The animals are regulars in Kiowa/Comanche printmaker John Hitchcock’s arsenal of motifs, canaries in a coal mine of subjugation followed by triumph.
The prints are just two of more than 40 by 12 contemporary Native American printmakers showing at Institute of American Indian Arts Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe. All use colonial history as a reference point as they layer the past with present to reveal the impact of 19th century policies on today’s popular culture.
“The images are exploring historic events, historic traditions and how those things still affect their lives as contemporary artists,” said chief curator Manuela Well-Off-Man. “They use these designs to experiment with contemporary printmaking techniques. It’s a dialogue between the present and the past.”
Organized by the International Print Center in New York, “New Impressions —— Experiments in Contemporary Native American Printmaking” includes works by Lynne Allen (Hunkpapa Lakota), Rick Bartow (Mad River Band of Wiyot), Joe Feddersen (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation), John Hitchcock (Comanche/Kiowa), Brad Kahlhamer and Jason Lujan (Chiricahua Apache/indigenous Mexican), Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (French-Cree/Shoshone/Salish), Jewel Shaw (Cree/Métis), Marie Scott (Seneca), Emmi Whitehorse (Navajo) and Melanie Yazzie (Navajo).
Hitchcock’s haunted horse symbolizes the fate of about 1,200 ponies slaughtered by federal troops at the battle of Texas’ Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo. His grandmother still remembered the stories.
“My grandmother is Comanche,” he said in a telephone interview from Wisconsin, where he is a university art professor.
“The Comanche/Kiowa people were camped out in Palo Duro Canyon in Texas. They were still basically running the Plains and not doing what the U.S. government wanted.”
In 1874, Gen. Ranald Mackenzie was ordered to remove the tribes.
“He took all the horses to Tule Canyon and they massacred them all,” Hitchcock said. “My grandmother told a story that the horses were pushed off a canyon. She told stories of them hitting the ground and making noises.”
“The ‘Ceremonial’ (in the print) is the survivor,” he continued. “It’s the spirit of the people.”
The staring owls are the specter of death.
“In Kiowa culture, the owl references death or passing into another world,” Hitchcock said. “It’s owl mountain. I grew up terrified of owls. Later I saw it a protector.”
Joe Feddersen’s geometric monoprints reflect both his traditional Colville Confederated Tribes ancestry as well as the environment. Feddersen recently completed an IAIA residency.
Both “Deer” and “Teepee” lift images from petroglyphs, as well as pop culture. The artist traced and imbedded images from a glass piece into the print. The results reflect both ancient motifs and graffiti.
Feddersen said a professor once compared his own creative process to breathing. The doctor asks you to inhale, then exhale.
“Then they ask you to breathe naturally,” he said. “I think of these as breathing naturally.”
Marie Watt’s “Witness” was inspired by a 1913 photograph of Salish residents tossing blankets from a longhouse rooftop during a soon-to-be-banned potlatch.
“The blankets are flying through space,” the IAIA graduate said in an interview from her Portland, Ore. home.
It was an act of rebellion and protest as both the Canadian and U.S. governments banned the gift-giving feasts in 1913.
“It was an act of civil disobedience,” Watt said. Both governments “didn’t want the communities to organize. Potlatches were counterintuitive to capitalist ideas of wealth and how it is obtained. You don’t give things away.”
The ban remained in place until the 1950s, she added.
“To me, what makes it contemporary now is we’re still going to advocate for issues that are important to our tribes and the natural environment around the globe, like the Dakota Access Pipeline.”
Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for the $3.7 billion pipeline after months of protests from members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.