Buffalo bone china and moon toddlers

Dear President Trump,

I would wish you a Happy Independence Day, but it would be absurd to do so under the circumstances. We are anything but independent with you, our POTUS (and who knows how many GOP Congress people, Governors, State Legislators, etc.), having been installed with a hefty assist by an adversarial foreign government that continues to pull your strings to make sure we get as close to imploding as they/you can manage. It just occurred to me that maybe we’re in a C-grade zombie apocalypse movie with an incredibly sadistic director running the show, which sadly is more plausible than the idea that we are an independent democracy led by freely and fairly elected officials.

So, I told you the other day that there were a couple of installations at the Hearts of Our People exhibit in Minneapolis that I wanted to tell you about and today’s the day. In addition to not wanting to get temporally too far away from the experience of seeing these works of art, they are somber reminders on this 4th of July that nation-state building is a violent, messed up enterprise. Both Dana Claxton’s Buffalo Bone China installation and Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie’s two Portraits Against Amnesia photo-collages are squarely focused on the atrocities visited on Native Peoples by white people. They both recall how white people systematically stole not only the lands the Native People had occupied for centuries, but sought to crush their spirits and cultures (though they failed on the latter count).

In 1997 Claxton asked people to bring her odds and ends of buffalo bone china, which she then ceremonially smashed with a mallet. The resulting shards form the heart of Buffalo Bone China. The installation consists of a small, darkened room with a circular pile of smashed china plates, saucers, cups, teapots, bowls (and probably some sugar and cream sets) in the center with a buffalo-focused movie projected on the wall behind it. The pile is spotlighted and surrounded by a velvet theater rope suspended on eight stands, signifying that what is contained therein is sacred.

Do you know the history of buffalo bone china? It’s not hard to surmise what was involved – essentially it is a byproduct of the wholesale slaughter of millions of buffalo on the Great Plains. At first the buffalo were killed to feed troops, then for sport, and finally to starve the Native People who relied on the herds for life. The bones were massed in huge mounds that dotted the Plains to dry before being shipped to England to make china. At some point in the 1860’s the Texas (!) Legislature proposed a bill to prevent the buffalo from being exterminated, but General Sheridan, the man charged with eradicating the “Indians,” opposed it, stating:

“These men have done more in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last forty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary.”

In 1878 Sheridan said this:

“We took away their country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life, introduced disease and decay among them, and it was for this and against this they made war. Could any one expect less? Then, why wonder at Indian difficulties?”

I certainly don’t want to give him credit for anything at all, but in this age of denial and dissembling, it is amazing to me that he was on record being so upfront both about what he and his forces did and, importantly, how understandable the Native People’s response was. Maybe he could be that way because virtually all the white people wanted the same outcome he did and there was no downside for him in being honest, but whatever the reason, we certainly are not seeing this level of candor out of any of you all.

Then there are Tsinhnahjinnie’s Portraits Against Amnesia. The two pieces included in the Hearts exhibit are not unlike the photo-shopped images of Ivanka pasted into contexts she doesn’t belong; in each one Tsinhnahjinnie put a single Native toddler dressed in Western clothing on the moon. One was a real photo of the moon and the other was a “Man in the Moon” photography studio prop. Both children look numb and seem to be wondering what the hell is going on, which makes sense given that they were almost certainly away from their families at indoctrination boarding schools designed to strip them of their Native identities and ties. They were literally in such foreign, inhospitable contexts that they might as well have been on the moon.

May we acknowledge the broken promises and the fundamental lack of safety visited on Native People.
May we all be willing to stop glossing over the atrocities upon which the US was founded.
May we also see the strength and resilience of People who have endured and thrived.
May we do the hard work of reckoning with our collective past so we can better live into our collective promise.

Tracy Simpson

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