A few years back, when I served as chair of the social and behavioral sciences division at Diné College, we brought Sam English (Ojibwe) to campus to give a talk about his art and activism. A group of more than 50 people somehow managed to jam their way into the college library’s R.C. Gorman room to hear about English’s adventures as a Red Power activist in the Bay Area, his struggles with alcoholism, and how these experiences ultimately coalesced and gave birth to one of the great artists of our time. Those in attendance were both captivated and moved. What resonated with so many people was his honesty, generosity, and dedication to any cause that benefits Native peoples.
English connects with his audience through the intertribal symbolism embedded in his art. “I’m Chippewa, but that doesn’t mean I’m just going to paint Chippewas,” he says. Many of his works feature elongated figures, which signal pride and, as he puts it, that “Indians should stand tall.” His art is unrepentantly spiritual. He paints the moon and the stars, creating imagery that seems to transcend time and space. That his work blends the past and present has led some to classify him as a “traditional contemporary Native artist,” a descriptor that English finds more confusing than revealing. Such labels serve only to limit American Indian artists. “We’ve been placed in brackets,” he states, “We live in 2013, don’t hold us back, let us open our minds, let us dream.” And although English’s entire body of work features Native peoples, he stresses that Native art and all its symbolism is dynamic, it is constantly evolving.
This observation—the transmutative nature of American Indian art—reverberates throughout this issue of Tribal College Journal. In Barbara Ellen Sorensen’s feature story, “Beyond Tradition: Culture, Symbolism, and Practicality in American Indian Art,” art historian Stephen Fadden (Mohawk) of the Institute of American Indian Arts maintains that what is considered “traditional” has too often been dictated and categorized by non-Natives. Haskell Indian Nations University professor, Daniel Wildcat (Yuchi) agrees, astutely observing how the long shadow of colonialism has sought to define tradition and symbolism in Native art. These are “external impositions,” Wildcat maintains, and it would be a mistake to assume that such things don’t change. Native artists today have carved out their own ground and are making their own rules, which is readily apparent in the work of Jamison Chas. Banks (Cherokee/Seneca-Cayuga) of the Institute of American Indian Arts, Donna R. Charging from Wind River, or Bryson Meyers (Chippewa-Cree) of Fort Peck Community College—this year’s TCJ Student cover art contest winner.
Does this mean that the art forms of the past are irrelevant and doomed to fade from memory? Not at all. As highlighted in Jerry Worley’s article, “Inspired Art in the Bear’s Paw Mountains,” Stone Child College art professor John Murie (Chippewa-Cree/Pawnee) recognizes the non-static nature of art, but at the same time teaches a new generation of students the craft of beadwork. Murie’s students learn the traditions of their ancestors, while creating works that incorporate the influences and realities of the world around them. Murie makes clear that Native art, besides constantly evolving, has historically served a utilitarian purpose, a sentiment that Fadden and Wildcat share.
Richard Peterson (Assiniboine-Sioux) builds upon this theme in his article “Star Power: Piecing Together Tradition and Community.” Star quilt-making may have begun at Fort Peck with the arrival of Presbyterian missionaries in the midnineteenth century, but because of its utilitarian value the practice was adopted, modified, and transformed into a distinct art form among the Assiniboine, Sisseton, Wahpeton, Yankton, and Teton Hunkpapa Sioux. And at Fort Peck Community College, it has experienced a resurgence. Peterson illuminates how this quilt-making revival is largely predicated on the role the art form plays within the tribe. Gifting a quilt is a symbol of friendship and it is a way to honor someone. Peterson tells how a quilt-maker will often give away her or his creation to a complete stranger.
This act of charity is itself pragmatic, for it builds bridges and goodwill, creating stability for the entire community. Perhaps this is the greatest practical value of art. When I first met Sam English over ten years ago, he was giving away prints of his work to a seminar full of graduate students he didn’t know. For thirty years he has been doing that—creating beautiful images, embedding them with symbolism that resonates across tribes, and donating his work to organizations ranging from the American Indian Science and Engineering Society to the National Association for Native American Children of Alcoholics. If it benefits the larger tribal community, English is on board. Because tribal colleges and universities are so integral to the well-being of Indian Country, I knew I could count on him to provide the cover art for this issue of TCJ.
People will continue to define and categorize English’s paintings in myriad ways. However, in the end, his art reflects his own experiences and his own struggles. Today, students across Indian Country are producing some staggering work in their own right. They may not bend to the contours established for them, but they are creating art that is shaped by their world view, in their time and place. You can see it in the art and creative writing that emblazons the pages of this year’s TCJ Student. And you can witness it in classrooms at tribal colleges and universities across North America.
Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is managing editor of Tribal College Journal. He thanks Sam English for his insights and generosity. Bradley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org/new-tcj or (505) 242-2773.