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Native Insights in Art

Upon walking into a coffee shop decorated with the motif of dragonflies, Bonnie Kahn pointed to one and mentioned that some Indians see them as spirits of children. Kahn recognizes many things within the multitude of Native American cultures. She has spent her life sharing those insights with the rest of the world. Her next journey will include sharing her perceptions of the internal world to guide others outward to new realizations.


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Fishing Alaskan
Bonnie Kahn in her Wild West Gallery. © Foreign Interest, 2009

Bonnie Kahn's Wild West Gallery :

A Native Understanding for Human Nature and the Arts


By Sherry Harbert, Foreign Interest


Bonnie Kahn grew up in a magical world. It was filled with wild animals, spirits of the elders, adventure and honor. Kahn’s world was very real and continues to exist. She first discovered its existence as a young girl at the Tulalip Reservation in Washington state.


“I knew back then that I was really lucky,” said Kahn. “Just that sense that there was magic around and I was really lucky.” Kahn spent her weekends and summers on the reservation with children from more than six tribes in the Puget Sound region. “We ran together like a pack,” she said. “We played on the beaches and in canoes. We had a ball.” Kahn remembered Maggie’s Grocery as the local hang-out for her and her friends. “I heard lots of stories. I remember hearing about one man who could fly. I would hear the drums at night. I heard of the magic. I remember watching parents with long robes baptizing the kids.” The Long House, a place for ceremonies and celebrations, required respect. Kahn was told not to go inside by her mother. “It doesn’t mean I didn’t poke my head through the boards to peek inside, and I knew I was pretty naughty.”


Kahn’s mother understood the symbolic and cultural duty of all on the reservation. “She worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” said Kahn. “She died of a brain tumor. She chose to die in that cabin.” Kahn’s father built the cabin on the reservation and moved into it in 1962 to be close to work. Kahn described the cabin as a single-room dwelling that offered no shower or warm water. Kahn did not see the lack of amenities. Her experiences on that reservation were so rich that she built an amazing professional life with them.


Learning the Nature of Art

Kahn learned of the similarities and differences of tribes when she moved to the Makah Reservation in 1983. Located on the northeast tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, the reservation is best known as Neah Bay. Kahn arrived at Neah Bay to work as a substitute teacher. Her first day was marked by tradition which permeates every facet of the culture. She said no one spoke to her. It was a stark difference from her days at Tulalip, so she ventured to ask an elder. Kahn said the elder explained that the night before drumming foretold of impending death. It was not a time to talk, but to wait. That evening a young Theron Parker crashed his vehicle. He survived, but his cousin died. He was sent to prison. Parker would eventually redeem himself in his community by being the first to pass the harpoon during the first legal whale hunt after 70 years.


The 1999 hunt was allowed by the federal government in the outer coast off the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The federal permit was intact for several years before public outcry and multiple government agencies barred the tribal practice. After years of court battles, Parker and four others would subsequently test the ire of the tribe, activists and the government by shooting a whale one late summer day in 2007. The Makah denounced the activity while continuing to answer for the tradition that was guaranteed with the Treaty of Neah Bay in 1855. Parker pleaded with a misdemeanor and was placed on a two-year parole.


The dark environment of the Pacific Northwest was starkly different from the warmth of the American Southwest. After Kahn’s one-year teaching stint at Neah Bay, she moved to Sante Fe, New Mexico. Kahn had grown accustom to the Makah and Tulalip reservations and their very intense darkness. She referred to it as a moodiness that the environment created. “There’s just a darkness with the clouds and the trees,” she said. Her response to the sun in New Mexico was much like a culture shock. “In New Mexico there was the sun. I actually became depressed from too much sun.”


Kahn’s working environment was far brighter. She met a real estate developer who purchased the Frank Lloyd Wright “Potter House.” The iconic dwelling was originally intended for a couple in El Paso, Texas. Wright, who was also designing the Guggenheim Museum at the time, offered the design to the owners in Santa Fe. Both structures introduced designs of curvatures that continue to astound onlookers. The Guggenheim opened only months after Wright’s death. The Guggenheim celebrated its 50th anniversary with an exhibition this year. The Pottery House became one of the two sites for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Equipped with her degree in art education, Kahn found a new sense of awareness at the foundation. She would soon learn the art of curator to launch collections for Frank Purdue and the Robert Pamplin Jr. collection of Western and Native Art that was partly exhibited in the Portland Art Museum.


Kahn began working on creating Pamplin’s collection of Civil War artifacts to specializing in his quest to preserve the horse culture of the West. She learned the value of restoring collections to honor and educate others. Kahn continued her work in collections and preservation with the Oregon Historical Society and the Nez Pierce tribe in Lewiston, Idaho. “Keeping the spirit, that’s what I’m all about.” Her latest preservation work involves a collection with the Chehalis tribe where a recent artifact from her first Native American reservation in Tulalip unearthed a 10,000 year old remnant. Kahn is mindful of both the art and the artists who produce the works in preserving and sustaining Native American art.


Kahn said there is a delicate balance with the artists. Native American art represents the external world through an internal connection with nature. “They seek out what is before them. They interpret that from an internal look.” It is a different mindset from many other artists who look to express their inner feelings and ideas with external mediums. Kahn actively features about 25 artists at any given time. She said the art is more than emblems, eagles and chiefs. “You can see a whole new revolution,” said Kahn. “I’ll see a trend form and processes influenced.” The degree to which Kahn works to showcase the talents of Native Americans earns a great deal of respect. She told of many visitors enter her gallery wanting more than the art. “They are seeking their history.”


“They’re seen as a part of history, yet they are actively looking around,” she said. “But they are not the past. They are citizens of today. They are actively evolving in their culture. They are growing and changing like any other culture.” Art is such a dynamic part of life for Native Americans that many struggle to show its value beyond daily life. Kahn works with many young artists who find it difficult to explain their desires to their parents,” Kahn said. “It’s not encouraged, because art is life and life is art.” The Wild West Gallery proved a venue to show why it is so much more.


Kahn has showcased rare photography exhibits, Navajo rugs, Tlingit carvings, Zapotec weavings and Southwest American jewelry. “Native American art is an interior world, so they share with you their inside. Lots of art in North America doesn’t show this world. Many people call Native American art as ‘arts and crafts.’ It’s art, bucko!”


An Earthly Illustration of Life

Native American culture is viewed through a telescope in the U.S. that looks more into the past than the present. Casinos are the most visible element of the culture in the broader American landscape. Kahn recognized that one must look deep within the landscape to see the beauty of the culture. It is illustrated in the hills, forests, rivers, valleys and fields. Kahn’s ability to recognize that beauty and connection with nature made her a natural as a curator of Native American art.


She opened her Wild West Gallery in Portland in 2003 to feature Native American artists. “I wanted to work with as many tribes as possible,” she said. “I wanted to represent as many as possible.” Kahn has featured over 100 tribes inside her gallery. The works feature carvings, jewelry, paintings and sculptures. “Native American art is an interior world, so they share with you their inside. Lots of art in North America doesn’t show this world.”

Kahn’s gallery and art shows reflect a broad-range of Native American art and culture. She hosted a compelling show and book signing for “Shot the Indian: Media, Misperception and Native Truth,” in 2007, with author Kara Briggs "Shoot the Indian", Ronald D. Smith and Jose Barreiro to highlight the issues of Native Americans inside their communities and in American culture. Many tribes continue to fight for their rights for treaty-obligations of sovereignty, taxation, education and health and representation.


Kahn expressed her frustration at the lack of adherence to numerous treaties negotiated between Native Americans and the U.S. government. “The government doesn’t want treaties,” she said. “They don’t want to acknowledge the ones that are already in place. The government needs to honor those treaties, period. The tribes are sovereign nations. It’s supposed to allow them to govern themselves.” She was dismayed in how many have been ignored. “The people who signed them years ago would be astounded on how things panned out.”


Kahn’s gallery has been a place where the sovereignty of the Native American is expressed in art. The 2007 show featured art work of Frank Salcido of the Navajo, Robert Robideau of the Ojibway and Leonard Peltier of the Anishinabe-Lakota. The former two, along with others, were involved in the 1975 Pine Ridge Incident which ended with the deaths of two FBI agents and one Lakota member. Kahn has featured their artwork in her gallery. Robideau, who was acquitted of any crimes, earned an anthropology degree at Portland State University and art education training at the Native American Institute of Arts in Sante Fe, New Mexico. He died in February at his home in Barcelona, Spain.


“Robert (Robideau) worked with me in the gallery creating art from scrap metal,” Kahn said. Robideau made paintings and shields. “I’ve been selling Leonard’s (Peltier) paintings so he can raise money for his defense. He told me that ‘we all fired shots and people died and it was wrong.’ But only he is paying for it.” Kahn believes that minerals are still the cause of the continuing hardships of Pine Ridge. “Look at Wounded Knee, that’s all about minerals. There was gold in the Black Hills and the government wanted it.”


The outcome from the tragedy of Pine Ridge were very different for Robideau and Peltier, but their art extends beyond. The works of both men feature nature in its most sovereign state. Inside Kahn’s gallery, Peltier’s paintings reflect images of the plains he remembers outside his cell block. For all Native Americans, nature is the most sovereign state.


The First Conservationists

Kahn continues to provide a venue to showcase the connection of earth and native through her gallery. Her latest event featured Hopi artists sharing their art and beliefs of stewardship of the land. Warm Springs members Darlene Foster and Linda Meanus attracted an overflowing response to their sharing of knowledge as care-takers of the earth in August.


“Climate change is very important to the tribes,” said Kahn. “Tribes basically live in the seasons. In Neah Bay, the tribes were so wealthy. There were fish, oil, berries. They weren’t dependent on rain. The elements in every area shaped the tribes.”


Kahn said the value of nature is acted upon in the most simple expressions. “If you find three roots, take two and leave one. Never eat when you pick.” Kahn explained why such simple concepts are important. “It teaches patience,” she said. “Sometimes it is the smallest details, yet it is those tremendous things we tend to miss. It is of the upmost importance.”


With all the experience of knowledge Kahn holds, she does not consider herself a Native American. She does not take kindly to people who take on the Native American lifestyle without understanding its depths and sacrifices. She said she can only provide glimpses, but they are of great value to many others.


Taking the Next Journey

Kahn is very conscience of her environment and what it means to others. “I sought solace outside,” she said. “I remember the waves of the bay, the winds. I saw how the world can be injured and saw how humor was very healing.” Her journey will take her beyond her gallery to a more personal level. She will close the gallery at the end of this year to begin that transition. Kahn will continue to be involved in art and preservation. She is currently working on a project in Chehalis, Washington. Kahn’s need to communicate on a deeper internal level is much in line with the journey of Native Americans. Her newly-acquired skills as a life coach will provide her the tools to honor that quest.


From all Kahn has learned about Native Americans, the two most prominent features of all tribes is the oral tradition of storytelling and humor. “Tribes are so different, but the oral tradition and humor are always valued.” Kahn has found a way to bring those values to others in a personal sense. She recently completed training as a life coach through the Baraka Institute to take healing to others.


She wanted to do something that created a way to healing after seeing so much division. Kahn said she was dismayed at some recent actions that are destroying the tribes. “Really bothers me. I talk to natives from the tribes who say there is so much blood needed to be considered. Some are raising those qualifying levels. It’s losing people from the tribes. They’re eliminating their own tribes. They need to look at new ways to keep tribes strong.”


Kahn plans to find ways to fix them. She says educating the young and preserving the languages are vital. “We must promote and preserve and honor the cultures.” Kahn knows that support for the arts is key to sustaining the culture. “One of the ways people keep traditions staying strong is by sharing beauty and power.” Kahn is set to be a force to do just that.


October 12, 2009 (updated Oct. 18, 2009, to correct spelling of Theron Parker's name and clarify Pamphin's art collection exhibited at the Portland Art Museum.)
© 2009, Foreign Interest


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