A Conversation with David Bunn Martine

David Bunn Martine. Lori Hawkins photo
David Bunn Martine. Lori Hawkins photo

By Christine Sampson

David Bunn Martine’s expertise in Native American history, art and culture is far-reaching. As a descendent of Nednai-Chiricahua Apachi and of Shinnecock heritage, he serves as the director and curator of the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum. Also the chairperson of AMERINDA, which stands for American Indian Artists Inc., Mr. Martine is the author of a new book and the recipient of multiple grants and awards. After getting his start in his youth drawing and selling portraits of Indian chiefs, sailing ships and animals at his family’s gift shop in Southampton, his own artwork today is based in narrative realism and occasionally impressionism. Mr. Martine holds a degree in advertising design from the University of Oklahoma and a master’s in art education from Central State University, and has taught at Dowling College. He can be found lately giving public workshops on the building of authentic wigwams, one of several types of traditional Native American housing.

In Native American history, when does the use of the wigwam date back to?
I’m not sure anybody really knows. We have a history of about 10,000 years on Long Island, so it’s anyone’s guess. There are at least six cultural phases, scientists say. The woodlands period starts around AD 3000 up to the year 1640. They were using wigwams, the wikiup or longhouse-type structures, with tree bark and sea grass or wild grass thatching techniques or woven mats made out of cat tail reeds. They were panels that could be rolled up and draped over white cedar wooden frame work used probably through the 1850s. … We have documented evidence of what the structures looked like.

How did construction of the wigwam change over the years?
I think the traditional structure didn’t really change. It was simplified in design after the beginning of the 1900s. We have pictures from some powwows and you can see a couple of wigwams that had more of a teepee-like shape. They weren’t thatched anywhere like the original.

How did you get your start recreating wigwams?
I, myself, was personally inspired to build them by the scale models of Wickham Cuffee, who reconstructed a Shinnecock wigwam very, very accurately. It’s easy to reproduce it very accurately, so I started doing it myself, and I received a federal grant to continue to do so. We learned a lot of details from the Wampanoag people in Massachusetts — it’s the largest tribe in New England.

What kind of myths or misconceptions do people today have about Native American housing?
The primary one is one of the biggest ones the culture has as a whole: The stereotypes perpetuated by movies and television. The teepee was a plains Indian structure. The native people who lived west of the Mississippi River hunted buffalo and were nomadic constructed them from lodge pole pines, very tall and straight. They could be assembled very quickly and taken down and taken with them. It came to be associated with the kind of housing that any Native American would live in, whereas most of them on the East Coast lived in different structures, the longhouse or the wigwam. They really weren’t as portable as the teepee is.

What is the goal of your workshops?
Nothing too profound. It’s more for enjoyment. The technique is traditional and it’s accurate in terms of the Shinnecock and Montauk. I’m using modern materials mostly because of budgetary reasons. A lot of the materials aren’t available to us because they are extinct or hard to find. Even the traditional meadow grass, the primordial wild grasses on the open pastures, are pretty rare. The land has been developed.

Can you give us a preview of your new book?
I received an Andy Warhol Research Fellowship. The book, which I started working on in 2012, is called “No Reservation: New York Contemporary Native American Art Movement,” edited by Jennifer Tromski with a foreword by Dore Ashton. The premise is to bring recognition to the New York City contemporary native arts community, which really began in the 1920s. A lot of people don’t recognize the strong connection to the New York school of abstract expressionists. Also, it recognizes the roots of Native American art in the U.S. Wealthy people in the New York area went west to start art colonies and brought back art. They wanted to try to preserve Native American culture and put it on display, along with art from other indigenous cultures, like the South Pacific and African cultures. There are some interesting things in the book. For instance, Jackson Pollock was influenced by Navajo sand painters.

Overall, how important is it for people to understand Native American history and culture?
It’s very important. There are hundreds of different cultures, languages and basic things they should know about that aren’t taught in schools. They may not realize Native Americans still exist at all or are contributing to society. … People are probably also totally unaware that the U.S. Constitution was inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy. This has been well documented. They were very astute diplomats and politicians. It’s important because Native American culture has contributed significantly in many ways — medicine, food, political philosophy, democracy in the U.S. Their relationship to the earth and the environment — they lived a very healthy life. They weren’t just wild people living in the woods. Where there are large areas of people’s concern, Native American culture speaks to it.

David Bunn Martine’s next two wigwam building demonstrations will take place on two Saturdays, October 7 and October 14, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Eastville Community Historical Society Heritage House in Sag Harbor. The cost is $10 for adults and $5 for children.