"Our Side," an exhibition at the Missoula Art Museum, surveys contemporary work being done by indigenous women artists. The art, and the artists themselves, raise questions about balancing innovation and tradition, the importance of community, representation in museums, and origin stories.
Guest curator Wendy Red Star said the title looks back to a historical split between the Crow and Hidatsa tribes. The Crow, who left to find their own territory in a search that took some hundred years, refer to the separation as "Bíiluuke," meaning "our side."
With the term's allusions to shared languages and customs that still can bind two peoples, she saw it as a framework to invite the artists from the United States and Canada to Montana to "hear their story" and learn about "their side."
"The works weave back and forth into each other really beautifully," she said last Friday during a panel discussion. "And all speak and have a conversation, and there's room for them also to breathe and speak on their own."
The exhibition was supported by a two-year grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. The MAM has used the money to fund visiting Native artists in its top-story Lynda Frost Gallery, which is dedicated exclusively to indigenous contemporary art.
They invited Red Star, an artist who grew up on the Crow Reservation, to curate a show of indigenous women working in a contemporary vein. Red Star, who's now based in Portland, Oregon, and has been featured in Art in America, handpicked the artists. She and three of the artists came to Missoula for an opening reception and a panel discussion on their work.
In a red tone on a deep gray surface, Marianne Nicolson has painted a mural dense with imagery in the immediately recognizable Northwest style. The artist is from the Dzawada'enuxw People, a member tribe of the Kwakwaka'wakw Nations in the Pacific Northwest.
The four-panel mural tells an origin story, its title translating to "Then the deluge of our world came ... "
Nicolson, who has advanced degrees in cultural anthropology, art history and linguistics, said she's heard variations of the story over the years. She said her ancestors survived "the great flood" at the beginning of time by constructing a catamaran of canoes, packed with provisions and a treasure box.
Her painting revisits the story in the context of global warming, in part inspired by a 2010 flood in her village that was the largest in known history, its force exacerbated climate change and logging. They were evacuated by helicopter.
She walked viewers through some of the symbolism in the painting: In the two center panels, you can see the vessel, box and ancestors, represented as wolves, riding atop a wave and supported by a cedar rope that anchors them, a reference to indigenous knowledge.
"If we relearn our stories, if we attach ourselves to our land, if we commit ourselves to our way of being in the world, and this is the way we will survive the onslaught of catastrophe that is entering into our lives and into our future," she said.
In the surrounding waters, she painted images that symbolize world powers, most a part of the G-7 nations: Russia is a bear, the United States is an eagle, Canada a beaver, Japan a carp, Mexico a fox, Germany a black eagle. Some are given non-animal symbols: France a fleur-de-lis, and England a crown. China is represented by a set of stars from its flag, with one star reversed to resemble a Texaco logo.
On the two outer panels, she painted a wolf and a whale, which she said symbolize the older stories that can guide people toward a more balanced relationship with the environment, a "fundamental philosophy that's missing in the contemporary economy."
Red Star pointed out that Nicolson, who has created large-scale, site-specific petroglyphs, has with this painting created a "mobile message."
In a video called "Fake," Elisa Harkins is clad in a white bonnet and white dress, dancing on a white stage to techno music and repeating a melodic chant: "Die, don't die, get the money." In another video, she calls the Indian Arts and Craft Board to "turn herself in for making fake Indian art."
That personal and artistic dilemma over her identity started with her upbringing. Harkins, Cherokee according to her adoption papers, was raised by white parents. She's uncertain what the circumstances of her being placed for adoption were, but she said it's left her with "anger and pain," and distanced from her culture. While she grew up in Miami, Oklahoma, an area with many tribes, she wasn't raised in any indigenous traditions.
In graduate school at the California Institute of the Arts, her professors told her that her work was about Native identity, yet it wasn't "authentic."
"It was very funny," she said. "I'm really grateful that they challenged me this way." She began to ask questions about what "authenticity" means and present herself as a "fake Indian artist." The notion is already nebulous in art, but it becomes even more complicated in the case of an indigenous artist in her circumstances, since acts of Congress regulate what's considered "authentic Indian art."
In that phone message, she "confesses" to various crimes in the video. For one, she didn't have a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood from the government. Secondly, her bonnet, also on display at the MAM, is a Navajo wedding bonnet, intended for a man. The dress, which she made herself, is imitation powwow regalia.
Harkins now has a CDIB card for the Muscogee Creek tribe in Oklahoma and is researching her Cherokee ancestry. As part of her video, she's cataloged sheet music of Cherokee songs that was notated by Westerners in the 1800s and creating music.
Traditional work and new ideas coexist in the contemporary fabric pieces by Tanis S'eiltin, a professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham.
She grew up in southeast Alaska, learning Tlingit weaving and beading from her expert mother and grandmother, and later studied art for bachelor's and master's degrees in the 1980s, when she said students were pressured toward abstraction.
She eventually returned to fabric materials and handwork, both of which she missed. Her pieces in "Our Side" are difficult to miss, particularly a wool felt coat that's arranged nearly in the center of the gallery.
In part, she said her fabric works highlight indigenous innovations. Museums, galleries and other institutions often wrongly view Native work as part of a static tradition, but its innovation "shows that we are ascendant, that we are resourceful, we are responding to the political, social and economical changes that are happening within our communities and our families," she said.
The handmade piece is embedded with traditional references. Its design is inspired by the "octopus bag," a style of container she said originated on the East Coast and was passed from group to group until it reached the Tlingit in the Northwest. Along the way, it evolved from a functional item into a more ceremonial one, she said.
The coat's red-and-black color scheme allude to traditional button blankets, another indigenous adaptation of Western materials. She took the sharp lines of the coat's design from a vogue coat pattern in Europe that made its way to America in the 1930s and '40s, she said.
Be sure to look around the corner behind the coat, where S'eiltin is displayed two customary bibs worn during potlatches and ceremony. They're normally red and black in color, rounded in shape, and carry clan emblems. Hers, meanwhile, have sharp lines. She named them "Steam Punk Raven Flies to the North Star" and "People of the Tide: Raven, Coho, Octopus."
She made them with wool felt, since the material reminds her of tanned moose hide, which when done properly can keep you warm in subzero temperatures. Its industrial nature also reminds her of traditional armor, hence the steampunk reference.
S'eiltin doesn't think the bibs would be accepted by everyone back in Alaska, although she hopes they will, one of the many contradictions she mentioned. As an academic, she can freely pursue directions of her own choosing.
"I love to take risks, if I don’t push myself to that point I don’t feel that what I create is genuine," she said. However, pursuing academia forced her to move away from her community, the source of her work, which she said is difficult.
She faces similar problems displaying in museums and galleries.
"Another challenge is that the way that we’re defined doesn’t fit every groove or notch, so my work might be too contemporary for some shows but too Native for other exhibitions," she said.
Tanya Lukin Linklater, originally from southern Alaska villages of Afognak and Port Lions, was unable to attend, but her works loom large in the east half of the gallery.
The white banners of "The Harvest Strudies" [sic] draped from the ceiling were spurred by Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat from James Bay, Ontario, who led a hunger strike during the Idle No More movement in 2012. Spence wore traditional mitts during television interviews. Linklater interviewed Omaskeko Cree relatives of her husband about their process of hunting moose, tanning hides, making mitts and beading them.
Red Star said Linklater has spoken of the work as a "quiet protest" and a "symbol of resistance and revitalization." She arranged the text on white banners, using references to beading patterns to create the arrangements.
"The treaty is in the body" comprises two narrow tables, constructed for the exhibition by the MAM staff, that match the dimensions of the table in Linklater's home growing up. Turquoise beads, alluding to wampum, a gift and currency and treaty concept, are scattered down the table, leading toward or away from a similarly colored pack of American Spirit cigarettes, alluding to cultural appropriation.
"They're beautiful works," Red Star said. "When you stand in front of them, the body gets absorbed as well. It's really about the industrious work of Native women, which I see in all the works that are presented in this exhibition."