Jaune Quick-to-See Smith at Suffolk University

New Works at New Engand School of Art & Design Gallery

By: - Sep 20, 2013

Jaune Jaune Jaune

“It is a miracle that I am alive,” Jaune Quick-to-See Smith told a class of Suffolk University students as she explained the American Genocide, Manifest Destiny, and the role of Christianity. She is a “registered” member of the Salish Nation of Montana to which the white man gave the name Flathead inspired by a tribal custom of attaching small boards to the forehead. “The United States Government had a policy to exterminate my people and steal our land. During the cold winter when we were desperate and hungry they gave us smallpox infested blankets and clothing. After they took our land they fed us rotten meat and wormy flour.”

It was a statement which I heard repeated several times during her intensive two day stint as a visiting scholar and exhibiting artist. This was the culmination of a project that was initiated last May when Astrid and I visited Jaune and her husband, Andy Ambrose, at their New Mexico home and her studio. It started with an offer to show her work in the exhibition program I curate for the New England School of Art & Design which is a department of Suffolk University. I promised her full academic freedom as she discussed intentions to make politically charged new work. The resultant suite of twelve works on paper has proved to be fresh, topical and provocative. One ground rule is that they could be sent and returned in a single package through Fed Ex. They have been skillfully and crisply installed by my associate, James Manning, who was also fully involved in the logistical, technical and marketing aspects of the project.

Another ambitious objective of the project was to bring a renowned Native American artist to campus to lecture, meet with classes, and participate in a reception in honor of the exhibition. For a number of years, I have been a part of a team that taught Integrated Studies, a required course for all Suffolk freshmen. As a part of that multi disciplinary, two semester course, there was a seminar each spring for participating faculty. An agenda of the spring semester has been to include reading Eli Wiesel’s “Night” and to discuss the Holocaust. Because most students read that book in high school,for my classes, we read “Surviving Auschwitz” by Primo Levi and some sections have preferred “Maus” by Art Spiegelman. But a point I made to colleagues is that instead of teaching “The” Holocaust, we should introduce the notion that there were and are numerous Holocausts; including our own: The American Genocide. A couple of years back, the visiting scholar, Samantha Power, discussed African genocide in a poignant and powerful manner. To achieve our goal students were assigned Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” as summer reading.

But the Integrated Studies program is about to be phased out. It is down to the last few sections including mine. The seminar did not run this semester. With the last dollars of the IS budget its profound and inspiring chair, Dr. Gerry Richman, agreed to sponsor half of Jaune’s visit while the other half came from my gallery budget. We were also able to sponsor her official presentation as a part of the prestigious Lowell Lecture Series. There is always tough competition for limited resources. During Jaune’s visit, Dr. Shirin Ebbadi, the Iranian activist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was engaged in a two week residence as a visiting scholar and also delivered a Lowell Lecture. There is always competition, not only for funding, but to fill seats in the C. Walsh Theatre which is now closed, starting this week, to undergo renovation for the 100th Anniversary celebrations. It was actually the significance of Dr. Ebbadi’s lecture that kept the theatre open for Jaune’s talk. Ah politics.

As soon as Jaune agreed to have an exhibition I turned to plans for our smaller but vitally important Project Space. For the past couple of years we have been presenting two new shows each month, in the main gallery and the project area. These smaller shows have usually been unrelated to the featured exhibitions. They have allowed for a greater range of experimental work by faculty, students and established artists. But I immediately thought of pairing Jaune with Ric Haynes whom we had featured with a book related one man show several years ago. He has a long standing relationship with the Crow Nation of Montana. I met with him last summer and did a Maverick piece (#196) shortly after I had written about visiting with Jaune in issue #193. At the time, Ric showed me large, figurative, cut out pieces based on traditional mythologies, which he was about to show in Pennsylvania. He agreed to look at the space and proposed to come up with a new body of work just for this occasion. They combined “nativist” abstract patterning with sewn on beads, a motif he has been experimenting with for the past four years. “But for this series I eliminated the figure,” he said. “I am taking a rest from this theme but will return to it with fresh ideas at a later time. An artist works with an arsenal of tools and this is just one of many directions in my work.”

So, months ago, the pieces were set into play and all there was to do from there was sit back and worry. A lot. That’s just me. Neurotic. I worry a lot. Like last summer, when we were in the Southwest and planning to meet with Jaune as a part of a two week itinerary. I called many times over several days and got Andy’s voice on the answering machine. The first weekend she was attending a funeral in Kansas City. Understandably, we adjusted our schedule but only connected with her at the last possible moment. When I mentioned my anxiety to her during our visit her response was casual. “This is the West,” she said. “We have a different sense of time out here. You’re here when you’re here. We’re Indians, we look at things differently” To which I responded “Yeah, but I’m a neurotic white guy on a tight schedule.”

In the months that followed it was tough to stay connected and on track with schedules and plans. There are aspects of deadlines and multitasking about running a gallery program that are definitely not spontaneous.

Truth is it all came together quite nicely in the end. Jaune is a trooper and a pro on every level. The issue is that she is way over extended. She has been on the road an average of three months a year, for the past 30 years, doing the good work. This entails visiting mainstream universities and conferences (such as China, Cuba, and recently a week in Venice) as well as nurturing a network of Native schools and colleges including one on her own reservation in Montana. For three frustrating years she was on the Board of the College Art Association which she describes as Eurocentric. When, under her watch, CAA met in Seattle, for example, there was not a single Native session on the program. In the recent CAA convention in Boston, remarkably, there were two Native sessions.

Some people would call that progress. Universities, such as Suffolk, consider adding Native Studies as a “niche” in its curriculum. Her response to that notion is that “You are squatters. We are not a niche of your culture. We are your culture. You are sitting on our land which you stole from us. If you want to know your history and culture you have to know our culture which goes back 80,000 years before European invaders arrived.” Not settlers and colonists but invaders.

As the classes, gallery talks, lectures and receptions progressed there became a litany of ideas. That today Native Americans are the poorest and least educated people in America. Unemployment rates are in the range of 50 to 75% on reservations and there are problems with nutrition, drugs and alcohol, obesity, diabetes and health related issues that lead to a shorter life expectency. Native population in the US today, depending upon what data and math one uses “The US Census bureau does not bother to get to remote reservations and accurately count people,” there may be 8% now living in the US from full blood to mixed. A high percentage of African Americans have native ancestors. “Because of Homeland Security the US is putting up fences on borders to keep out Indian peoples (Mexicans and Latin Americans) and yet that is the fastest rising group in America. They are the new slaves brought here to do the worst jobs, to cook your food, clean your houses, mow your lawn, and rock your baby.”

There is an Indian legend that one day the Native people will return and take back America. The era is not that far away when white people will be a minority in America even though they will fight to maintain power.

Of course, you and I know that. So, aren’t we just preaching to the converted? Isn’t this just more limousine liberal, bleeding heart guilt? Or, as a student once said in class “Oh, Mr. Giuliano, you’re so Joan Baez.” When I repeated that story during a gallery talk all the adults laughed and the kids didn’t know who Joan Baez is. For the students, sad to say, this is all quite new and, truth is, only a handful have been exposed to any Native history and culture in their high schools. The vast majority has read “Night” and knows all about the Holocaust but “Wounded Knee” came as a surprise and shock to them. Jaune doesn’t think it is a good idea to start with that book. She prefers a trilogy of books by Jack Weatherford. Ric strongly recommends “Playing Indian” by Phillip Deloria the son of the recently deceased author of “Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto” by Vine Deloria, Jr. Everyone I talk to recommends books for me to read. Jaune sent me a reading list that should take the rest of my years to get through.

Sure, there is always more to know. But you have to start somewhere. In terms of making these issues and education more mainstream there is a daunting legacy of apathy and misinformation, racism and jingoism to overcome. It is inevitable to blunder and make mistakes. I accept that as a part of the cost of doing good work. At times, Jaune is either infuriated or just simply laughs in astonished disbelief at my terrible perpetuation of Eurocentric misinformation. But, for all my faults, truth is there are too few allies and comrades in this common cause. I don’t see myself as adequate or entitled to be a curator, critic and educator of Indian history and culture. This is work that should be done by qualified and educated Native people. But there just aren’t enough to go around.

Jaune talks about the fact that there have been no major surveys of contemporary Native art in major American museums. There are few if any publications. No mainstream critics and curators are involved in the field. There are no major museum collections (more than 100 objects) of “non historic” native art and artifacts. She says that mainstream white anthropologists and sociologists say that she and other younger native artists are “ruining the art and culture by not sticking to native traditions as they have defined them.” During her Lowell Lecture at Suffolk, half of her talk involved a slide presentation of contemporary Native artists. The work reflected every current mainstream issue and style from painting, sculpture and photography through video and installations.

A case in point, what are Mickey Mouse, George Bush, and Rene Magritte doing in works by this “native” artist? During the lecture someone asked how she felt about white artists appropriating native images and styles? This summer, for example, we bought “Native” crafts, sold to us by Indians, which were mass produced in China. Jaune laughs about tourists who wear more silver and turquoise than Native women. I asked Ric how he felt about “appropriating” Native themes in his work. Then I asked Jaune about “appropriating” Disney and Bush. The answer is that artists are free to use whatever they want in their work. Nobody owns or has exclusive rights to a legacy and discourse. Of course, there are issues of respect and decorum as well as copyright. If Jaune’s work becomes more valuable and widely published surely she will hear from Disney lawyers. As have other artists. But will Native attorneys knock on Ric’s door? Most of those law suits are more about silencing artists and repressing dialogue than profiting on intellectual property.

For me, the best part of having Jaune in town for a couple of days was the down time between meetings. Getting to know each other better through sharing aches and pains; comparing notes on our lives as art warriors. To show our scars and wounds. Of course, we are hardly on a level playing field. Her early life was tough, against impossible odds, where I grew up a spoiled rotten rich kid. And yet, we have lived under a common umbrella of time, culture and history. She got her Bush and Donald Duck off the same TV that I watch. We have shared and reacted to, commented on, the same horrendous history, social and political events of our time. She was active while I was passive. But the same events are a part of our dialogue. And I want to do something to close that gap while I still can. Jaune talked to me about being weary after all these years and wondering if she has really had any impact. Just what will be her legacy? This is amazing coming from a person of her stature and accomplishments. But I know exactly what she means. Indeed, I have had similar thoughts and concerns. How, in hindsight, there is so much more I might have accomplished. But we sat across a table sharing a meal as friends and peers. With a commitment to do more while we can.

At times, seemingly against formidable odds. It is so hard to get people to think differently. The support and involvement of peers and colleagues, even among artists, is frustratingly difficult to accomplish. Artists tend to be embedded in their own issues and unwilling to find common cause with those of others. It is shocking for me to hear a female, activist artist just blow off the work of another female, activist artist. It was surprising to attend a meeting at CAA of squabbling feminists. Just why do artists bad mouth each other? How does it feel to make great efforts to initiate an important dialogue just to be shunned and put down by peers and colleagues? Why do we bother? What keeps us going? How does one continue to listen and be involved with the work, teaching and ideas of the very artists and peers who do not support the discourse? It pisses me off but makes me all the more determined to slog on.

Perhaps it is a matter of feeding on the responses of students who are very new to these issues and ideas. One student expressed that he felt “brainwashed” by liberal faculty. Other, very good and thoughtful students felt hurt and betrayed that the work in the gallery and discussion about it was so virulently anti Bush. When I responded that it is only information conveyed in the New York Times, 60 Minutes and other credible sources, they asked “What about Fox News?” Typically, they believe that Fox tells the truth. And that I inundate them with liberal propaganda. “Yes,” I responded, “But what about the propaganda of Bush, Cheney, Rice and Rove? They just have a more powerful platform to preach from.” Then I stated that “This is the first generation in which faculty are more radical than students.” Some of the kids later approached me with very thoughtful responses to that. So, yes, it is all worthwhile.

Most importantly, there is a mandate to leave a vibrant legacy for the next generation. The task is daunting. There was a sparsely attended meeting to discuss the agenda of making Native Studies a more vibrant part of the college curriculum. How best to go about that? I can continue that effort by trying to organize more shows of contemporary native art; to bring in more native artists to speak and conduct workshops. To design and initiate new courses. Perhaps, we can work toward providing scholarships for Native students. Jaune proposed a course focused on Native films, to have the authentic voice of indigenous people in the class room; supplemented by readings and bringing Native speakers to the university. Dean Lauri Umansky, a feminist historian who attended the meeting, affirmed a strong interest in this pursuit on her behalf, and that of Dean Ken Greenberg, also an historian. Dean Umansky stated that cultural diversity is a major goal of Suffolk President David J. Sargent. But, as always, it is a matter of competition for limited funds and resources. Dr. Richman stated that Native literature is taught by the English Department, primarily through anthologies, but there is no real chance to hire a specialist in a small department.

Bottom line. Everyone wants to do the good work if you initiate and follow through on it. It would have been better to have started this process years ago and not now approaching the end of my tenure. As usual, arguably, too little too late.

Like Jaune, I wonder just what has been accomplished. She recounted many similar encounters with professional groups of anthropologists, educators, and art historians. Tossing out challenges and then not getting as much as a single response. She recounted the frustrations of trying to work from within Eurocentric establishments. When she used that term in meetings with our students I asked her to define the term. She was shocked that they were hearing it for the first time. See how much work there is to be done? Let alone exposing students to such concepts as Manifest Destiny and the American Genocide. On the other hand, everyone graduates from High School knowing about the Holocaust and Civil Rights movement.

Ric discussed this issue from the perspective of Deloria’s book “Playing Indian.” He described an American culture in which the symbol of the Native presence has been appropriated for everything from the savage, to saving the environment. “The Indian is the symbol of something both hated and admired in America. It is used as the logo for sports teams and corporations and is a part of underground and youth culture like the Grateful Dead, dressing up, and playing Indian at powwows. Collecting the crafts and artifacts. You show sympathy for the plight but you don’t do anything about it. But we ignore the human process in which the Indians have vanished. We don’t see the reality of a people who are poor, homeless (in urban ghettos in many American cities which Jaune also talks about) living in stress and hunger out of joint from the mainstream. So the Indian is reduced to the level of a mascot.”

He talked about how initially he had gone to the Crow people out of a need to do something for them. But now feels that they do not need his help so he continues as a friend. “There is nothing I can do for them. They are working on their own ways to solve problems. They don’t want AA and its 12 step program. They want to find a Crow way to deal with alcoholism.”

Jaune describes similar objectives in Native schools and colleges. “Whatever is taught from math, to history and culture,” she said, “Must always have a Native perspective. Initially there were 70% non Indians in these programs now the numbers have reversed as we get more and more educated Indian people.” So, there is progress. It was wonderful to hear those Native voices at the CAA. But they were meetings in which the audience was 90% non Indian. Or, as one Native panelist stated strongly, “I do not consider myself to be a part of an endangered species.” It was an important message to hear. There is work to be done. Although, as a mainstream, Eurocentric, white guy, I am not entitled, know too little, and make terrible mistakes. I do what I can. What can you do?

Reposted from Maverick Arts Magazine March 5, 2006