There's a man who I know, and I was privileged enough to call him friend during the time I knew him well, who lives in two worlds. In one he carries a brief case and holds a college degree in business. He has standing in court rooms across the country even though he's not a lawyer, and can argue law and cite precedents that date back to the 18th century. He has to because of the other world he inhabits, that of being a Native American man living in the twenty-first century.
He has carried the flag of his nation in Grand Entries at Pow Wows and into battle on the carpets of the court rooms where words are what he pulls from his quiver to fight the never ending battle for survival his people have fought for more then five hundred years. He's not alone in this battle, there are numerous men and women across North America who are on this War Path these days. Briefcase warriors who refuse to roll over and be good Indians and accept the indignities that continue to be heaped on the heads of their people.
In the 1970's the burgeoning Native American rights movement was centred around the very public and flamboyant activities of the American Indian Movement (AIM). While AIM may have garnered the majority of the public's and media's attention, that also brought them to the attention of the FBI. If J. Edgar Hoover decided you were a threat to America, you could pretty much count on never having a moments peace, and being hounded relentlessly until you were dead or in jail. By the end of the 70's AIM's effectiveness as a force for Native rights was depleted, but they hadn't been alone, and other groups aside from them had formed around the same time.
TheNative American Rights Fund (NARF) was formed in 1970 through a grant from the Ford Foundation by the California Indian Legal Services. NARF is a non-profit law firm who represent the needs of Natives in court who otherwise would not have access to legal representation. Their brief is simple - to protect the rights of Native people everywhere, and see that justice is done in the courts as much and whenever possible.
While you won't see them in courts over casinos, rightly believing they have enough money to take care of themselves, they are the voice for all the tribes across America who don't have that new cash crop. For instance they have been in litigation for ten years with the Bureau Of Indian Affairs (BIA) over the possible mismanagement of over 500,000 Native American's trust funds by the Bureau and its agents. But it's not just the law they see as their responsibility, they, like the other groups who came of age during the 1970's fighting for a Native Renaissance, knew how important it was to not only preserve their rights, but also their culture.
That doesn't mean they believe they should return to hunting buffalo and living in Tee Pees, those ways are irrevocably lost. It means holding on to the essential elements that define them as a people and applying them in the twenty-first century. The arts have always been a vehicle for a people to express their culture and Natives have been no exception. The trick is though to bring the arts into the twenty-first century.
Visions For The Furture: A Celbration Of Young Native American Artists published by Fulcrum Publishing is a record of the first annual exhibit of works by young Native Artists sponsored by NARF. The purpose of the Visions For The Future shows is to not only encourage the work of Native artists aged eighteen to thirty-five, but to act as a bridge between the generation of Natives who began the fight for sovereignty and rights in the 1970's and the young people who weren't even alive during that time.
To that end the artists were asked to submit works that reflected NARF's focus on the modern day battles that face Native Americans. Education, sovereignty, natural resources, civil rights, land claims, and ensuring the continuation of cultural and spiritual traditions in the twenty-first century. By having them express those themes based on what they see around them, the hope was they would be able to take the first steps in changing people's view of just who Native Americans are today and to help people understand the realities facing them.
Today's young natives are just a liable to be involved with hip-hop and house music, make use of the Internet, and skateboard as their European, Asian and African contemporaries. So you wouldn't really expect them to be doing beading or making pottery like their great-grandparents did, any more than you'd expect a young Italian artist to be painting like De Vinci or Michelangelo. "When a person learns that I am an artist" says Bunky Echo-Hawk, "predictably they ask if I do beadwork or make pottery." Historical or replicated art, as he refers to it, has nothing to do with his world as a young Native American today, nor any of the other artists whose work appears in this book.
Cultural and spiritual events like Pow Wows are still a part of their lives of course, but so are toxic waste dumps on reserves, addictions, and poverty. In an essay he contributed to this book called "Bullets In The Chest, Arrows In The Back" - a reference to the war chiefs of old who rode in the front lines of battle risking both being shot by the enemy and hit by friendly fire - Bunky Echo-Hawk wonders how someone can live on a reserve with a toxic waste dump and create art work that omits that reality. Why not weave a blanket with bio-hazard warnings woven into the pattern he asks.
Today's Native artist faces the bullet of colonization in that no one is interested in seeing modern Indian life depicted. The public at large is in love with the image of the stoic, feathered warrior, and the doe-eyed Pochahantes. They don't want to see pictures of Sitting Bull being interviewed by Larry King or a Chief wearing a gas mask. The arrow in the back is the easy acceptances of assimilation and the capitulation by so many Natives who are more than willing to give the public what they want instead of reality.
The work of the thirteen artists included in this book, the thirteen of the 130 who applied and were selected for the show, are in all mediums; photography, pen and ink, paint on canvass, silk screened posters, and even tattoo designs. Each of the images in some way reflects something about the present day Native circumstance. Some of them are celebrations of the way in which traditions like Pow Wows are continued today, others, like Bunky's works depict realities that nobody wants to admit exists.
Three of my favourite pieces are a poster by Thomas Ryan Red Corn with a picture of the four carvings on Mount Rushmore captioned by the word Vandalism, referring to the fact that the Black Hills are treaty lands stolen from the Lakota; a self portrait by Micah Wesley depicting her fall into the desolation of addictions and self loathing; and a photograph of an elderly woman in Jingle Dress regalia at a Pow Wow by Valerie Norris. These three disparate images are the epitome of what this exhibit was trying to capture through their depiction of the political and personal struggles that face Native Americans, and the enduring strength of their culture in spite of adversity.
Art is what we use as a people to tell our story to other people, and it is the obligation of a people's artists to be truthful in order for the rest of the world to understand them. The Native American Rights Fund uses the motto "The Indian Wars Never Ended", with unspoken colliery being the battleground has merely shifted. While NARF and people like them can take the war to the court rooms and the halls of power, it's up to the cultural warriors to change people's perceptions of who Native people are and the battle they fight today.
If Visions For The Future: A Celebration Of Young Native American Artists is any indication of the type of art being produced in "Indian Country" by today's young Native artists, there is a new generation of warriors prepared to do what it takes to make people realize North American Indians are alive and well and here to stay.
Artwork: "Inheriting The Legacy" by Bunky Echo-Hawk
(Article originally posted February 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.