I just hung a show of 15 Native American Elder Artists and it was a joy to work with the 6 or so artists who turned up to help. They were all so appreciative of having their work shown and not one acted as if their work is superior to anyone else’s. We discussed, decided, helped and were assisted, in turn. Although I was with 6 strangers we felt like a community woven by art.
I have been thinking of what Native American artist Caroline McElroy said about her people seeing things that most white people cannot and I asked her to tell me about it because ways of seeing interest me. We sat in a gallery surrounded by paintings expressing Native American heritage in images of dancers in ceremonial costume and portraits of salmon. Caroline explained that people from her culture see the patterns that exist everywhere. She described how collective energy creates symbols such as those, and these symbols bring the patterns into being in the form of traditions. She acknowledged it is harder to define patterns of spirit. She talked about her cultural view of death and the ways in which we live on. Her deepest values include a respect for the power of the energy in the Universe and how it works for and against us. Perseverance and resilience are also important. Caroline also distinguishes compassion from weakness. Compassion, she explained, is grounded in kindness and in the dominant culture, kind actions are often perceived as weakness.
Caroline spoke of her work as a member of the American Indian Education Commission for Los Angeles Unified School District, an educator in the Indian Education program as well as a journalist, an activist and an artist. She has been very active in righting some of the wrongs against Native Americans. She spearheaded the movement to prevent a new rail system planned to cross through sacred Native American Burial grounds. She also worked to remove the name “ Braves” from a local High School team. “It was bad for the Native American kids to hear the team’s opponents shouting “Kill the Braves!” (Why are high school students voicing that attitude any way? It is “sports” for heaven’s sake) For her pains she was called “nothing more than a bug eating Digger Indian whose women know their place” by a school district administrator.
Now she prefers to work behind the scenes rather than continue to be a mover and shaker. In contrast to many women of her age, Caroline is clear that she is an elder and her role now is to advise and guide. She sees her work as grounding children and helping them to remember to be human. Family is everything – and she teaches that it is essential to keep communication lines open and to remember that words have power
I asked her what kept her going during these and other struggles and she said simply “Spirit.” She talked about always been aware of feeling a grounding wire that connects her to the earth. She reflected on her childhood and how much she learned a lot from quietness. She described how in quietness you can hear the music of the Universe. She lived near a Wash and spent much time there. Caroline described how she would pick up a rock and concentrate on it to feel its age and what it had been through. She also examined lizards and small animals to observe their color and shape and textured skins, to see how they moved and reacted. She contemplated these carefully to understand their experiences before gently putting them back. Although she knew few other Native Americans when she was a child, she was always certain of who she is and that she belonged as a Native American. She described a medicine wheel and an abalone shell with sage that has been handed down to her and how they are important symbols and reminders of who she is.
I was reminded of Eagle Poem by Joy Harjo –which says
“We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion…”
Caroline sees art as a bridge from past to future across culture and individual differences and believes that art also serves as a bridge between the outward reality and the spirit and it helps us go deeper if we want to.
Her collage of Buddha Rising in a recent show is a response to the news that the Taliban destroyed ancient Buddhist temples. It is also a reminder that the essence lives on and rises above human degradation, once again to burst into flower. A recent piece of her work is inspired by Kokopelli from the Hopi tradition. Kokopelli is the giver of pleasure and is an important reminder to live life fully. Enjoy Life – she said – don’t take it too seriously, pay attention and be open .
Fascinated by her stories, I told her that I am like many other whites who are interested in learning from Native American cultures but do not want to co-opt practices as other whites have been accused of doing. Caroline said that many Native Americans feel that they would welcome interest in their culture hence the Annual PowWow at UCLA where “whites can learn to behave.”
See the UCLA American Indian Study Center. http://www.aisc.ucla.edu/events/
The Center maintains an active calendar of lectures, symposia, film screenings, and other events at the local, national, and international level.