September 11, 2014

Haudenosaunee–U.S. Treaty of 1794 Comes to the Museum

Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations
, opening September 21, offers people a rare opportunity to see documents that have shaped our history and still define our mutual obligations. The treaty between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the United States is one of the earliest negotiated between Native Americans and the U.S. government under the Constitution. 

From left:
Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Oren Lyons, PhD; Tadodaho of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chief Sidney Hill; Suzan Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee), guest curator of Nation to NationKevin Gover (Pawnee), director of the National Museum of the American Indian; and Jim Gardner, executive for Legislative Archives, Presidential Programs, and Museum Programs at the National Archives, unveil the Treaty of Canandaigua of 1794, on loan to the museum.

In 1794 representatives of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and an American delegation led by President Washington's ambassador, Timothy Pickering, met on treaty grounds near Canandaigua, New York, to negotiate an accord. The two parties wished to confirm the peace between them and to secure their respective interests. Working together, the Six Nations—Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora—sought to recover lands in New York State they had lost to the United States following the Revolutionary War. The United States wanted Native lands in Ohio and assurances that the Haudenosaunee would not ally themselves with the Ohio tribes against the U.S. Army. 

More than 1,600 Haudenosaunee people gathered for the treaty council. Cornplanter (Ki-On-Twog-Ki), a Seneca war chief, and Red Jacket (Sagoyewatha), a distinguished Seneca and speaker for his fellow chiefs, took the lead, although others joined the talks as well. In the end, after 23 days of negotiations, the United States ceded back more than a million acres of Haudenosaunee lands and agreed to an annual payment of goods. The Haudenosaunee ceded all claims to Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley. 

This week, the National Archives lent the Treaty with the Six Nations to the National Museum of the American Indian for the opening of the exhibition Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations. Haudenosaunee Faithkeeper Chief Oren Lyons and the Tadodaho of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, Chief Sidney Hill, came to Washington to welcome the treaty to the museum. 

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AP953247871443_7 AP364887375351_6Top left: Gail Joice, collections manager at the museum, and Terry Boone, exhibits conservator for the National Archives, prepare to move the treaty to the exhibition gallery. Top right: Chief Lyons and Director Gover study the treaty after installation. Center: Chief Hill and Chief Lyons scan the names of the leaders who signed the treaty for the Six Nations. Bottom: The signature and seal of Ki-On-Twog-Ky, also known as Cornplanter, and the signatures of President George Washington and Secretary of State Edmund Randolph; Washington often had a secretary add his signature to documents, but the president signed this treaty in his own hand.

Nation to Nation represents one of the rare times the treaty has been exhibited. James Zeender, senior registrar in the Exhibits Division of the National Archives, describes the document's journey to this point:

After its signing on November 11, 1794, the treaty was brought back to the seat of government in New York City. President Washington obtained the Senate's advice and consent and ratified the treaty on behalf of the United States Government.  Washington's ratification is visible as two smaller pieces of parchment attached to the treaty at the top and bottom of the original, signed on lower piece by Washington and Secretary of State Edmund Randolph. In the years to come, the treaty was kept with other treaties at the State Department until they were moved to the new National Archives Building on the Mall in the mid-1930s. At the beginning of this century, the treaty and other highly valuable records were relocated temporarily during a major renovation of the building downtown and returned a few years later.

Historic documents are fragile and sensitive to light, so original treaties can be displayed for only a short time. The treaty kept by the Haudenosaunee is held in the collection of the Ontario County Historical Society in Canadaigua, where it is shown once a year on Treaty Day, November 11. The treaty on loan from the National Archives will be on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., from September 21, 2014—the opening of Nation to Nation and the tenth anniversary of the museum on the National Mall—through February 2015. 

The transcript of the Treaty with the Six Nations originally appears in Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, compiled and edited by Charles J. Kappler, 1904. 
Digitized transcript made available by the Oklahoma State University. 

The photos above were taken September 8, 2014, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C., by Kevin Wolf/AP Images for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. 


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June 18, 2014

Life Lessons Learned from True Icon Robert Davidson

By Paul Niemi 

True icons transcend time, history, and their contemporaries to achieve a mystique that is inexplicable. Their stature is also made stronger if they've been positive role models for others. Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy, and Mother Theresa come to mind. When I was 14, my idol was Jimmy Stewart, the quintessential nice guy actor of It's a Wonderful Life fame. The role of George Bailey was iconic, and people still enjoy the film today as if 1946 were just yesterday.

At age 24, while most of my peers were spending their money partying and going to rock concerts, I was contemplating buying art. Of course, I couldn't afford his work, but my idol, became (and remains) Haida master carver, painter, metalsmith, printmaker, and cultural leader Robert Davidson.

Tlii.aa #1, 2008, Robert Davidson (Haida, Masset, Eagle Clan), b. 1946. Acrylic on red cedar, 48 (diam.) x 3 in. Private Collection. © Robert Davidson. Photo by Kenji Nagai.

Davidson is well known among those in the art world, but he is still not a household name. I suspect more people will view him as an icon after they have had the chance to see Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse, on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. Organized by the Seattle Art Museum in collaboration with the National Museum of the American Indian, the exhibition in Lower Manhattan is the first major showing of Davidson's work since 2004. Curated by Barbara Brotherton of the Seattle Art Museum, Abstract Impulse demonstrates what Davidson would call his "understanding of the Haida vocabulary to date." With work steeped in both Haida formline and his own distinct symbolism, the exhibition also features older works that lend context and reveal Davidson's love for and gradual move towards the more abstract side of Modernism. Undoubtedly, the show will undermine any remaining perception that Native art is "primitive" and will further cement the place of Haida art among the great traditions of the world.

How did Robert Davidson become my idol? It was the early 1990s, and I had just arrived in the Pacific Northwest. Galleries in Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver prominently displayed the work of Northwest Coast artists such as brothers Robert and Reg Davidson (Haida, b. 1954); Richard Hunt (Kwakwaka'wakw, b. 1951); George Hunt Jr. (Kwakwaka'wakw, b. 1958), Jr.; Beau Dick (Kwakwaka'wakw, b. 1955); and Dempsey Bob (Tahltan–Tlingit, b. 1948). There was an obvious grandeur and depth to the art, and I had never seen anything like it before. I began amassing catalogues, reference books, and postcards with historical and contemporary Northwest Coast art images. Their illustrations hung on my walls like posters of rock bands above a dormitory bed. Hours would pass as I regularly lost myself thumbing through pages of the books. 

In 1994, my father surprised me at Christmas with an inscribed signed copy of Davidson's newly released book Eagle Transforming. Its vivid photography by Ulli Steltzer gave me my first glimpse into what Davidson's masks looked like on actual human beings. I was amazed by their size, and the images helped me make a mental connection between the works and the ceremonial context in which they belonged. The drama and life lessons cleverly embedded in his subject matter ignited my love for indigenous art. And while my life led elsewhere for more than a decade, my appreciation for Davidson's style, and Haida art in general, has never wavered. 

It was thrilling to fulfill my dream of meeting Davidson at a Vancouver art opening last spring. Serendipitously, a year later I'm volunteering at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, helping to promote the show via social media. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to interview Davidson via telephone from his studio in White Rock, British Columbia, and to connect with him again at the New York opening of Abstract Impulse. While the opening was perhaps quite more subdued than a sold-out rock concert, in my head there were rotating stage lights, the collective roar of the crowd, and mental cigarette lighters swaying in the spirit of shared love for the work of a man who had a hand in reclaiming Haida art and culture and moving it forward. 

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Robert Davidson (left) and Paul Niemi during the opening of Abstract Impulse at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. 

My experiences with the museum come on the heels of a three-year detour in New Mexico that revived my passion for indigenous art. At a time that was economically difficult for artists, I had the opportunity to use my experience in public relations to help to find new means to promote Native art. In a short time I managed to absorb large quantities of historical and cultural knowledge and, most important, build scores of precious new relationships with Native artists. It's a beautiful life lesson in how things often come full circle and place people at the right moment in the time continuum.

When I was asked to write about Robert Davidson, however, I was skeptical that I could reveal anything new about the man who, in his own words is "pretty much an open book." In fact, when I posed the question, "What is something that most people don't know about you that you would want them to know?" it garnered a quiet, entertained chuckle as Davidson searched for something compelling to say. Nothing came to mind, which made my job even more difficult. But it was an education in Davidson's extreme humility. And while humble, Davidson has a clear sense of his achievements and place in the world.

The forward movement the Haida have made since the 1960s is an inspiring reminder to all of us just how quickly things can change, especially if we are fortunate and courageous enough, like Robert Davidson, to recognize the need for advancement.

That kind of courage is a transformation, a concept about which Davidson and I spoke at length.  It happens as if a string is being pulled taut to open us to our conscience. Davidson describes it as "becoming who you were born to be."

Recalling a pre-missionary rite of passage for Haida boys, Davidson explained that the young men would venture off into the forest where "knowledgeable persons" would look after them and help them find their spirit. Afterwards, they would return to the village and be presented through song and dance. "The spirit that he is defined with will be his guide throughout his life," he told me. Davidson's spirit guide has been very good to him. "It seems like all the experiences that I've had and all the desires or dreams that I've had . . . they've all been part of the continuum of reconnecting with our history, our ceremonies." That reconnection was necessary to save traditions, to move his culture to a new place and position it for the future.

Davidson says that early Haida art was very sophisticated. Its vocabulary demonstrated a natural, fluid progression over time. Haida formline—a unique and purposeful system of ovoids, U forms, and S forms found in Northwest Coast art and carving—flourished until the mid-1880s. In our conversation, the term vocabulary came up a lot. It is integral to understanding Davidson’s work, the history of Haida art, and the exhibition Abstract Impulse. Davidson contends that his generation "came into being in the nick of time," to recognize its vocabulary and discover the means to propel its movement ahead.

There is Light in Darkness, 2010, Robert Davidson (Haida, Masset, Eagle Clan), b. 1946. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 30 in. Kim and Tony Allard. © Robert Davidson. Photo by Kenji Nagai.

Haida history is difficult, but it is what brings the culture and Davidson to where they are today. In 1884, the Canadian government revised the Indian Act, discouraging First Nations arts and forbidding the practice of ceremonies, particularly the potlatch, a feast in which wealth in the form of dances, masks, and other privileges and objects was transferred between peoples to mark alliances or show prestige. On Haida Gwaii, an archipelago of islands 60 miles off the northern coast of British Columbia, traditions went dark for nearly a century. Children were sent to boarding schools, villages were ransacked, and precious cultural objects were destroyed or taken and sold to museums and collectors. Between 1884 and 1951, when the Indian Act was loosened, this disruption of families and communities and suppression of Haida culture made the creation of ceremonial items a largely futile task.

Robert Davidson was born in Hydaburg, Alaska, in 1946 (incidentally, the year It's a Wonderful Life arrived in movie theaters). As a child growing up in the village of Old Masset on Haida Gwaii, he remembers a few weavers and a handful of carvers who made argillite curios for tourists. It was a time when very little information about Haida and First Nations culture existed in school textbooks. So while Davidson knew he was Haida, he lacked the historical context within which to place himself. In a recent ArtTalk at the museum in New York, Davidson recounted playing cowboys and Indians as a child. He mused over the fact that he always wanted to be the cowboy for fear of being on the losing side. His uncle Reggie would remind him, "Robert, you know you're an Indian, right?" 

Luckily for Davidson, he and his peers found themselves on the historical timeline living among grandparents, like Florence Davidson and Robert Davidson, Sr., who still knew the Haida language and some of the songs. The laws of Canada had so muted things that people were reticent to speak of the past. There existed repressed pain and sentiments about openly acknowledging the old ways. Traces of the past were found in weddings, memorials, and other events. Davidson recalled a family story about the time a totem fell in the village in 1905. The other clan made fun of it. In order to not lose face, the chief—Davidson's grandmother's uncle—invited the other clan to a “picnic.” It was actually a potlatch in disguise.  

His grandfather, Robert Sr., and father, Claude, taught Davidson carving skills. After leaving home for the first time in 1965 to finish school in Vancouver, he spent time at the Vancouver City Museum, where he saw numerous pieces created by his ancestors and worked with Bill Reid (1920–1998), an artist of Haida background. It was the first time Davidson discovered what "quality" was in Haida art, and it became obvious to him just how much more he had to learn about his people's ceremonies.

Up to then, he and the carvers of the day had learned by studying pictures of totems they saw in the three books on Haida ethnology by Marius Barbeau (1883–1969). After experiencing boxes and totems from the past, Davidson wanted to learn about the meaning and traditions behind them. "I was absolutely blown away," he says. "That prompted me to knock on every door in the village of Masset to see if they had anything of the old pieces." Disappointingly, he found only one storage box.

As if in response, in 1969 Davidson carved the now legendary Bear Mother totem with his brother Reg (interestingly, the year of Barbeau's death). He initiated a ceremony to raise the pole at Masset, because he finally understood the knowledge his grandparents' generations had carried with them. He wanted to give the elders the chance to celebrate openly, as he says, "in the only way they knew how." It was the first pole-raising on Haida Gwaii in 90 years and would mark the beginning of the end of the community’s generations-long cultural dislocation. The pole-raising taught the self-described "smart aleck" kid, who thought he knew what art was, to connect with his people in a new and meaningful way, though he had no idea of its future ramifications. While it was initially scary for the elders to celebrate, Davidson says the response was very positive afterwards. It laid the foundation for him to learn to sing the songs that survived in Masset.

Fast Bird, 2011, Robert Davidson (Haida, Masset, Eagle Clan), b. 1946. Silkscreen print, 39 x 30 in. Private Collection. © Robert Davidson. Photo by Kenji Nagai.

Nineteen sixty-nine was a year of cultural awakenings and tremendous change. In preparing for my interview with Davidson, I decided to ask him if he felt the pole-raising was as groundbreaking for humanity as the moon landing that same year. I was unsure where the question would take the conversation, but Davidson replied, "When the eagle lands, the Natives will rise again." Those words are from an ancient eastern Canadian tribal prophecy that Davidson said he was "amazed" to hear a few years after raising Bear Mother. "I feel that we’re in tune with each other, and there are certain events that transpire, and those events make their mark in incredible change." It was an affirmation that, perhaps, he had fallen exactly where he needed to be in the historical timeline. As I held the phone to my ear, goose bumps filled my arms, and I was grateful I had chosen that question.

For the next 12 years Davidson would go back and forth between Haida Gwaii and Vancouver, where he was living. Historically, Haida names had always been given publicly to children and grandchildren. On a regular basis Davidson says he would hear the elders complain that no one was being given their Haida names anymore. In 1981 he decided to host a potlatch and naming ceremony, to celebrate Haida traditions openly once again.

Davidson also opened up to me about his artistic process. In spite of the fact that he has taken traditional Haida art and redacted it into his own recognizable style, there appears to be no ego in its creation. When he works, he is not expressing his Haida nature, nor is he "expanding" Haida art. His work is about "expanding on his knowledge" of the vocabulary that he has learned up to this point. Being confident and comfortable with who he is and where he comes from makes ego no longer "part of my vocabulary," he explains.

From young man, to cultural leader, to contemporary fine artist who is always growing, Davidson says he'll die the moment he is satisfied with what he has done—and he notes that he wishes to live considerably longer. There has been a fluidity to his life. It comes as a result of hard work, open eyes, and courage. We live now in a time of great shifts with many uncertainties. While some of us might only dream of falling perfectly into history, Davidson's path can inspire each of us to build on a new vocabulary in order to bring meaning to our lives. He sets the standard for trusting our instincts, removing ego from the creative process, and positioning ourselves in the world as bridge-builders.

Davidson asserts there is still so much more "homework" to be done to bring the Haida vocabulary to the place it was prior to the mid-1800s. His words serve to teach all, especially younger generations, about the pitfalls of "leapfrogging"—of circumventing the building blocks required to achieve crucial aesthetics. He says, "It's important to understand the standard that was established and that is the foundation for growth."

Robert Davidson is proud that his work with the fundamentals has allowed him to pass the torch to his son Ben, a successful artist and gallery owner, and his daughter Sara, a teacher pursuing a Masters degree in literacy. We can only speculate what Davidson will come up with next in his continuing quest to express his understanding of the Haida vocabulary.

For visitors to Abstract Impulse, knowledge of the historical background that shaped the work offers a more meaningful experience, though it's not necessary. Davidson's work has a universal appeal that speaks to everyone in a different way.

In her essay in the exhibition catalogue, curator Barbara Brotherton asserts that early Haida art pieces possessed formline abstractions and reductions that could be seen as ambiguous and open to interpretation to suit appropriation amongst various clans. The ambiguities in Davidson's work will, no doubt, serve to connect people of all clans. And while his work is contemporary, he is emphatic that he will never stop using certain traditional elements, such as the ovoid, which took him 30 years to learn.  He focuses on Haida art because he continues to see its potential, but he refuses to "imitate an old vocabulary."

Twenty minutes into a hike, Robert Davidson’s father once told his young son “You have to look back once in a while to see where we came from, so we can always find our way back." “Relearning” their history is essential for the Haida, Davidson insists. The symbolism of looking back at times "will mark our trail forward." Wise words from a man who is an undisputed icon. 

Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse is on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York through September 14, 2014.

Paul Niemi is an arts and culture writer and blogger as well as a Museum Ambassador for NMAI–NY. The quotations in this article are from a phone interview Paul conducted with Robert Davidson in early April 2014. 

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April 10, 2014

Photographers Larry McNeil and Will Wilson Go for the Platinum

Will Wilson's finished platinum print portraits. Used with the permission of the artist. 

Photographers Larry McNeil (Tlingit/Nisga′a) and Will Wilson (Diné/Bilagáana) have been invited to speak about their platinum printmaking at an international symposium on the science, conservation, significance, and continued application of the historic photographic process. Presented by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), National Gallery of Art, Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the symposium will take place on October 22 and 23, 2014. The two photographers are scheduled to speak on the first day of the two-day program. Tours of photo collections held by the National Gallery of Art, Library of Congress, and the National Museum of American History and workshops on the the chemistry of platinum and palladium photographs are offered on October 21 and 24.

NMAI has acquired platinum works from both artists and is currently preparing an exhibition of these important photographs. Opening on June 7, 2014, Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson reminds us of the role platinum photographs played in late-19th- and early-20th-century representations of Native Americans. The exhbition further argues that McNeil and Wilson challenge this problematic history by integrating the process into their contemporary practice.

Larry McNeil and Shawna Hanel, his assistant, with a test platinum print of Elders. Used with the permission of the artist.

In preparation for the show, the two photographers have been hard at work in their darkrooms. Platinum paper used to be manufactured by photographic supply companies and was basically ready to use right out of the box. In fact, platinum printing was considered easy to do. This is no longer the case. The platinum process is now difficult and dangerous. McNeil and Wilson have to make their own platinum paper by mixing light-sensitive chemicals in a darkroom and applying the solution to the paper. The photographers use a printing frame to put the sensitized paper in direct contact with a negative, then expose the frame to light. Upon exposure, the image from the negative burns itself onto the paper in reverse. McNeil and Wilson must monitor the development of the print so as not to produce an over- or underexposed photograph. After exposure, they return to the darkroom to dunk the print in a chemical fixing bath.

I asked Will Wilson to describe the work involved in using a digital image to create a negative for platinum printing:

A contrast curve is the tonal relationship ranging from black to white. Establishing the contrast curve for a digital negative depends on several factors: the paper to be used for the final print, the platinum/palladium ferric oxalate ratios, the developer, the light source, and the negative substrate material combination. Humidity also impacts the curve. 

With my homemade platinum solution, I sensitize a Stouffer test wedge, which measures a gradient of tones in five percent increments from black to white, to do a series of tests to find the time that gets me to the dMax—the shortest time to develop the perfect black. I record this. Next I expose another test wedge at my perfect-black time, and this anticipates the entire tonal range of a platinum print. I let the new test strip dry and then scan it into Photoshop. 

Will Wilson's digitally derived negative of his self-portrait. Used with the permission of the artist.

In Photoshop I use the eyedropper tool while viewing the contrast curve of my scan to measure the contrast values at each of those five-percent increments. You “build your curve” by inputting these values into an inverted version of your contrast curve, which radically changes its shape. You apply this new curve to your test wedge and reprint. Now you run another test strip, scan, and measure. This time your contrast values should give you a curve that is much more linear, with a steady, predictable progression from black to white.

Based on this test you tweak the first curve you built and test again. Hopefully you are very linear at this point. Now you use the curve you built with its tweaks, applying it to all of your digital negatives, and you should be golden for your particular combo.

One more thing: Bostick and Sullivan of Santa Fe and photographer Ron Reeder should be credited for leading me down this particular wormhole. 

Larry McNeil recently posted to his blog on the cutting-edge technology he uses in aid of his platinum-printing and his thought process for titling his newest work, which will appear in Indelible.

The photography symposium has received support from the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Gallery of Art. For a complete schedule of the symposium and to register, submit payment, or apply for scholarship funding, please click here.

Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson will be on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., from June 7, 2014, to January 15, 2015.

—Heather Shannon and Will Wilson

Heather Shannon is photo archivist at the National Museum of the American Indian and curator of Indelible.

Will Wilson, a Diné photographer who grew up in the Navajo Nation, studied photography at Oberlin College (BA, 1993) and the University of New Mexico (MFA in Photography, 2002). In 2007, Wilson won the Native American Fine Art Fellowship from the Eiteljorg Museum, and in 2010 was awarded a grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation. From 2009 to 2011, he managed the National Vision Project, a Ford Foundation funded initiative at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, and helped to coordinate the New Mexico Arts Temporary Installations Made for the Environment (TIME) program on the Navajo Nation. Wilson is part of the Science and Arts Research Collaborative (SARC) which brings together artists interested in using science and technology in their practice with collaborators from Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia Labs as part of the International Symposium on Electronic Arts, 2012 (ISEA). His installation Auto Immune Response was on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York in 2006. 

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March 14, 2014

Weaving and Protecting a History: A Conversation with Basket-Maker Kelly Church

Kelly Church baskets2
Baskets made by Kelly Church (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Ojibwe). Photo courtesy of the artist.

So many Native American artists are generational, learning long-held artistic techniques from family elders and passing them on. This Saturday, March 15, will be an all-in-the-family event in part, when Kelly Church (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Ojibwe) showcases her basketweaving skills during a day of demonstrations by Anishinaabe women artists at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. Church will be joined by her daughter, Cherish Parrish (Match-E-B-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi), and by Jamie Brown (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi), Church's second cousin—both accomplished basket-makers in their own right.

Also featured at Saturday's event are painter Dawn Jackson (Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan), bead- and quillworker Naomi Smith (Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation), and basket-maker Whitney VanderWal (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi). The demonstrations are part of a series of programs happening throughout the day to complement the exhibition Before and after the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakeson view at the museum in New York through June 15.

Kelly Church's family has long been involved in weaving, using black ash wood to make cultural objects since the 1850s. Collectors' records confirm this lineal history, although photographic evidence came much later. "We made baskets before we made cameras"—these are the words that Church remembers passing from her "gramma's" lips to her ears. "We have a picture of my family working with a log and weaving as a group from 1919."

Church is extremely proud of her heritage. And why not? She was born into the largest black-ash basketmaking family in Michigan, so black ash has surrounded her since childhood. She learned to harvest it from her father and her cousin John Pigeon. Church later attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, the University of Michigan, and Western Michigan University. At college and in graduate school, she focused on painting, sculpture, and other forms. But it's nearly impossible to deny one's place in tradition. She returned to full-time basketmaking about 15 years ago.

The people of the Great Lakes region have made black ash a staple fiber in their weaving for centuries, says Church. "As Natives, we use what is available to us in our surroundings." Michigan's abundance of swamps and wetlands allow black ash trees to grow well there, she explains. Church works predominantly with black ash, basswood, birch bark, white and red cedar bark, sweet grass, cattails, and copper. She says her family owns a huge copper kettle once used for feasts and making maple syrup. "The purest copper in the world comes from the Great Lakes." Church began weaving copper into her baskets in 2008, and has recently begun to weave in silver, aluminum, brass, and gold embellishments on top of plaited black ash underlay. 

Church is mainly known for her woven strawberries and her black ash bracelets, but she also weaves frogs with lily pads, checkers games played by strawberry versus pinecone pieces, or ash wood frogs against cedar frogs. Most recently she began weaving baskets in the style of Fabergé eggs that open and contain other items within. While there are many new, intriguing ideas she wants to explore, Church also remains faithful to tradition, creating recognizable forms such as traditional baby baskets, black ash bark baskets, and market baskets. She carves Anishinaabe cradleboards and creates birch bark bitings, a form at which few people in North America are skilled. The technique involves using the eye teeth to bite traditional designs into thin layers of birch bark that are then woven into a variety of decorative objects. Church will demonstrate this process as well at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York this weekend.

What is it like to work with black ash? "Black ash is so pliable," says Church. "You can do just about anything you set your mind to with it." Church is amazed by the work of her daughter, Cherish Parrish. One of Parrish's sculptural baskets that takes the shape of a pregnant human figure—part of her Next Generation series—is on view in Before and after the Horizon. Parrish is able to create her tightly woven baskets because of the ease with which the material can be manipulated.

Beyond the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes is all about the history of the varied art forms found in the area from the past to the present. It makes one ponder the kind of relationship the Anishinaabe people share with the black ash. "Black Ash baskets have always been woven according to the needs of the basket-makers at that time," Church explains. "So, in the past they were needed for gathering, carrying items from the market. . . . [People made] fishing creels, baby baskets, and sewing baskets. Later, they made fancier baskets to sell to tourists, as money was needed for staples—food, homes, and cloth for clothes." 

She says modern-day indigenous people of the Great Lakes make baskets for their own utilitarian purposes. Today's needs are somewhat different, but all in all, tradition finds its place with necessity. Fancy baskets are meant to be eye-catching and pleasing. As in days of old, they are made to sell on the collectors' market to help support the maker's family. "We are influenced and live in a much different world than our ancestors, but we honor them in all ways still," Church says. That includes harvesting trees by family, processing the materials together, and weaving baskets for use and shoonya (money). "We still lay down our saama (tobacco) and give our thanks. Our basket styles and shapes are influenced by our everyday lives."

While black ash basketmaking has endured for generations, it is now an endangered by the arrival of the emerald ash borer (EAB), an invasive species of beetle that came to the Great Lakes region in the 1990s. Church is on a crusade to help preserve basketmaking for future generations by documenting the process, as well as how to identify and properly harvest and prepare black ash for weaving. Over the last deacde, she has been speaking at conferences to spread the word about the growing infestation and its impact on black ash basketweaving.

It is a tough battle with a long road ahead. "The EAB will kill 99 percent of the ash trees in the US, and collecting seeds now is the only way this tradition will continue in the future. We will end up skipping a generation in this process while we wait for EAB to die out or move on." Church says it will be necessary to replant the seeds in about 20 years, after which the new generations will have to wait another 30 to 50 years for the trees to grow to basketmaking size. A large part of her education effort involves kids who will have to reestablish the art form when they are 50 or 60 years old. Church will hold her fourth national conference to educate people about the EAB this fall.

At the same time, Church and other artsts have helped to keep basketweaving a living and ever-evolving art form. Basketweaving is gaining popularity in the Native American art world, and fine examples are highly sought by collectors. While adhering to tradition, Church says there is room for improvisation. She advises beginners who are interested in learning to look around to find materials with properties that can be used for weaving. "I weave baskets with vinyl blinds and ribbon, metals, paper . . . whatever is available and can be used!" She adds that the nature of weaving lends itself to relaxation. 

Church says she is excited about returning to the National Museum of the American Indian in New York this weekend. "We enjoy working with people and sharing our culture." The opportunity to show work and demonstrate skills at museums ". . . broadens people's knowledge about Natives and helps them to see the different styles of basketry, paintings, and art that we have." Beautiful as they are, basketmaking and other artforms tell a great deal about a people, their geography and past.  Humbly she expresses that demonstrations educate people on the nuances between different Native American cultures and serve to celebrate each unique culture and its arts.

Before and after the Horizon organizes objects using six curatorial concepts that frame entry points into Anishinaabe culture, including the idea of religion. When asked about the derivation of her surname, Church said "My last name is a mystery, but I did have a grandfather who was our Native preacher for all of his life . . . [His name was] Reverend Lewis White Eagle Church."

The artist demonstrations will take place at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York in the second floor Rotunda from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m Saturday. In addition, at 11 a.m. in the museum's West Gallery, Brooklyn-based Canadian artist Maria Hupfield (Wasuaksing First Nation) will present a site-specific 30-minute performance art realization as a "Living Tour Guide." At 2 p.m. in the Diker Pavilion, David Penney, curator of Before and after the Horizon, will moderate "A Dialogue on Anishinaabe Art," a panel discussion with artist and cultural theorist Robert Houle (Salteaux), author Gerald Vizenor (White Earth Nation), and curator Gerald McMaster (Plains Cree and member of the Siksika nation). Finally, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., visitors will be treated to the New York premiere of Robert's Paintings, a documentary by Shelley Niro (Mohawk) examining Robert Houle's life and work. A discussion with Houle will follow. Both the film and the discussion will take place in the Diker Pavilion. For more information about these and other programs celebrating Anishinaabe art, see the museum's calendar of events.

—Paul Niemi

Paul Niemi is an arts and culture writer and a Museum Ambassador at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The quotations in this piece are from Paul's recent email interview with Kelly Church.  

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February 14, 2014

"The Return of the Native Son: George Morrison's Artistic Journey": An evening with curator W. Jackson Rushing III, Thursday, February 20

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George Morrison (Chippewa, 1919–2000), Cumulated Landscape, 1976. Wood, 48 x 120 x 3 in. Minnesota Museum of American Art, gift of Honeywell Inc. 2000.01 


Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison closes at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York on Sunday, February 23. The exhibition pays homage to the renowned modernist (Chippewa, 1919–2000) with key works—78 paintings, drawings, prints, collages and sculptures, to be exact—from all of his periods in every medium he employed over a nearly six-decade career. In conjunction with the show, curator W. Jackson Rushing III will give a lecture entitled "The Return of the Native Son: George Morrison's Artistic Journey" Thursday, February 20, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the museum.

Rushing, Adkins Presidential Professor of Art History and Mary Lou Milner Carver Chair in Native American Art at the University of Oklahoma, will provide an overview of the exhibition, emphasizing Morrison's personal and artistic journey, beginning in the woodlands of Minnesota and continuing through his time in New York and Paris, among other places. Rushing will also explore the major themes and styles of Morrison's career and how Morrison's abstract expressionist paintings and abstract collages embody indigenous content. Rushing contends that Morrison's understanding of who and what he was shifted, as it does for many people, throughout his life. 

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George Morrison (Chippewa, 1919–2000), Whalebone, 1948. Oil on canvas, 25 x 24.75 in. Collection of Kevin and Kathy Kirvida.

According to Rushing, Morrison experienced a gradual change in his thinking about his Chippewa (the word Morrison always used) heritage. "When he returned to Minnesota to teach in 1970, after being based on the East Coast for nearly 30 years, the American Indian Movement was underway, and he became active in urban Indian life more than he had been before." His background became increasingly important in his life and art. "Similarly, the art world's perception of him as 'Native' artist (or not) also changed over time." says Rushing. "That he 'made it' is clear, and my sense is that many younger Native artists hold him in high esteem."

While Morrison was committed to modernist expression in his art, Rushing won't commit to saying that he was the first Native American artist to embrace it. "Figuring out who was 'first adopter' in the art world is a tricky business and may suggest, wrongly, that some sort of game is being played, with the winner being the one who 'got there' first. 'Likely' allows for the possibility that someday we will discover that some other artist as yet unknown to us was the first Native American artist to use modernist principles. Frankly, I think that's unlikely. All my research indicates Morrison was first in that regard, but was followed, not long after, by a distinguished group that includes Joe Herrera, Allan Houser, Pablita Velarde (briefly), Dick West, Terry Saul, and certainly Oscar Howe." 

Before this curatorial opportunity came his way, Rushing had written about Morrison. He also knew him briefly and says that he was multi-faceted and complex: "[He was] plain-spoken, perhaps, but not simple at all. He was very well read and so knowledgeable about many subjects, the history of modernism being chief among them. His journals reveal his passion for poetry, philosophy, and science. He had a sly sense of humor and was a gourmet cook!"  

So, what does one need to know to put a show like this together? Rushing has had an illustrious career. He trained in art history at the University of Texas at Austin, focusing his Ph.D. research on the history of ideas in modern art. That and his interest in 20th- and 21st-century Native American art made Rushing a natural fit to curate Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison.

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George Morrison (Chippewa, 1919–2000), Red Painting (Franz Kline Painting), ca. 1960. Oil on canvas, 47 x 79 in. Loan courtesy of Dorit and Gerald Paul. 

"In my teaching and scholarship I have been interested in two interrelated subjects. When, how, and why did Native American artists adopt modernist strategies and principles in order to best express contemporary indigenous content? In other words, why did George Morrison, for example, think of modernism as a tool for expressing his own complex experience as a Chippewa Indian from the north shore of Lake Superior?" Rushing has also "sought to understand when, how, and under what circumstances did Euro-American artists derive nourishment (formal, intellectual) from Indian art, myth, and ritual."

Kristin Makholm, executive director of the Minnesota Museum of American Art (MMMA), is a long-standing friend of Rushing and knew of his interest in the subject matter. She approached him about putting together a Morrison exhibition based on her museum's collection. "I was very keen on the project from the beginning,” Rushing says. “Once I had an opportunity to review the MMAA collection, I understood immediately the incredible potential for an in-depth retrospective survey of his remarkable career. My role was to develop a curatorial vision, develop a checklist, and write and edit the catalog." 

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George Morrison (Chippewa, 1919–2000), Red Totem I, 1977. Stained redwood panels on plywood form, 144 1/4 x 15 1/4 x 15 1/4 in. Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Robert J. Ulrich Works of Art Purchase Fund. 2012.5

Rushing's interest in Native American art began when he was just five years old. He found himself captivated by a picture of a Plateau Indian parfleche, and the rest is history. In his 20s, he became an expert on Native American art while working as an art dealer, marketing primarily Southwestern traditional and contemporary works. In the mid-to-late 1970s, Rushing developed an interest in the work of Joe Herrera, Allan Houser, George Morrison, Dan Namingha, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and early modern Pueblo painters, such as Awa Tsireh. At the same time, he began to learn about 20th-century Native painters from Oklahoma, including the Kiowa Five, Dick West, and others. 

Although Rushing says he could never pick a favorite piece in the show—because that's like asking a parent, Which of your children do you love most?—he does point out that spectators frequently identify closely with the large wood collages Morrison began making on the Atlantic shore in the summer of 1965. "The natural materials and the nature—pardon the pun—of his creative process are revealed directly in these objects, and people seem to fall in love with them." Rushing also highlights as must-sees for museum visitors Morrison's Horizon Series of paintings and his Surrealist works on paper.

New Yorkers, in particular, will find common ground with George Morrison. "Manhattan was one of George Morrison's home places," says Rushing. "He attended the Art Students League and had a dozen solo shows in the city, beginning in 1948. He was included in numerous group shows in New York City and was friends with many important artists, including Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning." 

Morrison was also a key figure in the history of the New York School, according to Rushing, something he would like to see more widely known and understood. “He matured as a modern artist in the city, and his work reflects that fact in an intimate way." 

While there's a lot to learn about Morrison, no previous exposure to his art is required to attend the free event. Rushing insists, however, that his lecture "is guaranteed to make people want to see the show!" 

 —Paul Niemi

Paul Niemi is an arts and culture writer and a volunteer at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The quotations in this article are from Paul's recent email interview with Dr. Rushing. 

All photographs courtesy of the lenders and the Minnesota Museum of American Art. Used with permission.

Prof. Rushing's presentation, "Return of the Native Son: George Morrison's Artistic Journey," is free and open to the public. Click here for a listing of this program and other upcoming artists' talks at the museum. 


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