Four Alaska native artists speak in “This Is Not a Silent Movie”

Working with traditional culture in a post-modern world at the Museum of Contemporary Craft

We could start with those curious Gold Idiot Strings that dangle in the sunlight in a bright corner of the Museum of Contemporary Craft. That’s going to take some explaining. I also want to talk about the walrus stomach and ivory in Susie Silook’s What Does It Take to See My Heart, but that’s a sad story, too, that winsome sculpture and how it came about. And the commentary in Nicholas Galanin’s conceptual pieces is going to unroll throughout the rest of this look at This Is Not a Silent Movie, the exhibition of work by four Native American artists from Alaska.

Susie Silook does some last minute grooming of "Aghnaghpak" in "This Is Not a Silent Movie"/Patrick Collier

Susie Silook does some last minute grooming of “Aghnaghpak” in “This Is Not a Silent Movie”/Patrick Collier

No, let’s start with a short grainy video screened by Da-ka-xeen Mehner (Just Da-ka, he says, when people try to deal with that first name) during his brief artist’s talk in a symposium that supported the exhibition.

In the video, a very young boy is moving around in a meadow, and he is beating a little drum at the end of a long handle, and it becomes apparent that, no, he’s not moving, he’s dancing, and he’s also singing. Often he misses the drum with his stick, hitting the handle instead, but the rhythm by this time is strong enough to sustain both song and dance. The words of the song? Presumably, they are Tlingit, because Mehner has told us that his interest in Tlingit songs and language started when he began to take his son to the Tlingit Celebration every two years outside Juneau. The boy moves in a tight circle, hunches forward a little bit, drums intermittently, and sings.

He made the audience smile in delight. Smiles can be complex, though. Watching the video, I thought for a second that I understood the deep magnetic pull of traditional culture, how right it seems and thus how profoundly attractive. And then, its fragility, because we don’t have to have a shaman’s foresight to imagine how contemporary culture (not to mention climate change) will fall on Mehner’s son and his relationship to old Tlingit forms and practices, the struggle he will have to stay connected to that lovely moment, those old Tlingit words and rhythms and movements.


For one work in This Is Not a Silent Movie, Mehner stretched the hides for the collection of drum circles in Being the Song, and then pushed his own face (or rather a cast of his face) into them. The effect is unsettling. The faces read as a series of masks or reliefs, wall sculptures, but then for a moment, I think someone is trying to get out, to burst through the membrane, because you can see the hide stretching to hold those features “inside.” Suddenly, those masks aren’t static anymore.

“Double-Headed Language Daggers" by Da-ka-xeen Mehner

“Double-Headed Language Daggers” by Da-ka-xeen Mehner

At the Museum of Contemporary Craft (the show originated at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in LA), those faces look out over the ellipse of Mehner’s Double-Headed Language Daggers. The daggers are based on Tlingit fighting knives, except these are much bigger, made of iron, and seem themselves to be emerging from (or submerging into) the ground. On one side the daggers have a word in Tlingit, and on the other, its translation into English.

Is the traditional language coming or going? Is Mehner trapped or emerging? Does the circle of daggers protect, or is it rusting away?

What IS our relationship to the traditional cultures our ancestors lived inside? Unless you are a diehard modernist, I think having at least some nostalgia for a traditional way of life is part of the post-modern condition. Even though I repudiate the violence, racism, social coercion, slavery, intellectual narrowness, gender bias, and so many other things about the society my own ancestors inhabited, some of them not SO many decades ago, still, in their adaptation of human needs and desires to particular places, a certain wisdom abides. Or so it seems to me.

Even as they celebrated traditional iconic forms and materials, two of the artists suggested during the symposium (which was held at the Portland Art Museum and featured both the artists in This Is Not a Silent Movie and four Portland-based Native American artists in two separate panels) that their mother and father or grandparents could not have gotten together if they’d lived in the traditional past because their tribes were blood enemies. They are the very product of the breakdown of that way of life. We are not going back to that time unless we enter a new Dark Age, and peace to all you survivalists out there, no one is prepared for that. Still, we combat the symptoms of post-modernism, specifically its dislocation, disorientation, sense of floating, by finding and creating our own cultures, often using fragments from the debris field left by the collapse of traditional cultures, both our own and those of others.

For various reasons (and inside that innocuous phrase lurks centuries of evil behavior by the dominant Euro-culture that colonized the Americas), contemporary Native American artists are in a position to make this reappraisal, reconnection, and re-creation in a very visible way. It’s a matter of urgency for them, if they are going to preserve traditional practices, crafts, and language, and incorporate them in their own lives and suggest them for the lives of their audiences. So, Susie Silook is close to the walrus ivory carving tradition on St. Lawrence Island in the Aleutians, and among the first women to learn and practice it. But she has used the art form for her own purposes, to tell her particular stories and reflect on her experiences.

Maybe we’d call it “appropriation,” if Silook wasn’t Native American herself? And Mehner is not making traditional daggers or drums, either: He is using modern resources to respond to the forms and then say something different than the traditional object would have said, either a Tlingit dagger in a museum or one he copied.


Nicholas Galanin's "Things are Looking Native, Native's Look Whiter," combines an Edward S. Curtis image and a photo of Princess Leia.

Nicholas Galanin’s “Things are Looking Native, Native’s Look Whiter,” combines an Edward S. Curtis image and a photo of Princess Leia.

What if I were an artist, did some research, and started using Tlingit forms and iconography in my own artwork? In a respectful way, of course! That’s the sort of question that Nicholas Galanin addresses in his work in the show, specifically in White Carver and I Looooove Your Culture.

White Carver is usually an installation that includes a performer, “Ed,” who is making a wood carving that conforms to traditional Northwest Coast Native American art work. Here, we have only a large photo of “Ed,” caught looking at the camera as he begins a new stroke, though we do have the stump that supports the drawings he’s using for his copy.

What’s Ed making? Well, it looks like a “pocket pussy,” as Galanin called it, like the one that’s the subject of I Looooove Your Culture, a sex toy in the shape of a woman’s genital area. And suddenly, the viewer is dropping down the elevator shaft, dealing with all the conflicted territory around sexual and gender matters and then trying to incorporate Native American traditions in the mix. Galanin enjoys that elevator shaft and our expressions as we fall, I think. Of George and the sex toy, he explained that they were there to suggest how shallow our “appreciation” of Native American culture is: “You don’t want the culture, you just want the object, the iconography.”

And yes, we do. I’m now thinking of the logo of the Seattle Seahawks that has thoroughly permeated American popular culture during and through the Super Bowl. Nice appropriation!

Each of Galanin’s pieces supports a similar thought-train. Maybe I’ll just mention one more, What Have We Become. Galanin says he created it from a volume of Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit, a three-volume masterpiece of cultural preservation, written by Frederica de Laguna, and published by the Smithsonian in 1972. For the wall piece, he has cut out hundreds of pages of the book in the shape of his own profile and fanned them out to create a “face” that riffles as he thumbs over it.

The point—or should I say, the irony? Galanin, like many of his generation, used the book to research his own culture, and that research was done by a non-Tlingit academic. After the “displacement,” a word used frequently at the symposium, from native lands, social structure, master-apprentice educational systems, etc., a Tlingit artist is in a position perhaps not entirely different from “Ed” (though events such as the Celebration that Mehner and his son participated in, are significant mitigations).


Sonya Kelliher-Combs, "Gold Idiot Strings"/Patrick Collier

Sonya Kelliher-Combs, “Gold Idiot Strings”/Patrick Collier

I’m not sure Ed would make traditional Mukluks and mittens to augment his income as an artist, though. That’s what Sonya Kelliher-Combs does. She started her part of the symposium with some photos taken outside of Nome, Alaska, and she described the hunting and gathering that still goes on there, from picking blueberries and fish-drying to utilizing moose and whale blubber. She’s always lived in Alaska, except for her time at Arizona State, where she earned an MFA.

The artwork she’s showing in This Is Not a Silent Movie, is delicate, gorgeously translucent, made of acrylic polymers and other materials, and unless you really knew what to look for, you might not infer that a lot of her practice is built on traditional forms and practices—like the patterns of a traditional parka or skins stretching in the sun. But then maybe you’d read the list of materials on the card next to the art and you’d find walrus stomach as a frequent element. I confidently assert that Blick’s does not carry walrus stomach, though I haven’t called to check.

Kelliher-Combs made Gold Idiot Strings, the assemblage hanging in the corner reflecting the winter sun. It’s made of pairs of pocket-like containers connected by looping strands of rawhide: They immediately read as mittens, because, yes, idiot strings are intended to keep mittens from straying and getting themselves lost, especially for children. But Kelliher-Combs has something else in mind—the suicides of three of her uncles. And then she connected that to the loss by suicide of Native American veterans in Alaska, which during a public gallery-walkthrough on Saturday she said numbered more than 50. And once you know that, the piece spins abruptly, and what you feel is the absence of those who once used the idiot strings, whose hands once slipped into those mittens.


Susie Silook, "What Does It Take to See My Heart" /Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Craft

Susie Silook, “What Does It Take to See My Heart” /Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Craft

Susie Silook was born in the Yupik village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, of Yupik, Inupiaq and Irish descent, according to the exhibition catalog, and yes, she said she was among the first women to learn traditional walrus ivory carving. She started out making mothers and children, instead of the typical, traditional animal subjects that men carvers made, but gradually she moved to what she calls “spirit forms.” These really are unworldly, elongated human shapes stretched to Giacometti lengths, though smooth and tapered, maybe for easier passage through the spirit world.

What Does It Take to See My Heart, which is part of the Anchorage Museum collection, is made of walrus ivory (and stomach), whale and walrus bone, nails and other metal, wood, glass beads and seal whiskers. A woman spirit, her feet brushing the ground on pointe, covers her private parts with one hand and with the other raised hand holds a red “heart.” Three metal blades slice into her left thigh, and her eyes are blank. A red line traces her collarbone in front and then bisects her along her sternum and down to her pelvis. The whiskers emerge from the top of her long oval head. The image is frightening, at once graceful and horrifying, especially given the title.

Silook was open about what inspired What Does It Take to See My Heart. She was sexually assaulted, and though she went to police, she says they wouldn’t move on her case because she had been drinking. The event sent her into a tailspin, and her art reflected the pain she endured. But not just hers. As she looked into similar cases, she says she discovered that an estimated one-third of Native American women had been sexually assaulted.

Silook said that she’s in a more “peaceful place” now, but when she looks around she’s started seeing the effects of climate change, which are more pronounced in the arctic than elsewhere at this point. The permafrost is melting and so is the ice that sea mammals, so central to Yupik life, depend on.


Susie Silook, "Aghnaghpak (Great Woman)/Patrick Collier

Susie Silook, “Aghnaghpak (Great Woman)/Patrick Collier

Traditional cultures didn’t cause climate change, which for many species is already an extinction-level event, because their fossil fuel consumption was comparatively low. And maybe the dimensions of the climate crisis, as they become clearer, has fueled our interest in Native cultures. Can we live differently? Keep our iDevices and conveniences and borrow the elements of Tlingit, Chinook, Wasco, Klamath, or Navaho life that reduce our emissions and incidentally simplify our lives to a more manageable and meaningful level? Or is this just another form of superficial borrowing?

“I love this heritage of ‘no one goes without’,” Kelliher-Combs said at one point during her public walk-through. And she wasn’t talking about the heritage of the State of Alaska or the United States of America, where it’s entirely possible to go without food, shelter, education, health care, and access to the the cultural heritage of the West, which apparently has no equivalent to “no one goes without.”

This is complicated terrain, and we negotiate it with great care or we go crashing through the ice ourselves. In the anguish and emptiness of post-modern life we often find ourselves looking to the past, to pre-modern life. Staring back at us are some of the very impulses that created the anguish and emptiness in the first place…and a relationship with the land, sky and water that seems better adapted to life than our own. How do we tease them apart? How available are the better practices to us, and on how specific a level?


The entire Sherman Alexie quote from which the exhibition title comes: “This is not a silent movie. Our voices will save our lives” (from “Reservation Drive-In,” and oddly, spoken in that piece of writing by Charlie Chaplin).

Will the voices of this exhibition save OUR lives? The lives of other tribal people? How about the voices in I.M.N.D.N. at the Marylhurst Art Gym? (Gallanin is in that exhibition, too, by the way.) How about the four Portland-based Native American artists who were on the panel that followed the four Alaska artists? I found their discussion of their art and our times very provocative, too. I especially liked the idea that we are all living in hybrid border cultures, for example.

As I suggested above, I think contemporary Native American artists see their situation acutely, feel it profoundly, and express it in ways that are both familiar and strange (in the best way), which just happens to be perfect to connect to a non-Native American audience. And it’s entirely appropriate that we living at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers should pay attention. The lower Columbia was home to the second largest concentration of native people in North America, by most estimates, perhaps up to 200,000 at its pre-contact peak, after all. They are part of our history, too, and we can choose to learn from them, whether we are present-day Native Americans or not.

This is a conversation that ArtsWatch hopes to follow as more shows and events unroll, both around This Is Not a Silent Movie and other exhibitions (coming up Friday, a film festival of movies by Native American filmmakers at the Hollywood Theatre). It’s too pertinent to our shared life to ignore.


Read more by Barry Johnson.

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