In the long, blood-stained history of oppression faced by indigenous people in America, the travails of Alaska natives often are forgotten, except for demeaning stereotypes about Eskimos, igloos and sled dogs.
Featuring 30 native and non-native Alaskan artists, “Decolonizing Alaska” at the George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design confronts the fraught history of colonization and shifting cultural heritage in Alaska, where native people have had to rediscover their own identities after systematic efforts by Russian and American interlopers to stamp their own government, religion and values onto people who had lived there for centuries.
The exhibition also challenges Western assumptions that native art is supposed to be a quaint time capsule, a non-threatening collection of ceremonial garb, pottery and totem poles separated from their original meaning and encased in glass museum display cases. While some of those traditional materials are used with resounding effect in this exhibition, they are combined with decidedly modern techniques and materials.
Joel Isaak’s video projection through a screen of sewn salmon skins is one of the most captivating works. Titled “Łuqa’ ch’k’ezdelghayi Visions of Summer,” the video features Isaak’s shadowy figure dancing in a shifting sea of colors interspersed with recordings of family conversations and punctuated by the rhythmic chopping of fish. The translucent screen of salmon skins, complete with fish tails emerging at odd angles, binds the familial fishing traditions of the Dena’ina people to modern life through a video lens.
The rocky outcropping on the Kenai Peninsula where Captain James Cook landed his British ships in 1778 to seize the territory for King George III is aptly named Point Possession. It’s near modern-day Anchorage, where a large bronze statue of Cook stares out to sea at Resolution Park, the site of a pop-up installation called “DiscovRED” by artist Da-ka-xeen Mehner that is projected through the head of a traditional drum. Mehner surrounded Cook with steel sculptures based on the warrior knives of Alaska’s Tlingit tribes and then photographed himself interacting with the sculpture and other visitors, challenging the notion that native people didn’t really exist until they were “discovered” by foreign explorers. Westerners speak of Eskimos as if they are just one monolithic tribe in Alaska, but the stereotype is a haphazard collection of the Inuit and Yupik peoples that many deem to be inaccurate or insulting.
In “White Gaze (Yu’pik Ena),” white Alaskan photographer Michael Conti depicts an indigenous woman trapped inside a museum display case surrounded by fur-covered mannequins depicting a traditional indigenous family in a wood-hewn hut. She is pressing her hands against the glass, seeking to escape Western preconceptions that pigeonhole her people into the past with no connection to the living. There is often some trepidation by white artists to create work that speaks to the experiences of people of color out of fear it will be misinterpreted or dismissed because it lacks the imprint of personal experience. But all artists should be free to speak truth to power and acknowledge the sins of the past, the ongoing abuses of the present and the unsettling mix of hopes and fears for the future.
Each artist provides a brief description of their work in some enlightening wall text that provides valuable context. In “Drey,” Holly Nordlum depicts the heartbreaking story of her adopted brother’s upbringing. Nordlum creates his portrait using a brightly hued array of beer bottle caps in a piece that looks fun and psychedelic on the surface before digging deeper into its sad backstory. Drey was taken from his birth mother and placed in foster care after she was found extremely inebriated in a cab while attempting to breastfeed him. He was bounced among foster homes before being adopted by Nordlum’s mother when he was 2 years old.
In another tragic legacy of colonialism, almost 12 percent of deaths among American Indian and Alaska natives are alcohol-related, more than three times the rate for the general population. Studies have found that while indigenous people have similar rates of binge drinking as white Americans, other factors may contribute to the disproportionate amount of deaths related to alcohol, including high rates of diabetes and hepatitis among indigenous people, along with a lack of basic health care, clean water and adequate housing.
In another video work titled “10 Revolutions,” Nicholas Galanin tells the decade-long story of the HomeSkillet Fest music festival in a small island community called Sitka southwest of Juneau. The 13-minute video juxtaposes concert images of energetic musicians with stunning scenes of nature, including water dripping from verdant leaves, a moss-covered tree climbing over a roiling river and an eagle snatching a salmon from the water in mid-flight. The work celebrates the power of music to bond a tightknit community together and connect it to the land in ways that many city dwellers might not understand.
The exhibition also confronts the challenges that women face from an additional layer of discrimination — both from colonizers and their own people. In “Morning Ritual,” Nancy Burnham created a corset lined with ominous pointed porcupine quills, a traditional material used by the Athabascan women. Burnham, who moved to Alaska from Massachusetts 35 years ago, remembered watching her grandmother lace herself into a corset, seeking to literally conform to the unrealistic and painful standards of beauty prescribed by a patriarchal society.
Rebecca Lyon takes a modern tack in a mixed-media work called “Counting on Liberty,” featuring an image of her Dena’ina Athabascan great-grandmother Anastasia Nutnaltna wearing the spiked crown of the Statue of Liberty. Her head is framed on a $20 bill where she has replaced Andrew Jackson. America’s seventh president was a notorious slave owner nicknamed the “Indian killer” for his ruthless campaign of war and forcible removal of thousands of indigenous people from their homelands, including the infamous Trail of Tears where 4,000 Cherokee died from hunger, cold and disease during their forced march at bayonet point westward. But Lyon sees some hope in the recent decision to replace Jackson on the front of the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman, the former slave and Union spy who led African Americans to freedom through the Underground Railroad.
Viewers should spend some time contemplating the work in this exhibition, which is needed now more than ever amid Trump-fueled isolationist rancor, where immigrants and outsiders are targeted for persecution and derision. The decolonization of Alaska may be an overly optimistic goal for the time being, but there is a fundamental need to foster understanding and empathy for Alaska natives that transcends white privilege and guilt while avoiding condescension. We are all human and our lives are inextricably woven together in a diverse tapestry that must hold taut against the fraying forces of hate and anger.
through March 18
George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design
500 17th St., NW
(202) 994-1700 | www.corcoran.gwu.edu/exhibitions-events
About the Author
Brendan L. Smith (www.brendanlsmith.com) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and mixed-media artist (www.dcmixedmedia.com) in Washington, D.C.