A culture unerased
Crocker Art Museum’s symposium and festival on Native American art and activism focuses on contemporary issues
To better understand the past, sometimes we must examine the present.
For Stacey Shelnut-Hendrick, director of education at Crocker Art Museum, that approach is critical to learn about Native Americans and their role in the United States.
“Often we talk about [indigenous people] as if they lived in the past and aren’t part of an ongoing, living culture,” Shelnut-Hendrick says. “In doing so, we erase them in the present tense.”
The Crocker will address the topic, among others, on Oct.19-20 with a series of events aimed at showcasing the complex connections between Native American and U.S. history.
On Oct. 19, Visual Sovereignty: A Symposium on Contemporary Native American Art and Activism will include discussions, conversations about art and ritual ceremonies. Then, on Oct. 20, We Are Here: A Festival of Native American Art will combine live performances and art demonstrations with an artisanal market. Both events are part of the museum’s multi-pronged approach to exploring and upholding the rich histories—and current events—of myriad indigenous cultures.
“The symposium gives it an intellectual, knowledge-based grounding,” Shelnut-Hendrick says. “The festival is the icing on the cake, a fleshing out of conversations and the chance to give [people] the art in practice.”
In addition to the events, the museum also has two related art exhibits. The first, Pueblo Dynasties: Master Potters from Matriarchs to Contemporaries, which runs through Jan. 5, highlights the skill, artistry and history of pottery with a display of more than 2,000 pieces crafted by American Indians of the Southwest.
When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California, which runs Oct. 20-Jan. 26, features contemporary art by American Indian artists, many of whom have roots in California. The exhibit chronicles five decades of art with more than 65 artists working in mediums including prints and photography, sculpture and video.
Shelnut-Hendrick says the events and exhibits are integral to the museum’s ongoing efforts to recognize, document and celebrate indigenous culture.
“The Crocker is trying to join a number of voices who are supportive and allies of Native Americans sharing their own stories in their own way,” she says. “We believe we have a great opportunity to give body and voice to the political, cultural and social issues that Native Americans face.”
The symposium will feature a diverse lineup of guest speakers, writers and artists including poet Vince LaPena, artist and fashion designer Jamie Okuma. Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, a photographer, curator and professor of Native American Studies at UC Davis, will deliver the event’s opening lecture.
The day will also include a panel conversation that examines the relationship between museums and Native American art, and how indigenous artists use their works to address, among other issues, racism and climate change.
“[The discussion] will examine the complexities of Native American art and how it’s perceived,” Shelnut-Hendrick says. “It’s one thing when it’s viewed within the context of culture and part of a living and active community. Once you put it in the museum you view it in the context of fine art, it becomes something to be studied, framed, admired and upheld.”
Often, she adds, Native American work is devalued. The pots featured in the Pueblo Dynasties exhibit, for example, might not elicit the same attention and respect if you saw them for sale from a roadside vendor in New Mexico.
“When you put [art] in a museum, the context of the conversation becomes different,” she says. “It’s just fashion if I have a pair of jeans on, but when you put those Gloria Vanderbilt jeans in a museum they reflect a shift in the culture.”
These conversations will be ongoing at Crocker. Throughout the rest of the year, there will be related film screenings, poetry readings, concerts and workshops.
To plan the symposium and other events, the museum looked for guidance from the United Auburn Indian Community, as well as Crocker’s Native American Advisory Committee, a group that formed to support such endeavors.
Committee member Cheewa James—a writer, TV producer and member of the Modoc Nation of Oklahoma—says the events and exhibits are crucial, not just for Native Americans but for Sacramento as a whole.
“It’s becoming increasingly important that cities hear the voices of its people,” she says. “Misunderstanding and racism arises because of a lack of understanding and contact.”
Learning through art, she adds, can be powerful.
“The pottery [on display] has been in existence for 2,000 years. It’s very important,” she says. “You’ll see the imagination, what these people have done to create this once very fundamental pottery and transform it into art.”
The Crocker’s efforts to reach out to the council and other indigenous groups has helped to foster a sense of commitment and community, James said. “The [museum] could have just come in and done this themselves but instead they brought in a committee to give input.”
That input was on the exhibits and events, but also on what kinds of food and drinks would be served—all important details, James says. “It allowed us to have a voice about what was happening and that adds to a magnificent event,” she says.
That voice is important when so many myths and misconceptions still persist about Native Americans. “[People] still say things like, ’Don’t scalp me’ when they learn I’m Native American,” she says. “That happened to me just the other day.”
Ultimately, James says, she hopes the symposium, exhibits and other events push people to further learn and explore: “I hope they carry with them a sense of adventure, taking the opportunity to not end with this exhibit but rather explore other native groups, exploring other cultures.”