Read the Wikipedia entry on the 26th American president, William McKinley, and you might be left with a positive impression of the man, described as “an innovator of American interventionism and pro-business sentiment” who “is generally ranked as an above-average president.”
But from many native Hawaiians’ perspective, McKinley was an imperialist who denied their sovereignty, stole their native lands, colonized and oppressed their people, and changed the course of their nation forever.
Despite McKinley’s role in the takeover and annexation of Hawai’i, his visage still reigns in the land of aloha. Statues of McKinley are to be found throughout the islands, including in front of the eponymous high school in Honolulu.
An altered photographic reference of that statue is the basis of Ma Ka Ho‘ona‘auao Ä Ma Ka Ihe Paha (By Education or By Spear), by native Hawaiian artist Ian Kuali’i (Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiian-Shis Inday/Mescalero Apache). The 26’ x 13’ red and orange mural, on display as part of Center for Contemporary Arts’ Self-Determined: A Contemporary Survey of Native and Indigenous Artists, features McKinley’s statue toppled, his body severed by a pattern of spearheads.
The piece is part of an ongoing series called Monument/Pillar.
“The idea of the monument series is to talk about equity in Hawai’i, on our ancestral homelands, and who typically gets mentioned and who gets left out of the historic narrative,” Kuali’i explains. When he was offered the opportunity to create the mural it felt serendipitous.
“[McKinley] is the individual who denied our national sovereignty, against the will of the majority of native Hawaiians, and this gallery used to be where the U.S. military once stored tanks,” he says, referring to the historic role of the CCA Gallery building.
The spearhead pattern is used in Hawaiian culture “when speaking about warfare or protection, or even certain deities,” Kuali’i says. By laying McKinley on his side, “I am stripping [the statue] of his power in the most basic visual way.”
Kuali’i does not identify himself as a political or art activist, but as a knight of the Royal Order of the Crown of Hawai’i — an organization that honors the culture and history of the sovereign nation. He believes it is his responsibility to “speak our truth,” while acknowledging the difficulty of such conversations.
The artist has lived in Santa Fe for more than five years, since becoming the first native Hawaiian to receive a National Endowment for the Arts residency at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He finds similarities in the “healing energies” of his homeland and Santa Fe, despite their starkly different environments.
Here Kuali’i met his partner — also a native Hawaiian — who uses the single name Lehuauakea and is a kapa (bark cloth) artist. A land installation Kuali’i made that is part of Self-Determined, called Two Seabirds in the High Desert, honors their relationship and the diaspora of native Hawaiians through a traditional pattern executed in red mulch directly on the ground.
Two seabirds crossing symbolizes the joining of two family lines or communities, Kuali’i says.
“We are navigating all of this together in Santa Fe, New Mexico.”
Kuali’i also has four paper-cut images in the exhibit. The portrait-based works, from his ongoing ‘Ike Maka Series, feature historic Hawaiian figures he wants to honor, he says.
Self-Determined includes about two dozen artworks in a variety of media by 13 Native artists from around the country. All but one of them were born since 1970, meaning they have experienced the benefits of the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which for the first time allowed federally recognized tribes the right to make decisions for themselves.
It’s the first exhibit co-curated by CCA Executive Director Danyelle Means (Oglala Lakota) and CCA Programs Coordinator Kiersten Fellrath. Means was raised on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and is the niece of the late native political activist and actor Russell Means. His involvement in the American Indian Movement in the 1970s helped promote tribal sovereignty — and influenced passage of the act after which the exhibit is titled.
Fellrath, who is of European descent (Scottish, Irish, Scandinavian), moved to Santa Fe and took the position at CCA in March in part to work with native artists, she says.
“Freedom of expression for Native and Indigenous people is only decades old,” Means wrote about the exhibition. “Self-Determination is meant to afford the artists the opportunity to reclaim that notion for themselves, to explore social and political issues important to them, their relationships to their communities, their modes of expression, and the ways they identify.”
The cavernous and unadorned CCA Gallery provides a satisfyingly airy space for the diverse works, which include six new artworks created specifically for the exhibit. In various ways, all challenge the notion that art made by native peoples should fit some particular definition.
Several works defy stereotypes about what constitutes “native art.”
Jeff Kahm (Plains Cree), an IAIA professor who died unexpectedly last year, and Jordan Ann Craig (Northern Cheyenne) contributed abstract geometric paintings that may contain subtle references to native culture but are not overtly traditional in media or design.
Some of the artwork specifically combines the traditional and contemporary, in the ideas expressed and the media used to explore them.
IAIA professor Erica Lord (Tanana Athabascan, Inupiaq, Finnish, Swedish, English, and Japanese) combined traditional beading and weaving techniques in her creations of contemporary “burden straps,” long rectangular strips comprised of glass beads woven on a loom. Traditionally, burden straps woven of fabric or yarn would have been worn around the back and tied across the chest to carry an infant, a water jug, or bundle of sticks. Lord’s nonwearable artworks are elegies to native peoples, particularly women, who are burdened by certain genetically transmitted diseases.
The beaded designs are based on digital representations of RNA/DNA microarray analysis, the genetic codes that cause disease. Lord gains the viewer’s attention through exquisite use of color, light, and design, but the straps’ explicit titles and explanations of what they represent disrupt the illusion of beauty, jarring the viewer into an unexpected confrontation with reality: “Disease, health risk, and systemic racism in the health care system are unseen, and yet affect Indigenous people everywhere,” the artist writes.
Some works in the exhibit are overtly political; still others are quietly transgressive or subversive.
Dyani White Hawk’s (Siˇcangu Lakota) ongoing video project, called Listen, features documentary videos of Native women from throughout the country speaking in their indigenous languages. Unless we speak those languages, we cannot understand what they are saying — and that’s the point. Most Americans can recognize numerous foreign tongues, from Italian to Russian, but wouldn’t know the difference between Diné and Tiwa — even if they live in the backyard of the Navajo Nation or Taos Pueblo.
The short videos present each woman speaking directly to the camera; collaborating videographer Razelle Benally (Oglala Lakota/Diné) depicts their environments as well, emphasizing the connection of land and people. All of the speakers present themselves with a quiet dignity that is sorely lacking in our hyperactive video culture.
For native and non-native viewers, the exhibit is refreshing.
“I invite you to listen, to watch, to meditate on the precious time you get with each of these artists’ work,” writes curator Means. “They are the present and future of Native and Indigenous art. They bring humility, grace and healing to their incredible work. They are Self-Determined.”