Courtesy Edgar Heap of Birds
Howe, Galanin and Heap of Birds at the awards dinner (Courtesy Edgar Heap of Birds)

Three Native Artists Awarded $50,000 Grants

Gale Courey Toensing
4/30/13

LeAnne Howe (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne/Arapaho) and Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Aleut) were among the 54 artists to receive 2012 USA Fellowships from United States Artists. The fellowships were awarded in December with unrestricted grants of $50,000. “The USA Fellows for 2012 are not only incredible artists, they also give back to their communities and engage with the most pressing social issues of our time. We are proud to honor 54 of this country’s greatest living artists and celebrate their extraordinary contributions,” said USA Executive Director Katharine DeShaw in a press release.

An example of Galanin’s very public art (Courtesy Nicholas Galanin)

LeAnne Howe, a journalist turned novelist, poet, playwright, screenwriter and director of creative writing and professor of English and Native studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-­Champaign, received an award for literature. “I became a writer so I could go off in all directions, meet new people, write about what I’ve hungered to know,” she says on her website.

Howe writes about American Indian experiences. Her award-winning debut novel, Shell Shaker, shifts between the 18th century assassination of a Choctaw warrior during a time of war against the English and the 20th century murder of a Choctaw chief during a mafia takeover of the tribe’s casino. Susan Power, author of the novel The Grass Dancer, described Howe’s work as “brilliant, surprising, hilarious, heartbreaking work that layers vision upon vision and cracks America wide open. LeAnne Howe has created a literary landscape you have never seen before and will never forget.” Howe’s second novel, Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story (2007), recounts the story of a Choctaw baseball pitcher and his team and moves between 1907 and the present.

Howe received the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas and a number of other awards, including J. William Fulbright Scholar grant in 2010-2011 to teach at University of Jordan, Amman.

Howe was back in Jordan recently interviewing the descendants of the men who fought in the Thawra, the Arab Revolt in 1917, for her forthcoming novel Memoir of a Choctaw Indian in the Arab Revolts, 1917 and 2011 when Indian Country Today Media Network reached her for this interview by e-mail:

Can you describe the new novel you’re working on?
When the Tunisian revolution began in December 2010, I felt it was the epitomizing event that would spread across the region, the result we would not know for perhaps a generation. I shot film of the protests against and parades of support for King Abdullah of Jordan. As the protests continued I began to write as an embedded narrator from within the consciousness of the Arab Spring, and the effects it had on me, a foreigner in a region at war with itself.

For the novel, I am writing through the consciousness of my Choctaw character, Benjamin Hen, as he traveled to Beirut in 1913 then onto the town of Salt, (now in Jordan), to work in a Christian hospital. In the story, Benjamin, a Choctaw Christian missionary, will end up fighting alongside Arab tribesman in 1917 to help overthrow the Ottoman Empire. Of course his family is trying to hold onto their allotment lands set against extreme poverty and swindler-lawyers in Oklahoma in 1917. There is much more to the story, of course. My own memoir is embedded in the novel. I’m in search of my characters, in search of myself as a Choctaw living in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. I hope to have it finished by 2014.

Digital Natives, by Heap of Birds (Courtesy Edgar Heap of Birds)

What’s the most challenging kind of writing and what’s the most rewarding?
Screenplays are challenging—as a writer we must make images the verbs of the plot. Fiction is most rewarding.… I think that there are connections within connections that we are unaware of when we begin artistic projects, like writing a novel, making a film, or writing a poem. For example, on November 9, 2012, I attended an honoring ceremony for my Uncle Schlicht Billy, who was a World War II Code Talker. I didn’t start writing the novel because all three of my uncles were soldiers in World War II, but after attending the ceremony, I could see a relationship, between my characters and my family. These surprising revelations are the reason I write. My uncle was fighting for his home, indigenous America in World War II. The relevant link for me is that my fictional character Benjamin was also fighting for his adopted home, indigenous Bilad ash Sham, in 1917. For me there is a connection, a similarity, I want to write about in this new work.

Edward Heap of Birds’s art is scattered across the globe in museums and other venues in America, Canada, Australia, Germany, Northern Ireland, South Africa, China, Indonesia, France and Italy. Sometimes it seems as if he is too. Heap of Birds has been a visiting lecturer in England, Western Samoa, Thailand, South Africa, Spain, Northern Ireland, Sweden, Zimbabwe; Italy, Australia and India. He has taught at Yale University, Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Capetown’s Michaelis School of Art. He has also been at the University of Oklahoma since 1988, teaching in Native American Studies.

He works in a wide range of forms and media that include public art, large-scale drawing, paintings, prints, works in glass and monumental outdoor sculptures. He first came onto the art scene in 1982 with In Our Language, a work on the computerized billboard in New York’s Times Square, which melded English and the Cheyenne language to create phrases that referred to the colonization of Manhattan. Since then he has produced an enormous body of work that is edgy, provocative, sensual, political, spiritual, caustic and often hilarious. It can be viewed on his website, HeapofBirds.ou.edu.
In 2005, Heap of Birds completed a 50-foot outdoor sculpture called Wheel for the Denver Art Museum. He says the circular porcelain enamel on steel installation was inspired by the traditional Medicine Wheel of the Big Horn Mountains and also echoes the poles of a traditional Cheyenne lodge. “The chiefs make the central pole in the Cheyenne Nation. When you’re chief and acting as chief, all your possessions become everyone else’s. You can’t deny anyone anything—so people don’t want to be chief if they’re too greedy,” he says, laughing. The poles are the lodge’s support, “and in a conceptual manner I guess that’s what I hope most of my work’s doing—supporting all of the indigenous efforts. I’m just out there to hold it up and strong people take it away and do what they want to do.”

Heap of Birds has also made hundreds of one-of-kind messages in the form of hand-painted words, written in capital letters one word to a line in white on 15-by-22-inch backgrounds of red, blue, green or black. Unlike his monumental installations, which few people could afford to buy or have the space to display, Heap of Birds’s mono prints are sold on his website. The messages are largely political and often sensual—or a combination of both as in HELP TRIM BAD BUSH.

Racism is one of the underlying themes of his work. “It’s about how we’re complicit with racism and how we’ve played into the hands of the market,” he says. He longs for more Indian artists who are political satirists. “I shouldn’t be one of the only ones—that’s ridiculous! There has to be more artists everywhere making this work.” But there aren’t and that’s too bad, he says. “People are busy feeding the monster…. We need people to stop feeding the monster and start speaking out about the atrocities of this hemisphere, and I hope that that’s the future—that people are bold enough to make what they want to make and be provocative. Nothing’s going to happen. The world isn’t going to end. Speak your mind and maybe we’ll move ahead.”

Nicholas Galanin is an artist of mixed Tlingit/Aleut and nonindigenous ancestry from Sitka whose work pushes, pulls, merges with and cuts across the boundaries of what is perceived as “traditional” and “contemporary.”

Galanin works in sculpture, photography, video and other media. He plays and writes music, and teaches. He describes his art as “contemporary multimedia work that transcends the familiar, time-honored iconography of Tlingit and Northwest Coast art.” His earliest teachers were his father and uncle, both traditional master carvers. Galanin, now 33, was 18 years old when he decided to become an artist. “It was an easy decision to do what I loved to do,” he says. He went on to study as a jewelry designer and silversmith in London, then received his master’s degree in indigenous visual arts in New Zealand. Galanin’s website is Galan.in.

One of the recent works he has sold is The American Dream Is Alie and Well, created last year; it features a U.S. flag in the shape of a bearskin rug on the floor. The piece includes the bear’s head with open jaws and terrifying teeth about to devour its prey. The teeth are plated with gold leaf; the claws are made of .50-caliber ammunition. “I lost a brother in Afghanistan and that piece was a commentary on that—this idea of young babies fighting abroad, and for what?—although it has other connotations beyond that,” he says.

Inert Wolf consists of two preserved wolves combined into one. One looks like a spread-eagled wolf skin similar to the bearskin rug in The American Dream Is Alie and Well, with the second wolf struggling to emerge alive out of the dead wolf rug. “I look at this piece in cultural terms,” he says.

“Mainstream society often looks at indigenous or Native American art through a romantic lens, not allowing a culture like my Tlingit community room for creative sovereign growth. The back half of this piece is contained, a captured trophy or rug to bring into the home, while the front continues to move. It is sad and the struggle is evident. Inert deserves to be seen in person; it generates a strong emotional response—viewers have cried.”

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