Native artists address past injustices in Spencer exhibit

“You said you wanted to put us upon a reservation, to build us houses and make us medicine lodges,” Comanche leader Ten Bears told Indian Commissioner Nathaniel G. Taylor in 1867. “I do not want them.”

Ten Bears was responding to Taylor’s Medicine Lodge Treaty offer, which all but spelled the end of the American Indian presence in Kansas.

“I was born where there were no enclosures and where everything draws a free breath,” Ten Bears continued. “I want to die there and not within walls.”

The state of Kansas marks its sesquicentennial this year, but now as then, not everyone sees the state’s founding as something to celebrate.

Two exhibits at the University of Kansas’ Spencer Museum of Art examine the impact of settlement and statehood on the native peoples who once lived there.

“Passages: Persistent Visions of a Native Place” focuses on historical objects, most drawn from the former Museum of Anthropology’s ethnographic collections, which the Spencer acquired in 2007.

“Heartland Reverberations” features works by five contemporary American Indian artists who are descended from communities that were moved out of Kansas.

Both exhibits were curated by Nancy Mahaney, the Spencer’s curator of the arts and cultures of the Americas, Africa and Oceania.

Mahaney said that both of her grandmothers were born in Indian Territory in what is now the state of Oklahoma.

“I learned a lot doing the exhibition about the details of the history of Native American removal,” she said. “We think of these horrible things as happening a long time ago; really it wasn’t that long ago. We’re still correcting the wrongs.”

It’s hard to believe that the Salina Indian Burial Pit, a popular tourist attraction featuring the exposed skeletal remains of 146 Indians, was not closed until 1989.

In “White Washed” (2011), a large painting by contemporary Pawnee artist Bunky Echo-Hawk, the interstate billboard that once proclaimed: “Visit the Largest Authentic Prehistoric Indian Burial in the Mid-West” appears splashed with whitewash and dripping with blood.

Echo-Hawk’s father, lawyer Walter Echo-Hawk, was active in the drafting of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. The remains from the Pawnee graves in Salina were reburied in Nebraska.

Other large paintings by Echo-Hawk tackle issues ranging from the U.S. government’s treatment of the Pawnee Scouts who assisted the Army in their battle against hostile tribes, to the disparities in achievement between male and female students at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence.

Maps figure prominently in both exhibitions, in which migration and forced removal are dominant themes.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced many eastern tribes to relocate west of the Mississippi River into lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, much of it designated as Indian Territory at the time.

“The political position was that they’d be free to pursue the lifestyle they wanted,” Mahaney explained, “but the pursuit of land never ended, and Indian Territory kept shrinking.”

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which set Kansas on the path to statehood seven years later, marked a turning point for both the tribes that had been relocated to Kansas and long-time native residents. Over the next decade and a half, as Anglo-European settlers moved in, the Indians would be relocated to Indian Territory in what would later become the state of Oklahoma.

As Mahaney notes in the museum’s newsletter, “In spite of the many celebrations of statehood that have occurred in recent years ... few opportunities have been offered for Indian people to express their own sense of commemoration.”

In the contemporary exhibit, this commemoration largely takes the form of critique. The theme of displacement runs through the large paintings of Osage artist and KU faculty member Norman Akers. Akers’ work often incorporates the image of an elk, a central figure in the Osage creation story.

In “Follow the Orange Cord,” a three-pronged electrical cord snakes around an elk’s head centered on a background map highlighting towns named for Indians. “Okesa II” portrays an elk with its antlers entwined in a road map of the highways around the Osage Reservation.

Maps and the theme of displacement also figure in the works of Chris Pappan. Pappan taps the “Wizard of Oz” story as a jumping off point for his commentary in “Kanzaa She Said Is the Name of Her Star,” a large painting featuring the image of Pappan’s daughter surrounded by sunflowers against an antique map. On her feet are boots sprinkled with ruby glitter.

Osage artist Ryan Red Corn, who earned a bachelor of fine arts in graphic design from KU in 2003, contributed an intriguing graphic mural incorporating iconic symbols of Indians and settlers. The work’s title, “Don’t Make this Awkward,” appears on the wall above the symbols, but when a black light turns on, the word “truth” and a message in Osage writing appear in fluorescent green.

Red Corn symbolized the settlers with drawings of wheat, a Conestoga wagon and a cross, representing religion. Mahaney noted that the null sign, which appears on the Indian side of the mural, is a reference to the settlers’ idea of Indians as heathen.

The exhibit is further animated by Kiowa Dianne Yeahquo Reyner’s projected piece addressing the Kiowas’ removal to Oklahoma after the Medicine Lodge Treaty.

The contemporary exhibit occupies the Spencer’s Central Court, a less than optimum gallery space that has the benefit of being well-trafficked. The historical show occupies two adjacent galleries that are dim and rather seedy and don’t show off the objects to best advantage.

Both installations suggest that the museum’s planned expansion and renovation can’t come soon enough. Certainly, the ideas and effort expended on the two shows deserve better.

“Passages” kicks off with a riveting slide show of material from the Kansas Historical Society organized by curatorial intern Braden Hiebner. Through photographs and maps, the presentation traces the key events that culminated in native peoples’ removal from Kansas.

The objects in this exhibit tell a compelling, many-sided narrative. Moccasins, cradleboards, blankets, clothing and bags represent the Indian peoples who were uprooted by U.S. government policies.

They also reflect the aesthetic changes wrought by reservation life and close contact among tribes that had once lived far apart.

Through texts, photographs and other materials, the exhibit also examines the role played by missionaries, the U.S. military and the railroads in the movement of Indian people.

One of the most telling objects is an 1870 poster put out by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Headed: “If You Want a Farm or Home,” it encourages settlers to come and take advantage of the “temperate climate,” “pure and abundant water,” “good soil for wheat, corn and fruit” and other amenities to be found in Kansas.

In one of three contemporary works that Mahaney inserted in the “Passages” show, Chris Pappan highlights the “other side” of the story, using the poster as a backdrop for a portrait of Little Bear wearing the claw necklace of the Kaw and Osage peoples who are among the artist’s ancestors.

And in another piquant borrowing from the “Wizard of Oz,” Pappan titled the work, “I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore.”