Reservation X: cont'd

by Donald Goddard

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The narrative of If These Walls Could Talk by C. Maxx Stevens of the Seminole Nation in Oklahoma is largely a function of sound. It is not the narrative of the Seminoles being forced by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 to leave their homeland in Florida and walk 1,000 miles to the Indian Territory in the west, but rather of children, during Stevens' own lifetime, who were removed from their families to attend government boarding schools for Indians.

Another set of rooms, this time a schoolroom with blackboard, clock, and school chairs opposite a table covered with onions where a Seminole family might gather. The voice of Stevens' mother emanates from a radio on the table; the voices of younger people, revealing their often painful experiences as students away from home, come from speakers embedded in the classroom walls. They mingle into something that has its own presence, a chorus that crosses over from one space to the other through the person of the artist herself, the teacher.

Walls Could Talk
C. Maxx Stevens
If These Walls Could Talk
Photo: Steven Darby

The remaining two installations are like pendant ghost structures, very different, in the form of large houses. Both are transparent, so that one may walk through the walls to be inside or outside. House of Origins by Marianne Nicolson from the Kwakwaka'wakw community of Kingcome Inlet, British Columbia, is a gukwdzi, a kind of village center for special ceremonies and other gatherings, made up of words and images. Two large paintings at either end, one red, one blue, tell creation stories on the outside in the Kwakwaka'wakw language and on the inside in the form of stylized animal images. Photographs suspended on wire form the walls, each image accompanied by a native word, six of people (family) on the inside, six of nature (mountain, beach, rain, sun, tree, river) on the outside. The entire world is in this structure, from its beginning to the present, as image, or spirit, which is both its strength and its tragedy.

House of Origin
Marianne Nicholson
House of Origin
Photo: Harry Foster

Corn Blue Room
Jolen Rickard
Corn Blue Room
Photo: Harry Foster

Corn Blue Room by Jolene Rickard of the Tuscarora people in upper New York State creates the shape of an Iroquoian longhouse, with skeins of corn, bathed in blue light, hanging in the center. Photographs along one side recall the Tuscorora's successful fight in 1958 against the New York Power Authority, which nonetheless resulted in the flooding of much of the reservation and the massive intrusion of dams, reservoir, generating stations, and power lines. On the other side and around the outside are photos of corn, the center of everything relating to Indian life--the seasons, community, survival, spirit. On the end wall a CD-ROM can be cued by the viewer from the images of a butterfly, a sunflower, a feather, a power line, a state trooper, a tourist statuette of an Indian to relate rather abstract but contemporary and elemental stories in further sequences of images. Rickard uses the technology playfully, rattles (corn, rattlesnake?) sound each time the image changes, as though to say it is only technology, it matters only what is done with it.

"Reservation X" is wonderfully installed at the National Museum of the American Indian, so that the work of all seven artists can be clearly seen and contemplated, unlike the rather cluttered and overproduced exhibits of the museum's permanent collections. A room is set aside for viewing videotaped interviews with the artists, which are succinct and extremely revealing.

The exhibition was brilliantly curated by Gerald McMaster for the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, where it first appeared. The 164-page catalogue is one of the most intelligent and helpful I have seen, with excerpts from the taped interviews and insightful essays by McMaster (also the book's editor), Paul Chaat Smith, Charlotte Townsend-Gault, and Nancy Marie Mithlo.

Donald Goddard © 2000

"Reservation X" was shown at at the National Museum of the American Indian, 1 Bowling Green in lower Manhattan. There is a full resource center (library) and a gift shop.

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