Artfully political 

Extracting the meaning of Impacted Nations

Neal Ambrose-Smith’s “Coyote Sees Two Worlds,” a print currently on display at the University of Montana’s Meloy Gallery, depicts the body of a mythological American Indian figure made up entirely of mechanical gears. The coyote’s head and tail peak out from around the machinery, his eyes fixed on his insides, where a set of wind turbines juxtaposed with smokestacks are set against the Western Hemisphere. A pair of spherical celestial bodies frames the image.

“The Coyote,” writes Ambrose-Smith in an artist statement accompanying his work, “is the creator’s helper. And because all things are connected, he’s an integral part of our world—a gear. The sun turns so we can turn, and we turn so the moon can turn. But, Coyote sees two worlds. He sees the dark side of oil–the underworld. He also sees the future with alternative and renewable energy sources, like wind power.”

“Coyote Sees Two Worlds” is part of Impacted Nations, a traveling exhibition of contemporary American Indian art assembled by the environmental advocacy organization Honor the Earth. Two-time Green Party vice-presidential candidate Winona LaDuke heads Honor the Earth, which, she says in a recent telephone interview, focuses its resources on environmental issues affecting American Indian communities. Those efforts include fighting fossil fuels extraction and consumption as well as advocating for alternative energy solutions. In each case, Honor the Earth’s focus is on building up local groups who can push for sustainable solutions to energy issues, as well as fight the poverty and disenfranchisement that makes degrading the environment seem like sound economic strategy.

Making the case, however, means marshalling more than just facts and figures. LaDuke believes film and art help people better make the connection.

“Quite often,” says LaDuke, “native art is portrayed historically and not as…an aspect of culture. Art is not separate. We wanted a chance to take native art out of a box, have native art that resonates with the issues that were really in the middle of their communities and not pretend that those didn’t exist. And we had an overwhelming response from artists.”

Impacted Nations incorporates nearly 50 pieces, comprising a diverse cohort of artists. Star Wallowing Bull, whose prints were recently on display at the Missoula Art Museum, shares wall space with a mural assembled by youth working under the auspices of the Oakland, Calif., Hintil Ku Ca Development Center. Sculptures made of modern materials like welded aluminum sit alongside traditional dance regalia and painted masks. Old and new combine when what looks likes refashioned window blinds make up otherwise conventional woven basket. Cameron Chino’s “Copper Mother” transforms symbols of fertility into industrial infrastructure, unabashedly confronting pollution, while the straightforward and striking landscape of Shonto Begay’s “Above the Bones of My Ancestors” illustrates a place right for repose—and ill-suited to intrusive energy exploration.

For LaDuke, the key to Impacted Nations was offering artists a chance to depict American Indians as they currently live, to encourage art that speaks to contemporary issues rather than representing historical conditions with little correspondence to the present. At the same time, LaDuke affirms the value of traditional forms of artistic expression developed over the long history of American Indian nations. She uses her own heritage as an Ojibwe from Minnesota’s White Earth reservation as an example.

“The mythology of my Ojibwe people, our migration story, our relationships between the clans, our stories of our history, those have to be retold each generation because that’s how they are kept alive,” she says.

This coupling of tradition with contemporary art, says LaDuke, “helps us to be better people in this millennium because we don’t lose that connection.” She adds: “Art is a part of ceremony, which is how we are ensured that things are right on the earth. I’m pretty sure Exxon doesn’t have that plan.”

Winona LaDuke presents “Creating Just Societies: The Environment, the Economy, and Human Relations in the Next Millennium” at UM’s Montana Theatre inside the PARTV Center Monday, Feb. 25, at 8 PM. She will also be at the closing reception of Impacted Nations Tuesday, Feb. 26, from 6 to 8 PM. 
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