Coyote’s last laugh
Influential Maidu artist Frank Day was a controversial figure in his day, but his remarkable artwork continues to survive him
One day back in 1975, an elderly Indian man’s hand, swollen and weathered from a lifetime of labor into something like a ground stone block, managed to press the tiny record button on a tape machine. Soon a deep voice broke the silence.
“Once in a while I take up color and paint a little bit because if I do not do this, all things will be forgotten. It’s good enough all right to sing and explain things on these broadcasts here … but it’s also nice to have someone who’s able to print this or illustrate by color upon a chart and then it would remain that way. You cannot change it then."The speaker was 73-year-old Koncow Maidu artist and lifelong migrant farm worker Frank Day, a Native Californian who had witnessed many changes in his life. Just a year after recording these words, he would die from cancer in a Sacramento hospital. At the time, his life’s work of more than 200 paintings depicting both the history of his Maidu tribe and his own vivid imaginings was just beginning to garner widespread respect in the art world.
For the last quarter of his life, Day had experienced a Phoenix-like rebirth. He had come full circle, from being a young, rootless wanderer to becoming an influential elder and respected artist by the time of his death. And in doing so, he had managed to fulfill his natural birthright as a cultural bearer of Maidu custom and tradition, a fate bequeathed to him by his father, an original headman of the Bald Rock clan of Koncow Maidu.
Still, Day probably would have been surprised to know that today, nearly 30 years after his death, the town of Chico in his beloved Butte County would be honoring his work as part of the annual Annies Awards event, a local arts celebration named after Annie Ellicott Kennedy, the wife of town founder John Bidwell.
Day might have found it ironic that Annie Bidwell once served as a Presbyterian missionary to the local Mechoopda Maidu, who then lived on her and her husband’s rancho, where they served as a cheap labor force. One thing is for sure, though: He would have had plenty of stories to tell about it.
If it weren’t for a former graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley who was looking for a good subject for her Ph.D. dissertation, the larger world still might not know much about Frank Day.
Rebecca J. Dobkins, author of the book Memory and Imagination: The Legacy of Maidu Indian Artist Frank Day, is an acknowledged authority on the artist’s life and art. She spent four years, from 1990 to 1994, doing extensive research on him for her doctoral dissertation in anthropology.
Today, as I speak to her via phone from her home in Salem, Ore., where she works as an associate professor of anthropology at Willamette University, Dobkins has her baby son crying in one ear but is clearly happy to discuss the subject.
Dobkins begins by explaining that in the late-'80s, while working as a summer intern at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, she was asked to locate a California Indian artist who might be useful in illustrating the curriculum for an upcoming project. Organizers suggested she visit Native American art dealer Herb Puffer, a friendly enthusiast who owned Pacific Western Traders in Folsom, a gallery and meeting place for Native American artists for the last 30 years.
“I told Herb I was interested in mythology and folklore, and he immediately suggested Frank Day and brought out some recordings and paintings,” Dobkins says.
Later, when Dobkins was deciding what to spend “several years of my life” working on for her Ph.D., she remembered Day and the impression his colorful paintings had made—works that depicted everything from traditional Maidu life and folklore to highly symbolic historical interpretations and even a scene featuring the legendary Ishi, whom Day claimed to have encountered once, when he was 9 years of age (see illustration).
“I had met Wintu artist Frank LaPena at a conference,” explains Dobkins. “And he looked at me and said, ‘You really need to do your thesis on this—it would mean so much to people.’ So that was very inspiring, that something I was interested in might also be of interest and use to others. And it was; it was a wonderful project to work on. It brought a lot of wonderful people into my life and a lot of wonderful connections.”
After several years of exhaustively detailed work that included listening to more than 75 hours of tape recordings, interviewing collectors, relatives, anthropologists and students, and scouring the countryside around Day’s home near Oroville, Dobkins produced what has been called a “brilliant” 300-plus-page dissertation that is a detailed biography of Day’s life and art with contextual attention to anthropological theory.
But what she primarily discovered was a complex man and artist whom few people were ever able to really understand or appreciate.
“The one thing I learned is that I was never going to get a complete picture of that man, even if I had known him,” she says, with a trace of regret in her voice.
Frank Leverall Day was born on Feb. 25, 1902, into a small Koncow Maidu settlement of Berry Creek, the son of a cultural leader within the tribe. Two years later, his mother passed away, leaving the young boy to be raised by his grandmother and his well-respected father, Billy Day. Day was one of the last headmen to structure cultural life around the roundhouse, a hut-like structure familiar to the area that was used for social events and ceremonies.
Young Frank spent much of his early childhood as a sitting witness to Maidu traditions, learning age-old values that were struggling for life within the climate of incoming white settlement. As a boy, Day had suffered an injury to his legs that left him partially disabled, but he spent his time learning the language, folklore and customs of his people, from hunting and gathering to the annual burnings in honor of the dead.
For Day and his tribe, things had begun to change drastically from the ancient traditions of a culture speculated by anthropologists to date back in the Sierra Nevada and Eastern Sacramento Valley regions to the first few centuries of the Christian era. By the time of Day’s youth, white settlers had pushed ancient Maidu traditions to the brink of extinction. This was the period of reservation establishment: Rancherias were formed in places like Berry Creek, Enterprise and Mooretown in Butte County (Koncow Maidu), Taylorsville and Greenville in Plumas and Susanville in Lassen County (Mountain Maidu). Gold seekers had already upset the ecology of the region, ruining much of the Maidu’s ability to hunt and survive.
In compliance with new federal regulations, Frank was sent at the age of 6 to the Greenville Indian School, a boarding school in Plumas County operated by the federal government. The goal of the school was simple: to assimilate young Indian boys into the civilized ways of the white world (or, as one founder put it, to “kill the Indian in him and save the man").
Only English was spoken in these military-school-like facilities, where parents were forced to send their children for terms of three or five years. These schools were common for the Native American children of Day’s youth, as pressure built for them to forgo their own cultural values for those of whites. It wasn’t until over a decade later, with the passing of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, that all Native Americans were granted citizenship and youths began to move into the public school system.
After completing the highest level, eighth grade, and returning home, Day suffered a blow when his influential father died in 1922. Then 20 years old, Frank carried out the traditional family burial, which included the burning of his father’s remaining property and dwellings. He then decided to begin his own journey to travel the country and live among other tribes. He would later tell historians that he traveled for almost a decade, working odd jobs all over the West, from Utah, Montana and Idaho to Oklahoma.
Day learned about how other tribes lived, and his experiences undoubtedly left a lasting impression. But when he returned from his travels, and indeed later in life when he became more known for his art, there was always a lingering question about him among some of the people left behind in his small tribe.
Dobkins says that Day struggled with a drinking problem throughout his life. Through her detailed research, she came to view his standing within the local Maidu community as a sensitive and complicated issue.
“He was a bit of a trickster. Maidu people gave me all kinds of different stories about him—someone even tried to tell me he didn’t paint his own work, which I know was not true from having seen pictures of him painting. … I think some older people felt that, as the son of a headman, he should have stepped into the role of leader [when his father died], and he didn’t, and I can’t say why. … [But] the world had changed, his village wasn’t the same, and some of his own tribal members didn’t trust him after he returned from his 10-year journey."By the mid-1930s, Day had returned to Central California and was living as a migrant agricultural worker and lumberman in Butte and, periodically, Mendocino County.In 1940, he married Marian Katherine Hermann in Oroville. The couple soon adopted a son and began hosting their own “big times,” their name for social gatherings that included feasts and traditional gaming—primarily for the local Konkow Maidu community.
Around this period in his life, Day was contacted by an anthropology student at UC Berkeley, the first of many interested students who would seek to learn about Maidu culture from Day. The young undergrad was soon making recordings of Day singing songs and telling stories, a pattern that would repeat with several other anthropologists and teachers throughout his life.
Around 1960, Day severely injured his legs again while working on a farm in Mendocino County. With both knees broken, he was laid up for an extended period in a Ukiah hospital, where he met a helpful nurse (ironically named Florence) who would later become his second wife. It was here, during his extended recuperation, that his future wife began to encourage him to take up painting.
Perhaps it was the result of the being physically disabled—as in his early childhood years—that flooded his mind with memories of youth and activities around the roundhouse, but Day was soon painting large colorful oil portraits of Native American scenes that would slowly progress in skill, topics and symbolic imagination the rest of his life.
“The majority of the Native American artists at that time were working in a real formulaic fashion both stylistically and content-wise—especially out of the Southwest and Oklahoma,” notes Dobkins. “[Day] painted subjects other than Native American subjects. California didn’t really have the art training schools that New Mexico had, and in that sense he was very important in sending out the message to other Native American artists that, ‘Yeah, we can do this and represent ourselves.'”
Soon after leaving the hospital, Day met another influential figure in his life, anthropologist Donald Jewell, who was conducting archaeological research in Butte County. Jewell, an instructor at American River College in Sacramento, would soon begin to record Day’s interpretations of his paintings, and Day would begin speaking to anthropology students and faculty at schools around the Sacramento area.
As Day began to present himself as an historian through his artwork, some criticism began to surface from academic anthropologists who noted discrepancies between his depictions and the established facts of history.
"[Certain anthropologists] have trouble with that and dismiss his works; others in the Maidu community had same concerns, but I always felt the value of his work was not as a strict documentary record,” Dobkins says. “I’ve always thought it was interesting as art, just aesthetically, artistically very interesting work—as a self-taught painter, as clearly part of the American visionary tradition as well as Native American.”
Dobkins notes that, even though Day was intent on spreading the knowledge he had leaned as a child, it did not stop his imagination from roaming freely as he taught himself to paint.
“I think his work honors that [history] even if it strays into creativity,” she adds. “That’s what artists have always done. Think of the Renaissance—Michelangelo inspired us with his vision of the angels, but nobody really knew what an angel was supposed to look like!”
“I don’t think that bothered him one way or another,” says friend and art dealer Herb Puffer, now 77 years old and still running Pacific Western Traders. “He was recording what he believed, and that’s all there is to it … [Day’s] what I would call a real artist. He’s untrained, and he wasn’t copying other people or depending on things that had gone on before him. … It isn’t a rehash like a lot of art is. He had to solve art problems on his own by trial and error—figure it out for himself.”
Remarried, Day moved in 1964 to just outside of Sacramento, where he stayed for the remainder of his life.
In 1967, he participated in his first major one-man exhibit, Maidu Tales in Oil, sponsored by the American Indian Historical Society in San Francisco. His paintings had by then come to the attention of Puffer, who saw talent in Day’s work and invited him to his shop.
Puffer displayed Day’s art, sold some and bought some, beginning a relationship that would last for several years. Day spent a lot of time at the gallery and soon began training other regulars and Native American visitors in traditional dances, which were popular among the youth at that time and were another way Day loved to explore his many memories. This soon led to the formation of the Maidu Dancers and Traditionalists Group, a group that’s still around today and will be performing at the Annies Awards.
"[Day] was a very likeable individual, very affable and knowledgeable, very willing to share his knowledge,” Puffer recalls. “We made many hours of tape recordings of his stories. He had a great memory and a melodious voice. Very deep. Most of his paintings all have a story that is attached and usually a song and dance too.”
Perhaps Day’s crowning art achievement was his participation as a featured artist and elder in the I Am These People exhibit of Native American art in Gov. Jerry Brown’s office in 1975. Only a year after this triumph, on Aug. 13, 1976, Day passed away from cancer, but by that time he had painted more than 200 works that would succeed him, eventually traveling to exhibits of Native American art all over the country to this day.
"[During his lifetime] he didn’t like to be entered into competitive shows,” Puffer says. “We did that once at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. He wasn’t trying to compete. He wanted to record information. He called himself a historian rather than a painter. … Nowadays he’s not a stranger to the art world anymore"—he pauses—"though he might be in Butte County.” He laughs.
Since 2000, Debra Lucero Austin has voluntarily directed Friends of the Arts-Butte County, which sponsors the Annies. Due to the large scope of the proceedings, which honor many different fields within the arts, Lucero decided the Annies would be better served if the event took place every other year. She hopes that themes like this year’s will rejuvenate the event and make it relevant again.
“I thought this would be a really nice cornerstone … a proper foundation that had never really happened before: to honor the original artists of this area,” she says.
Having lived in Seattle and witnessed the widespread appreciation for local Native American art in that city, Lucero thought the same should happen here—especially after she saw some of Day’s paintings.
Meanwhile Dobkins, who regrets that she cannot make it down to Chico for the Annies, still teaches Day’s work today in the college classroom, using it to talk about tradition and how it changes and is reinterpreted over time. She is proud that the lifetime retrospective of Day’s work that her dissertation helped bring about, his first major show at the Oakland Museum in 1986, had eventually traveled across the country to New York and Phoenix.
Lucy Lepard, author of 27 books and a former art critic for The New York Times, was one of several critics who trumpeted Day’s cause, and Dobkins says that he seems to have a firm place in the canon of Native American art and what’s called “outsider,” or unschooled, art.
Dobkins also notes that California Indians are generally not well known outside of California, so Day’s exhibit was seen as a much-needed voice from that community. The work was important—if not from a historical viewpoint, from an individualist stance: Here was a Native American artist who did not feel pigeonholed by the stereotypical Native American painting subjects—and here was a trickster, a shapeshifter who attempted to bring his cultural lessons and ancient mythology to a new world of people, using an active imagination and inherent knowledge of the Maidu language.
“I think his work has played and will continue to play an important role," Dobkins concludes. "But in the end it’s not so much about whether his art and stories are true or not, but rather how inspiring they are about this amazing culture that has been unalterably changed—not lost but transformed."