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Julie Buffalohead ties art to Native American stories

“The Showdown” is in Julie Buffalohead’s exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.

“The Showdown” is in Julie Buffalohead’s exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.

SANTA FE, N.M. — Like the Brothers Grimm, Julie Buffalohead gathers woodland creatures into deftly woven tableaux of truth.

The Minneapolis-based Ponca artist deploys a cast of characters to act out social problems and histories reflecting contemporary culture. “Julie Buffalohead: The Truth About Stories” is a collection of her works on paper opening on Saturday at Santa Fe’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.

“There’s a lot of shape-shifting,” curator Candice Hopkins said. “Humans take the form of animals and animals take the shape of humans. In the majority of (Native) creation stories, humans are not the main actors.”

"Fox Tussle" by Julie Buffalohead.

“Fox Tussle” by Julie Buffalohead.

Buffalohead’s dreamscapes of coyotes, rabbits, deer and turtles express her mixed feelings about being biracial, the abuse of power and racial injustice. Darker undertones lurk beneath her playful drawings. A prairie dog acts out a scene with cut-out shadow puppets next to a dozing deer. The deer joins the masquerade with a tree branch tied to its head in place of antlers.

Most of Buffalohead’s compositions thread back to traditional Native American stories. Her touch is both serious and spare. Elusive dramas unfold across an expansive space without a horizon line as her figures act out vignettes.

The sleeping deer with the branching headpiece in “Entwined” is Buffalohead, the artist said in a telephone interview from Minneapolis.

“I’m from the Deer Clan, so I’ve been using a lot of deers to represent myself,” she explained. Buffalohead’s father is Ponca; her mother is white. Both are college professors.

“I grew up feeling I wasn’t good enough,” she said. “I’ve always identified with my Native side. But sometimes you’re not Indian enough and for white people you’re too Indian. It’s (about) my feelings of inadequacy. Instead of antlers, she has a tree.”

To create tension, a prairie dog mocks the doe with shadow puppets of a warrior on a horse and a coyote.

“It’s a story within a story,” Buffalohead said. “It’s challenging stereotypes. The coyote is self-referential. A lot of times, he’s a stand-in figure for myself.”

In “Revisionist History,” the coyote juggles a series of shadow puppets, including a sailing ship, a map of North America, a turtle and a rabbit.”

“Entwined” by Julie Buffalohead, a Ponca artist whose works include “a lot of shape-shifting.”

“Entwined” by Julie Buffalohead, a Ponca artist whose works include “a lot of shape-shifting.”

“Each of them is telling the story of Christopher Columbus crossing the Atlantic,” Buffalohead said, “and the animals are using their tomahawks to rid him away, sending him back home.”

In “The Showdown,” a raccoon plays with a toy dinosaur while an owl carries a house and a cowboy strapped to its back. The cowboy sits on her childhood home.

“My tribe was originally from Nebraska,” Buffalohead said. “They were removed in 1876 to create land for the white settlers. Native people didn’t see land as something you owned. The county lines in the States remind me of the sharp angles of the house.”

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