Reservation X:

by Donald Goddard


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"I also think we should look at the whole of North America as ours and not feel like we have to huddle into a corner and fight over these small territories."

-- Shelley Niro


In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner proclaimed the importance of the western frontier to the American spirit of progress and independence, a claim which in turn has been cited throughout the 20th century in describing a variety of American endeavors, particularly in technology and space. Turner also announced the closing of America's territorial frontier, and some later commentators have decided that the frontier mentality has either found other, equally productive outlets or been frustrated and even forced to turn against itself. This was the resolution of "Manifest Destiny" (known later and elsewhere as lebensraum), and it meant that the native populations had finally been subdued and that federal and state governments were now fully in control of the area from Canada to Mexico, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. The lower-48 United States of America was completed with the admission to the Union of territories with the highest concentration of native peoples--Oklahoma in 1907, Arizona and New Mexico in 1912--all of them by that time confined to reservations.

Strata and Routes
Mary Longman

Strata and Routes.
Photo: Harry Foster


Today, there are nearly 3 million Native Americans in the United States and Canada, a little less than one percent of the total human population. About 25 percent of them live in reservations in the U.S. (about 60 percent in reserves in Canada), of which there are more than 300 in the former and 2,300 in the latter. U.S. lands in trust or owned by Indian tribes or individuals comprise about 110,000 square miles of the nation's total land area of 3,615,191 square miles.

The physical space occupied by artists in general and Indian artists in particular is comparatively even more minuscule. Both groups, however, take up a great deal of spiritual space, at least the entire North American continent.

"Reservation X," the idea and the exhibition, is something like that space--the unknown factor. But it is known. It's simply that there are powerful reasons, especially among non-Indians like myself, for not knowing. Mary Longman, from Saskatchewan and British Columbia, marks the place with two tree trunks fused together so that roots reach both into the earth and into the sky. Appropriately, the configuration, called Strata and Routes, is a kind of complicated, three-dimensional X and has the bearing of a person, with energy flowing in complex patterns between above and below.

The seductively smooth wood of the trunks and roots is interrupted (or joined) at four points by layers of encased stones. The living organism has become a geological history representing thousands of years. The stones are smooth and shaped like eggs, and cradled in the crux of the upper roots is a large stone imprinted with a photo of Longman's family. Everything is generative and continuous, determined by forces that are only revealed in shapes and movements


Gia's Song
Nora Naranjo-Morse,
Gia's Song.
Photo: Harry Foster

Like Longman's tree, each of the other six installations in the exhibition is a conjunction of history, geography, and human life. Each is a space that contains life, or perhaps the reverse, life that contains space. All are literally dimensional, houses and other spaces where people gather or live. In Gia's Song by Nora Naranjo-Morse from the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, an angry scrawl of red, yellow, green, and black graffiti patterns and words ("destroy," "gov housing," "why is leonard still in jail") covers the exterior wall of an Indian prefab house made by the government.

One looks guiltily through a window with red-lace curtains into a room, a Crucifix on one wall, where an easy chair sits in front of a TV monitor playing Naranjo-Morse's videotape mourning the intrusion of the housing project on traditional communal life and building. "In the spring with Black Mesa in the distance, we witnessed a crime against culture, the land, and animals. This is not our land to destroy. How we found it . . . how we found it is how we should leave it." Still, the song persists, but with an ending provided by Naranjo-Morse's young daughter: "It is so far away, and I want to cry."


Anger and sadness are permanent, tempered by humor, perseverance, ingenuity, and an exact kind of spatial and temporal perspective. For Mateo Romero of the Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico, the history of his people from migrations to bondage to forced adaptation takes place in a panoramic black-and-white mural he has drawn on a concave surface like that of Bandelier National Monument in northern New Mexico, where the ancient paintings depict a living history, a recorded time sequence. The Bandelier cliff is fixed in time and space, as the curve of events continues in places like Romero's Painted Caves.

Painted Caves
Mateo Romero
Painted Caves
Photo: Steven Darby

Honey Mocassin
Shelley Niro
Honey Mocassin
Photo: Harry Foster
And in places like Honey Moccasin by Shelley Niro, a Mohawk from Brantford, Ontario, near the Six Nations Reserve. But the panorama is that of film, which constantly turns and returns to reveal the sequential images of a narrative--a love story, a comedy. Niro's work for "Reservation X" consists of a brief fashion show scene from the film, played over and over in the middle of a large closet full of the native costumes (modeled in the fashion show sequence), made of found objects because, as the story goes, all the authentic costumes had been stolen. It is parabolic and subversive. Almost only Indians are in the film, though some non-Indians are in the audience, and only Indians worked on it. It is as though the only history is Indian history, as though the Canadians and Americans surrounding the Iroquois throughout the centuries did not survive, but their fads and proclivities did.

Donald Goddard © 2000


Reservation X continued on Next Review link below

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