Now they know

Suzan Shown Harjo
1/25/06

The world of Native American art and culture has suffered severe losses in
the past 12 months and I feel the need to reflect on a few of them for this
moment in this space before returning to the tumult of Native politics and
popular culture.

Elders of many Native traditions meet the news of a person's death by
saying, "Now they know." Here are many good people who questioned and
shared much during their lifetimes, and now they know everything.

* Pablita Velarde (1918 -- 2006) was an exquisite narrative painter and
muralist. She lived a long life -- 87 years -- which took her from a time
when Native women were not accepted in "modern art" to a legacy of
inspiring women of all cultures, especially Native women, to pursue their
talents and dreams. Confined to house-keeping, office work and nursing in
her early life, she raised two children on her own and taught herself how
to paint.

She died in Albuquerque, her home of many decades, not far from her
traditional birth place of Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. Born as Tse
Tan, Golden Dawn, in a long and continuing line of artists, she was a
teacher who always took time to encourage younger artists and to impart
practical wisdom and experience about devoting one's life to art. She
always wanted to know everything she could about the natural pigments used
in pottery and about the life lessons contained in Pueblo origin history
and ceremonies, which she applied to her own painting. Now she knows.

* Fritz Scholder (1937 -- 2005) was the most famous Indian artist for most
of his life in each decade since the 1960s. As an instructor, he spawned
other famous Indian artists at the Institute of American Indian Arts, most
notably his student, T.C. Cannon (1946 -- 1978), the renowned Kiowa
painter/poet/musician who took great pride in the knowledge that his
dynamic portraits and vivid colors energized his teacher.

At the height of his fame and prominence, Scholder, who was Luiseno,
stopped painting Native figures "because I've taken the Indian to the
ultimate in abstraction." After a period of painting roses and other less
complex beings, he forgot that vow and returned to painting portraits of
single Indian figures on enormous canvases in settings of brilliant colors
and almost otherworldly backgrounds, in order to explore the "intrigue
surrounding Indians." Now he knows.

R.C. Gorman (1931 -- 2005) was a world-class painter who was dubbed "the
Picasso of American Indian art" by The New York Times. He was adored by
Native women for devoting most of his watercolors, lithographs, etchings
and bronzes to representations of Native women. He was nearly as prominent
as a world-class celebrity, cook and host. His parties at his homes in
Santa Fe and Taos, N.M., featured the A-list of artists, political figures,
movie stars and the rich and famous, and were known far and wide as
"Hollywood on the Rio Grande."

Dine' from Chinle, Ariz., he was the son of Carl Gorman, the artist and
World War II Navajo code talker. Gorman owned his own gallery in
Albuquerque for nearly 20 years and started his hugely successful Navajo
Gallery in Taos in 1968. He wanted to know more and more about the way
women thought and behaved and felt, and never seemed to run out of
questions for Native women about everything in the world. Now he knows.

* Dan V. Lomahaftewa (1951 -- 2005) was Hopi and Choctaw and a painter. He
lived in Santa Fe and drew imagery and inspiration from his youth on the
Hopi reservation in Arizona. His is a distinguished art family that
includes painter and art professor Linda Lomahaftewa, museum art
authorities Gloria Lomahaftewa and Tatiana Slock, and master
beadworker/painter Marcus Amerman. "My images are contemporary
interpretations of forms and symbols which represent the philosophical
worldview of tribal peoples," wrote Lomahaftewa in an artist statement. His
soothing color and forms graced the cover of the 1996 catalogue of the
"Gifts of the Spirit" exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum. He once told
me that he was "searching for the magic of colors and shapes that quiet the
magic of nightmares." Now he knows.

* Bruce Miller (1944 -- 2005) was a spiritual leader and elder who inspired
a revival of traditional storytelling and performance art among his
Skokomish Tribal Nation in Washington and other Salish peoples of the
Pacific Northwest. Subiyay to his Skokomish people, and Baoosh to those of
us who knew him as an actor/dancer/writer in New York City in the early
1970s, he was simply the funniest man alive to everyone who was lucky
enough to meet him. He returned home in the late 1970s and devoted the rest
of his life to carving poles and masks, weaving baskets and reviving the
First Salmon, First Elk and other traditional ceremonies. Along the way, he
led his Skokomish government and substance-abuse efforts; founded the Twana
Dance Group; and contributed to the design, concept and founding of The
Longhouse at The Evergreen State College. He constantly searched for the
ancestors' original intent, meaning and form of presenting history and
teachings. Now he knows.

It is good to remember the many Native and non-Native people from diverse
fields who helped to bring into being the National Museum of the American
Indian: Vine Deloria, the Standing Rock Sioux writer, intellectual and
elder from the worlds of history, education and law; David Risling, the
Hoopa elder from education; Beatrice Medicine, the Sihasapa Lakota elder
from anthropology; Mary Dann, the Western Shoshone elder from ranching and
activism; and Alvin Josephy, the historian.

It is good to pay respects to other important people who documented Native
arts, cultures and peoples -- Gary Avey, the Native Peoples
editor/publisher; and Gary Rhine, the filmmaker -- who had insatiable
curiosity about Native peoples.

Now they know.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the
Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian
Country Today.

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