhancing drugs and hallucinogens, encouraging artists to focus on the other senses, including touch, as opposed to the traditional sight. This is perhaps a reason for the codependent relationship between psychedelic art and music, as many psychedelic artists such as Rick Griffin created album covers and posters. Even without touching their works, they tap into a synesthesia that provokes a multisensory experience that depends highly on the viewer’s participation. Another key relationship between the artistic movements of the mid 20th century is alteration: the purposeful altering of one’s state of mind or the skewing of one’s perception such as in Op Art works. However, if the art from this period is a byproduct of a generation concerned with experimental perception, it is strange to bring these senses into the realm of sober reality. The hypersensitive experience of the 60s and 70s had been captured and colonised in sheets of plastic, securely in our physical realm. Of course, in art there is a desire to capture: snap a photograph, render a likeness, replicate; and a belief that a true original is fictional. However, the irony here is that the attempt to capture intangible experiences is oxymoronic and that these intangible experiences of the “turned on, tuned in, dropped out” hippie, whilst being appropriations themselves, are further colonised by the physical rendering of experiences in plastic and sealing them within the institutional canon.  This desire to capture and colonise mirrors the reality of native culture as a product to be harvested by non-indigenous people. The origin of this generation’s desire to expand their perceptual consciousness has roots in the use and abuse of hallucinogens, including those which are sacred to indigenous nations. And so, a clear pattern of colonisation can be drawn from the concept of Manifest Destiny to the appropriation of native religious traditions and literally altering the surface of the earth as Californian hippies harvest their flowers and mushrooms. 

Fig. 9:  Lita Albuquerque, Malibu Line, 1978. Source: Lita Albuquerque Studio, 

When discussing the significance of surface and finish fetish to the act of appropriation or colonisation, site specificity is key. “Surface” evokes connotations of the earth, of a plane within space. Therefore, it is integral to engage with this plane in order to understand its function as a conveyor of information, in this case California. California is stolen land. Non-indigenous Californian artists work with stolen land. This is important when contemplating the site specificity of many Light and Space projects; for example, those of Lita Albuquerque. In her ephemeral piece from 1978, Malibu Line, Albuquerque warps the perception of the viewer by linking the Pacific Ocean to the earth through the use of a highly-saturated blue line in order to “[connect] the viewer to the earth and to the horizon” (figure 9). This piece depends on the Op Art concept of altering our perceived reality through hyper-sensory elements such as the saturated blue pigment. The hue is so bold that it seems to exist on its own plane, both receding and standing out from the landscape simultaneously. Malibu Line is also in dialogue with the surface of the earth–of California itself–and by pigmenting it in this way, she flattens that surface and redacts its previous meaning, replacing it with nothing but the charged blue. It no longer is a sign for earth, but for blue, and via its composition, the ocean and the horizon. Reading this work through the indigenous lens, one may note that Albuquerque profits from her choice of colonised ground as material, and yet she omits any man-made structures and thus strips the land of cultural ownership. Credit for the work’s success in the eye of the contemporary viewer is owed to the hippie movement’s interest in altered perception, an interest that entered the mainstream as the hippie lifestyle was commodified. Furthermore, these psychedelic origins lie in the appropriation of sacred indigenous plants and co-opted rituals. Whilst Lita Albuequerque’s work and that of other Light and Space creators may not have directly appropriated native culture, it is crucial to be aware of the indirect ways in which the artists of this time profited from the colonisation of indigenous ways of life. 

Fig. 10: James Turrell, Third Breath, installation, 2005, Centre for International Light Art, Unna, 
Germany. Source: James Turrell Online Portfolio, 
Fig. 11: Lita Albuquerque, Ascension, 2018, Pigment on Panel, 24K Gold Leaf on 
 Resin, 60 × 60 in (152.4 × 152.4 cm), Peter Blake Gallery, Laguna Beach. Source: 
Artsy, https://www.artsy.net/artwork/lita-albuquerque-ascension
Fig. 12: Top: James Turrell, Roden Crater, unfinished, installation, Flagstaff, Arizona. Bottom: 
  view of Roden Crater geological form. Source: The Collector, 

Another example of an artist engaging with site specificity within the Light and Space movement is James Turrell, renowned for his “skyspaces” in which he literally frames a piece of the sky within a space large enough for viewers to enter. Some of these skyspaces, such as Third Breath (figure 10), are comparable in composition and aura to Lita Albuquerque’s later painted works such as Ascension (figure 11). Both Albuquerque’s paintings and Turrell’s skyspaces came later in their careers in the early 21st century.  Turrell’s skyspaces worship the sky while concealing the natural landscape from the viewer. He carves out a slice and skews the contrast between the man-made and cosmic planes by literally toying with our perception of frames and windows, benefiting from the interest in altered perception developed by psychedelic-inspired Op Art, as we have seen with Lita Albuequerque. Turrell forces our mind to colonise the sky within his frame and constructs a conflict between the real and the simulated. One of his most anticipated works, Roden Crater, is exactly one kilometer from the edge of the Navajo Reservation in Arizona (figure 12).  Purchased in the 1970s and still under construction today, this piece is intended to be a temple to the sky atop an ancient, inactive volcano. When compared to Stonehenge, Turrell distinguishes that “Stonehenge points to the [celestial] event. This brings the event indoors.” This framing of cosmic space and dividing it from its natural context–literally boxing it in–carries obvious connotations of colonialism. However, a contrary interpretation focuses on the extremities taken by Turrel to worship the sky rather than capture it. It is, after all, just the sky; he has not altered it, only our context from which we view it. Perhaps his framing of the celestial is an elevation of the natural world rather than a colonisation. Roden Crater has been utilised as an educational tool for a number of indigenous studies students, including those of the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts’ Indigenous Stories and Sky Science field lab. The site specificity of this monumental work was eloquently described by one of the student visitors, Anna Harmon, who describes her background as Colorado settler: “Stars and other celestial objects appear around the world, but on this trip I experienced that when and where they appear is unique to where you are, and what they signify can be rooted there too.” A response such as this from a first hand visitor reflects the imparted sacredness with which Turrell treats the site, and a successful evocation of its significance as a piece of stolen land. It seems that given this viewer’s specific experience, the land was successfully honoured in this way. 

Fig. 13: Norman Zammitt, Blue Burning, 1982, acrylic on canvas, 84 in. x 168 1/2 in. (213.36 
 cm x 427.99 cm), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Source: SFMoMA, 
Fig. 14: Norman Zammitt, North Wall, 1976, Acrylic on canvas, 96 × 168 in (243.8 × 426.7 
 cm), Los Angeles, The Getty Center, exhibited in”Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents 
 in L.A. Painting and Sculpture 1950-1970″, October 1, 2011 – February 5, 2012. 
 Source: Artsy, https://www.artsy.net/artwork/norman-zammitt-north-wall

We now turn to Norman Zammitt for an indigenous artistic response within the Light and Space movement to the mid century counterculture. Zammitt grew up in the Caughnawaga reservation outside of Montreal before moving to southern California with his family and studying at Pasadena City College. In California, he experimented with large-scale paintings made of mathematically blended bands of colour, trapping the questions posed by followers of the Light and Space movement on canvas. Zammitt subverted the capitalistic nuances of the Light and Space piece engaging in finish fetish by relocating it within an analogue medium traditionally dominated by Europeans and white settlers. The tedious nature of his creative process demands that his pieces are laboriously one of a kind. They were made from the artist’s hand and cannot be replicated due to their extreme precision, and yet the extreme precision creates a dialogue between the man-made and the machine-made. Works such as Blue Burning (figure 13) confront the perfection of sleek forms, whether that be two- or three-dimensional, within the Light and Space movement, and questions their compliance with the conformist, capitalist culture of manufactured plastic commodities. With this in mind, Zammitt’s paintings such as North Wall (figure 14) and Search for the Elysian Field (figure 15) also strongly resemble the work of Navajo weavers and southwesten indigenous variations upon what we call the Mexican serape, or woven blanket (figure 16). By recontextualising this vernacular material within the realm of a white-dominated fine art movement whilst also toying with sleek surfaces, Zammitt elevates indigenous motifs and creates space in the movement for the restructuring of native aesthetic stereotypes. 

Fig. 15: Norman Zammitt, Search for the Elysian Field, 1976, acrylic on canvas, 66 x 120 
 inches (167.6 x 304.8 cm), Louis Stern Fine Arts, Hollywood. Source: Louis Stern Fine 
 Arts, louissternfinearts.com/norman-zammitt-1
Fig. 16: Saltillo Serape c. 1930-1940, wool, 63 x 92.5 inches. Source: Vintage Vixen, 

The 20th century altered the surface of indigenous earth in physical and symbolic ways which can be mapped through a variety of methods: the ethnobotanical analysis of sacred mind-altering plants and the appropriation and commodification of their corresponding indigenous rituals; the appropriation of and the inevitable capitalist plasticisation and profiteering of the “Indian” within the hippie movement; and the point of view of the Light and Space movement, its site specificity, and treatment of sleek surface and intentional alterations of perception through tools inherited from psychedelic Op Art and spiritual synthesia. Whether these mid-century and contemporary Light and Space pieces are appropriations of indiginous culture is unclear and debatable; but what is certain is that they benefit from a long and deeply-rooted process of cultural homogenisation, commodification, and theft that has left a legacy of plasticised aesthetics with no basis in reality, merchandised and ready for the hungry consumer. 


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