Flames of Perseverance

How many Native American women can you name?
Chances are, not many. And if you can, perhaps one of them is Pocahontas.
She died 400 years ago, yet –probably thanks to Disney’s highly fictionalised telling of her story- she remains one of the most famous Native Americans in European culture.
Why is it that we aren’t celebrating enough of the Native women that have come since? Their stories and identities are just as important and interesting.
This month, with the We are Native Women exhibition, Rainmaker Gallery in Bristol challenges this cliché Disneyfied image of Native American women on the 400th anniversary of the death of Pocahontas.
Incidentally, a new Sky TV show, Jamestown, (released this May) will follow the story of the first British settlers in the town, the same area with which Pocahontas is associated. I think it is apt that whilst this TV show will yet again engage with the 400-year-old angle, Rainmaker gallery is bringing forward new ideas and more contemporary, important figures.
Sierra Edd, Rebecca Rolfe's Real Name 
  The artwork shown here is as diverse as the women it aims to celebrate. Depicting young and old, strong and vulnerable, real and imagined. There are communal struggles and there are individual stories.

Standing in a life-size box is Wakeah, a vision of what a real ‘Indian’ doll should look like. This is Cara Romero’s work, one of many in the gallery. As a child, she saw that dolls described as ‘Indian’ never reflected the true dignity and richness of the culture. Another of Romero’s noticeable photos, Kaa is a photo manipulation showing a pottery design on the naked skin of Kaa, a young woman from a long line of Pueblo potters. This engages with female deities, in particular, the Mud Woman and the spirit of the clay.

Cara Romero, Wakeah 

In contrast to the more modern photographs and edits, Shan Goshorn mainly works with baskets which highlight named Native American women in history. This is a rare and important trait, as the majority of Native women in archives remain unnamed or simply ‘Squaw’. Goshorn points out the term ‘squaw’ is highly offensive as it comes from the Algonquin word for vagina, highlighting just how Native Women were viewed by the colonialists.  So with these baskets, Goshorn is celebrating women who have their own identity. Goshorn was clearly moved by the work of Rainmaker gallery as allowed these baskets to, unusually, be separated from the rest of the collection in order to be displayed in Bristol. In a beautiful description of Native American Women, Goshorn said they ‘personify the passion of our tribes, tending the fires of tradition and fuelling the flames of perseverance.’

Shan Goshorn, Warrior Bloodline series 
 Dine/Navajo poet and artist, Sierra Edd is the youngest artist to have her work displayed at Rainmaker and is currently an Undergraduate student at Brown University. However, her works are an honest and intelligent angle on contemporary issues and were my personal favourites in the exhibition. I found her Rebecca Rolfe’s Real Name to be the painting that most encapsulates this exhibition. Set against the background of a modern Western city is Pocahontas (called here by her English name), standing uncomfortably in rich European dress. In graffiti writing the word INDIAN is printed on her chest. Rainmaker owner, Jo, commented that she drew parallels between the spikes around the portrait and images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the deity often seen in South America, discussing how Pocahontas oddly received a god-like status. As well as dealing with warped re-tellings of Pocahontas’s story, Edd said she was also criticising how Native American women are forced to act differently and assimilate under the Western gaze.

Sierra Edd, Am I Next 

One of Edd’s other pieces, Am I Next, deals with the issues of sexual harassment on Navajo Nation, as the men involved are largely not prosecuted. With the portrait she discusses women’s fears of being unprotected from violence. She also deals with the ideas of violence against the land, and how, to Native Americans, this feels like violence against them personally, symbolised here with dates and lines etched onto her body. For them, the colonialists are simply dividing up and killing the sacred land around them. With a slick gold liquid spilling over the portrait, there is a beauty to this piece. However, this beauty quickly becomes sinister when it is labelled as ‘Golden King 2015’, in relation to the tragic environmental disaster caused by the release of toxic waste water into the Animas River, which caused the river to turn yellow.

Sierra Edd, Stripes and Stars 

Edd is also clearly interested in the role of the media in the identity of Native Americans. In both Am I Next and Stripes and Stars, she has incorporated newspaper cuttings to engage with how the media portrays Indigenous people. In Stripes and Stars, she discusses how Native Americans have many layers and complexities to their identity whilst media representations are often one-dimensional and misinformed. She says she is ‘enacting the visual sovereignty- the ability to self-identify.’

This is probably one of the most important aspects of Rainmaker’s exhibitions: the ability for Native American artists to create art that speaks for themselves. As Jo says, “our ignorance of individual humanity is a form of cultural genocide…Native Americans should have the right to determine their own identities and not be expected to conform to the childish fantasies of others.” Their pieces are often complicated, symbolic, personal, but most of all, they are their own. In the gallery, they contrast and clash with one another to display a varied people, with many different identities rather than just the dated and misinformed one with which the West is most familiar.  Through each photograph, print, collage, and painting, we gain a greater understanding of their truth.

We are Native Women at Rainmaker Gallery, Bristol, closes on 31st May. 
Read my first review of Rainmaker Here.

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