Borders and barriers that separate cultures, races, and religions have been an important influence on my artwork production throughout my career. A nationwide GSA competition conducted by the General Services Administration chose the artwork ‘Otay Mesa Crossing’ which in 1996 was sited along the Mexican border south of San Diego.
The commercial truck crossing of Otay was the perfect opportunity for me to address the welcome and resistance represented by the separation line between America and Mexico. I chose a theme based on an ancient fertility symbol, a reclining Kokopelli playing a flute. Surrounding this figure are airplanes, border traffic, a Mexican eagle and an Aztec scribe recording the transition between indigenous thought and western thought that all native people are facing.
In the late 90’s the Capital Arts Foundation accepted on loan the sculpture similar to the San Diego piece entitled ‘Gate/Negate’ for placement in front of the State Capital. This image of a locked gate was a chance for me to analyze multiple issues of cultural exclusion and identity and a recent public arts censorship issue. This gate has all the characteristics of modernity as seen from an indigenous perspective. The lock keeping the gate shut is a heart symbolizing the pretence of love. On the top of the gate is a coil of razor wire symbolizing our isolationism, and the face of the sculpture is covered with bullet holes, airplanes, dollar signs, crosses and racially stereotyped faces representing the American melting pot concept. After installation I painted the names of the extinct peoples who once inhabited the Americas.
The decision to paint the ancestral names of these 460 tribes in public view arose from the need to reacquaint myself to seemingly distant fellow Americans. For three days I painted and talked to Santa Fe’s visitors, locals, and interested persons about the importance of the extinct tribes the sculpture’s symbolism. This proved to be an amazing educational experience for me. Besides a near total ignorance of the importance of art for education and creative thought, I left with the realization that most viewers have no knowledge of a true American history.
We Americans certainly feel no responsibility for what has and is continually happening to indigenous people world wide. One person innocently asked why I was painting the name of her home state ‘Iowa’ along with the extinct tribes. There was never any mention of parallel barriers of exclusion or inclusion such as the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China and the America/Mexico Wall.
During my career as a Native American political artist I have heard other artists’ voice concerns of the dehumanization of Native/Indigenous artists by providing decoration to the service and craft industry.
Most native people easily and obviously compete with all people in all disciplines world wide.
Yet, in the arts, we have been relegated to producers of romance, history and design, continually categorized as ethnic, and thereby producing an intellectually substandard statement. Unfortunately financial needs demand that we native people accept western standards of fine art and resolutely refuse to create an internal dialogue or produce artwork based on our real human conditions. Some indigenous people are attempting to create a dialogue through the arts concerning the need to address real and honest identity issues but these artists are few in number. Taking an equal place and responsibility with all things of the natural world is a terrific threat to those who support the human focus of westernization. The idea of a holistic relationship to all things is the basis of indigenous thought, prevailing over all assumed language, religious, social and genetic cultural traits. The border crossing, wall, barrier, or locked gate maintains an irrational sense of supremacy that results in our separation and isolation from the world and the environment.
The multiple images that characterize my artworks reflect personal questions concerning my Native American and/or Indigenous identity in contrast to my western identity.
A participant at a major environmental conference recently asked the sincere question “What is a ‘white honky’ like him to do?” I told him to find his own motivation, his own path to mother earth and stop looking for easy answers from Indigenous people. The only meaningful advice I could offer was to remind him that we all breathe the same air, drink the same water and eat what comes from the same earth. His actions are not a matter of individual choice but a shared responsibility that we all must assume and share.
What is the ‘white honky’ in all of us to do to effect change in our degrading environment? I now firmly believe that what I’ve learned of the common sense and honesty of Indigenous thought is far more meaningful to the future of the planet than what is offered by modernization and westernization.