When you enter the gallery, they seem to float: seven antique quilts, time-worn and softly colored, suspended on invisible wires.
The quilts, overlaid front and back with texts drawn from treaties between the U.S. government and Native American tribes, entice with their beauty, then deliver a punch to the gut as the words spelled out in calico letters reveal themselves.
“Its Honor Is Here Pledged” by Lawrence artist Gina Adams, on display through May 10 at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, reflects the layered and fractured history of European settlers and Native American tribes.
Adams juxtaposes well-worn quilts, a symbol of comfort and home, with harsh treaty conditions that pushed natives from their ancestral lands.
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Words crowd the quilts from edge to edge, and the different colors and patterns on each letter make them difficult to read.
“I wanted them to be challenging to read, because the language in the documents was meant to be confusing so that nothing could be pinned down to them later. It is confusing to me, and I have a master’s degree. You can imagine how confusing it would be to someone who didn’t even know the language,” Adams said.
For example: “If bad men among the whites or among other people subject to the authority of the United States shall commit wrong upon the person or the property of the Indians the United States will upon proof made to the agent and forwarded to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs at Washington City proceed at once to have the offender arrested and punished.”
The treaties are personal to Adams. Her grandfather was born into the Ojibwe tribe and forced to attend Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Penn.
“My grandfather called Carlisle ‘White Man Training School.’ It was forced assimilation,” she said.
Adams, a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, began studying the treaties in college, reading the research of Jesuit historian Francis Paul Prucha. Prucha has called the treaties “political anomalies” because the Indians were in a position of dependence and inequality rather than sovereignty when the documents were signed.
Choosing chunks of text that would fit on the quilts and cutting out the letters by hand seared some conditions into Adams’ memory. For example, the Fort Laramie Treaty with the Lakota Sioux stipulated that the tribe would receive $1,500, but from that, $500 would be deducted to cover the cost of the U.S. Army relocating itself, and another $500 would be deducted to move a blacksmith shop from the site of the new reservation.
Three of the quilts directly pertain to the history of Kansas because they are taken from treaties signed in Medicine Lodge in 1867 with the Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes.
One quilt starts: “From this day forward all war between the parties on this agreement shall forever cease. The Government of the United States desires peace and its honor is here pledged to keep it.”
“Those treaties are still relevant today,” museum director Bruce Hartman said.
On the walls behind each quilt, the names of the Native Americans who were forced to sign the treaties appear to rise out of shadows cast by the quilts. Most of the signers used an X-mark because they were unfamiliar with the language. A translator gave the English version of each name, but some names are not right because of the translator’s limited knowledge of the tribal language.
“I wanted them to have a say here,” Adams said.
The exhibit also honors the anonymous women who created the vintage quilts. “You go to a farm sale and these quilts get auctioned off, and there is not history of the women who really invested themselves in them. That relates to how the native people, artists as well as leaders who signed the treaties, are so often forgotten,” Hartman said.
Hartman was also drawn to the quilts because of the way Adams took a traditional art form, quilting, and made it very contemporary with the overlay of the language from the treaties.
Adams is a painter/printmaker by training, but her experience with quilting is deep and familial. One aunt has a bed covered with a stack of 300 quilts she has made, and Adams’ mother was a dressmaker. Adams recalls sitting with a needle and threads, sewing under her mother’s legs while her mother worked at a sewing machine.
Adams, too, used a machine — a small quilters’ Bernina — to create what she calls her “broken treaty” quilts.
She began by finding quilts that were aged and marked from use.
“I wanted them to have this feeling of time. Some have holes, tears, stains, one has a tiny blood stain. The holes in the quilt signify the holes in the original document,” Adams said.
Then she picked vintage-looking calico in many patterns for the letters. She chose an antique font, Goudy Old Style, because “that font invokes language and draws on memory.”
The resulting effect of a lacework of colorful letters overlaid on a geometric background is visually stunning, but Adams says that was not a concern when making the quilts.
“I thought of them being daring and impactful, never beautiful. I thought it was important to have this thing spoken that people don’t talk about,” she said.
And yet with the exhibit, Adams is perhaps unconsciously showing that despite all the broken promises and brutality that feed her art, there remains in Native American culture an abiding beauty and rich heritage that cannot be extinguished.
“Its Honor Is Here Pledged” by Gina Adams is showing in conjunction with two other Native American exhibitions: “To Honor the Unidentified,” also by Adams, and “Mapping Coyote Black” by Natalie Ball. All three run through May 10 at the Nerman Gallery of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday, Saturday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday; admission is free. For more information, call 913-469-3000 go or to NermanMuseum.org.