In 1872, the artist John Gast made a painting called “American Progress,” which showed the spirit of progress, personified as a scantily clad woman, floating through the air and moving westward wearing the “star of empire” on her forehead. Under one arm she carries a book, emblem of knowledge and education. In her other hand, she has a coil of telegraph wire that is being strung across the landscape as she goes, bringing communication and connectivity. Following the spirit of progress are steam locomotives, covered wagons, stage coaches and farmers pushing their plows. Fleeing from the spirit are the buffalo, wild animals and a band of Native Americans.
For his contribution to “In the Spirit, Contemporary Native Arts,” which is showing at the Washington State History Museum through Aug. 12, Charles W. Bloomfield, affiliated with the Pyramid Lake Paiute, Saanich and Lummi Tribes, made a collage in which photographic images are placed over parts of a copy of the Gast painting. Bloomfield calls his picture “Manifest Deathstiny,” a play on the phrase “manifest destiny,” that earlier generations of Americans used to refer to the American push to extend the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts of the continent.
In Bloomfield’s version of the image, the spirit of progress has a skull placed over her face, like a death mask. Thus, she is transformed into a bringer of disease, war, famine and death. On the ground behind the figure there are now dead and dying buffalo, in reference to the slaughter of the great herds of the plains whose destruction was a sacramental desecration to the world of the plains peoples.
The whole left side of the pictorial surface is occupied with a mountain of portraits of some of the great chiefs, warriors and leaders that resisted the incursion of American “progress” into the West. Among them are the likes of Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Geronimo, Chief Joseph, Running Eagle (a woman warrior of the Blackfoot Nation) and Buffalo Calf Road Woman, who is said by the Cheyenne to have knocked General George Custer off his horse at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
What Bloomfield makes vividly clear is that progress is in the eye of the beholder. Progress for the American social and economic system meant defeat, poverty, imprisonment, disempowerment and loss of language and the loss whole treasury of cultural knowledge for many Native Americans. Bloomfield’s art, and that of all the other art in this show, however, also puts the lie to Gast’s image of the band of Indians fleeing the coming of modernity. All of the work in the show attests to the resilience of Native Americans. This is a show of Native resilience that says “We’re still here. We are part of the contemporary world, yet we have kept our traditions and our stories alive and relevant.”
This is the 13th year that WSHM has hosted a show of contemporary Native American art as part of a Native American festival. This year, as was the case last year, WSHM is teaming up with the Tacoma Art Museum to celebrate Native art and culture in a Northwest Native Festival, which takes place Aug. 11 at both museums.
“In the Spirit” consists of 29 works from 21 Native artists. Visitors will have the opportunity to meet the artists at the Aug. 11 festival or at the Third Thursday art walk/free museum night on July 19.
Each spring, Native artists from many states and Canada submit work for consideration by a jury of local artists and curators. The 2018 jury included artist Alex McCarty (Makah), a graduate of Evergreen State College; curator and artist Asia Tail (Cherokee), a graduate of Cooper Union School of Art in New York; and Lynette Miller, head of collections of the Washington State Historical Society.
This year, Carly Feddersen’s (Colville Confederated Tribes) basket “Stargazer” was awarded “Best in Show.” “The Spirit of the Northwest” award went to “Protector Mask,” a construction of repurposed plastic bottles by Linley Logan (Onondowaga, Seneca). The “Honoring Tradition” award was given to Earl Davis for the wood carving “First Ancestor.” Three “Honoring Innovation” awards were given for “Generations” by Denise Emerson (Navajo and Skokomish); “Owl Transformation” by Sean Gallagher (Ixupiat) and “Black Snake Rising” by RYAN! Feddersen (Confederated Tribes of the Colville.) The latter is a digital print which shows a black entanglement flooding from right to left. Wildlife are caught in its front while things like a suitcase, a Volkswagen Bug and a bicycle wheel are in the rear. Feddersen explains that this is a picture of a sea of oil; that the natural world and our very selves are being drowned in an “ocean filled with our necessities, indulgences and consequences.”
RYAN! Feddersen, incidentally, is the curator at a show of Native American art called “Red Ink,” at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner (see monamuseum.org/exhibition/red-ink for details).
Stylistically, “In the Spirit” is as diverse as the tribal affiliations of its artists. There are works done with contemporary media and contemporary styles. But there are also works in which traditional techniques and materials are used in new ways. Patti Puhn’s (Squaxin Island) bowler/cloche hat made of cedar bark has poetic charm. Susanne L. Cross’ (Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan) beadwork butterflies and glistening shawl with images of whistling elk are beautifully designed and constructed. Rebecca Feld’s (Pyramid Lake Paiute) “Galactic Moccasins” combine Native American pow wow wear with a science fiction expanse of imagination.
Robert Upham’s (Lake Traverse Sioux) drawings done on an old railroad ledger sheet and a nautical map hearken to the “ledger art” practiced by Native artists when they were kept in prison camps. Given discarded ledgers, the Native prisoners proceeded to use the paper as a drawing and painting surface to replace the buffalo hide that was a favorite surface for traditional paintings and visual story telling.
“In the Spirit” provides food for thought for everyone. The exhibit runs through Aug. 12. For more information, visit washingtonhistory.org/visit/wshm/exhibits/InTheSpirit.