Basket case 

Weaving away stereotypes at the Missoula Art Museum

In her dreams, a statue of John Wayne, the one standing inside Orange County’s John Wayne Airport, is being riddled with rubber-tipped arrows. Gail Tremblay—poet, artist, instructor—doesn’t want to demolish the statue, but she feels certain that a few harmless hits to the cowboy would be great social commentary. Tremblay, a member of the Onondaga and Micmac tribes, dislikes films that stereotype Indians—and “dislike” is an understatement.

“I hate them,” she says, of Hollywood’s typical portrayal of Indians. A Man Called Horse comes to mind—“Nasty,” she says. But she finds it hard to pinpoint the worst of the worst. “There are thousands of them dating back to the beginning of silent film,” she says. As for John Wayne movies, her reaction is a groan of sheer distaste: “Ehhh,” she says. “The stereotypes were just horrific.” Marlon Brando protested the film industry’s portrayal of American Indians in 1973 when he refused to accept an Oscar for his portrayal of Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Today, Tremblay isn’t so much protesting as she is “reclaiming” a medium that many believe has failed at creating honest portraits of Indians. She uses film reel—old 16mm or 35mm film stock, outtakes or worn-out educational movies—to fashion artifacts that are near and dear to her and rooted in American Indian tradition: woven baskets.

Tremblay’s collection of baskets is the first of three exhibits designed to complement the Missoula Art Museum’s “Native Perspectives on the Trail: A Contemporary American Indian Art Portfolio,” which runs through May 21. “Native Perspectives” is, in part, an artistic response to the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, a collection of 15 American Indian artists’ prints and one poem. With bitterness, humor, angst and whimsy, the prints and poetry address the Lewis and Clark expedition and its centuries-long aftermath from the American Indian perspective. Here, white men aren’t so much triumphing over newly discovered lands as invading occupied territory.

“Our historic images celebrate a heroic adventure,” writes Stephen Glueckert, MAM curator, in an introductory piece to the show. “Yet we know that not all Americans see this period in our history as one of heroic conquest. The voices of Indian image makers have too often been dismissed as inarticulate and underdeveloped.”

Some would still dismiss Indian art as underdeveloped. Area fifth-graders are visiting the exhibit, says MAM’s Renée Taaffe. They have been flatly unimpressed with Lillian Pitt’s etching of ancient petroglyphs. Stick figures, say the fifth-graders.

In Dwight Billedeaux’s “Lewis and Clark Back to Earth,” Lewis and Clark stand and point in the commonly recognized silhouette. Sacajawea points, too, but in the opposite direction. In Jason Elliot Clark’s “Jefferson’s Saints Surveying the Real Estate,” the explorers wear spacesuits and gold halos—strangers in a strange land, “glorified by history,” writes the artist. Neal Ambrose-Smith’s “Now that’s a Coyote Story” superimposes an image of an ear of corn over a news brief about Monsanto corn’s successful navigation of the European Union food approval process. A red mask of a coyote winking serves as a mischievous warning that the corn may be problematic still. Many prints comment on the damage to the land that Lewis’ and Clark’s discovery precipitated—forests displaced by bleak developments, smokestacks and oil rigs dotting horizons, bones littered across the explorers’ path.

The one poem in the collection hangs in sheets at the entrance to the main exhibit, serving as a visual centerpiece. MAM commissioned local writer, poet and University of Montana associate professor Debra Magpie Earling to write “The Lost Journals of Sacajewea,” which in part addresses humanity’s capacity to forget history when it causes discomfort. It is a plea to not relegate the Indian story to musty museums and to remember the Indians living now. “How does a story change when words are always changing/when light slants/each syllable.” Like the prints in the exhibit, the poem’s Lewis and Clark point not to glory but to the destruction they leave in their wake: “Lewis and Clark point/to the dead./see, see/look, look…”

Tremblay’s baskets offer a lighter commentary on the cultural disconnect between non-Indians and modern Indian identity and the ensuing stereotypes. In 1985, Tremblay, then a faculty member at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., was teaching a course on the historical uses of film. That’s when she made her first basket out of film and gave it to a colleague who “got a kick out of it.”

Baskets, which many American Indian people believed were part of the world long before the creation of humankind, are an obsession for Tremblay. Her home is filled with baskets made from cornhusks, sweetgrass and splints—wide, thick wood shavings—from around the world. Her favorite basket—and it is, in fact, a basket, she says—is a cedar bark baseball cap. The cap is not just a decoration. She swears that she wears it during graduations and powwows: “I wear it when I want to keep the sun off my face.”

Tremblay’s great aunt taught her how to weave in the 1950s, in New England. She learned to weave using sweetgrass and splints from black ash trees. The new medium—16mm or 35mm or leader film—is easier to find and requires no preparation but is difficult to handle.

“Film is slippery and curly, so it takes a lot of patience to make it be a basket instead of a mess,” she says.

The woman who laughs at the idea of pelting John Wayne’s likeness with rubber arrows has created a spectacle more funny than searing. One piece, a small square basket with an open top, is woven out of 16mm film and fullcoat, a higher-end, magnetic film. The beige and brown creation is titled “This is not a Coppertone Tan.”

Gail Tremblay will speak at the Missoula Art Museum’s Temporary Contemporary Gallery in the Florence Hotel on Friday, Feb. 25, at 7 p.m. The presentation is free and open to the public. On Saturday, Feb. 26, Tremblay will teach a paper basket-weaving workshop from 10 AM to noon; cost is $5 per person. Tremblay’s baskets will be on display through March 12. “Native Perspectives on the Trail: A Contemporary American Indian Art Portfolio” runs through May 21.

kszpaller@missoulanews.com

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