By Laurie Owen, community contributor
The Leonor R. Fuller Gallery at South Puget Sound Community College is hosting a remarkable show—the 12th Annual Native American Arts Exhibition, curated by Philip Red Eagle.
Six Native American artists are represented, each of whose work could easily find a place in major shows in New York City or Washington DC, but here they are, nestled amongst our cedar trees. Each path leading to the gallery goes through forest. One can feel the soft needles underfoot and smell the earth mixed with that pungent evergreen smell that is indigenous to this region.
Each artist is like encountering a different inhabitant of the forest. Caroline Orr (Colville), soft and urgent and opening into the spirit world. Linley Logan (Onondowaga, Seneca), reminiscent of 20th century Masters, but with a subtle subconscious layer of social justice commentary. Stephanie Riedl (Sts’ailes First Nation), whose woodcut relief prints evoke the sacred intimacy of family and community moments. Paige Pettibon (Salish), whose digital prints shine a spotlight on the tender and humorous aspects of Rez life. RYAN! Fedderman’s (Confederated Tribes of the Colville) image of a crane on top of a mountain of buffalo skulls stays with the viewer, with a heart-rending, almost visceral shock. Finally there is Philip Red Eagle (Dakota), whose photography is as avant-garde as a Buddhist monk at an American Indian Sundance. As photography portrays the beauty of its subject, his discerning eye brought together these artists in the exhibit: “Paint, Pixels and Prints.”
As impressive as these artists are, for this viewer, the main attraction of this exhibit centers around the work of an artist whose vision breaks through the boundaries and engulfs one’s senses. Walking through the door of the gallery, one cannot escape the 3-D world of mannequins, cultural artifacts and books, which reach out to draw the viewer in.
Discovering Robert “Running Fisher” Upham’s (Dakota, Gros Ventre, Pend Oreille, Salish) “Nest/Installation” is like entering a place in the forest where the membrane between the two worlds is thin, dominated by his ancestors, each of whom has a story to be told. They peak out of every corner of his complicated world, demanding to be heard.
Upham’s artistic vision is not tidy or convenient. He is mixed-blood, and that is very much part of the stories he tells. In the Indian way, his ancestors of all lineages speak through him, with sometimes seemingly contradictory messages. It has become almost trite to speak of generational trauma, but it is very real, affecting the very DNA of those who inherit it. When a person is descended from many generations of trauma, they may bend and break, or they may rise. Upham does not flinch from the hard truths. Like many of his role models such as Billy Mills, he rises, bringing his relatives with him. Do not expect to be comforted by his shared vision. Expect to be challenged. Expect to feel complicated feelings. Feelings like grief — unfathomable grief. Feelings like pride, as to hear echoes of a people who cry, “It is a good day to die.” Expect to be thrilled, to be uplifted, upon encountering people who embodied the very best of excellence.
Pappy Boyington (Lakota Sioux), who not only was the most accomplished fighter pilot of American history, but who also survived being shot down with hundreds of wounds, went on to survive several months in a Japanese prison camp. He was declared MIA, assumed dead and awarded his Medal of Honor posthumously. He had a surprise for the world, because he was still alive, as the sign on the top of the prison where he was housed declared “Boyington Here.”
Many other accomplished individuals are featured in the show. Maria Tallchief (Osage) was America’s first prima ballerina — an honor given only to dancers at the very highest level of accomplishment. She co-founded the New York City Ballet — a legacy that continues to this day. Billy Mills (Oglalla Sioux) was the only American to win the 10,000 Meter race at the Olympics, and who went on to champion excellence for Indian Youth through his Running Strong campaign. Red Fawn (Lakota Sioux), is serving an eight year prison sentence for her involvement in the Standing Rock protection of the waters of the Missouri River. Misty Upham’s (Blackfeet) roles in major films show her as a major talent, before her untimely death.
Other heroes and influential Indian voices in the show are Dennis Banks (Ojibway), Sarah James (Gwit’chin), Billy Frank Jr. (Nisqually), Chief Running Fisher (Gros Ventre), Chief Joseph (Nez Perce), Kamiakin (Yakama), Hank Adams (Dakota Sioux), Colin Kapernick, the Dakota 38, Floyd Westermann (Dakota), Winona LaDuke (Ojibway), Paulette Jordan (Coeur de Laine) and Tom Longbow (Onandaga). Also featured are animal and plant relatives — Tahlequah —who brought attention to the plight of the orcas, Eagle Spirit, Coyote, Sage, Cedar and Alder.
This installation encompasses three themes.
The first theme, present in his West Coast pieces on navigational maps, is the “Spirit Canoe”. This canoe is not modeled on any particular canoe. It represents the overall resurgence of pride present in the annual canoe journeys.
The second theme is the DNA strand, signifying the importance of genetic memories, living in the bodies of Indian people, keeping them strong and connected — epitomized by stories about the artist’s grandchildren included in the Quinault “spirit canoe” piece.
The third theme is the American Flag. The flag is brought in with honor at the beginning of every pow wow, because veterans are very much honored throughout Indian country. Upham is a veteran, and he loves his country, but he is dismayed by the gap between stated values and the continued strain of injustice in our land. He wants to remind us all to reclaim the flag as a symbol of justice. Let it represent the true champions of the disenfranchised.
As Upham says, “We all live in a Tipi called The United States of America.”
The show continues at the Leonor R. Fuller Gallery at the Kenneth J. Minnaert Center for the Arts, SPSCC through March 20, and is open noon-6, Mon-Fri.
The 12th Annual Native American Arts Exhibition
Noon – 6 p.m. Mon – Fri, through March 20
The Leonor R. Fuller Gallery at South Puget Sound Community College,
2011 Mottman Rd, Olympia