By: Sarah Elmquist Squires
“Art is important because it shows who we are, where we came from.”
It’s one of the first voices in “The Art of Home: A Wind River Story,” and it’s a theme that is woven through the documentary highlighting artists who call Wind River home, and those whose roots from the reservation sing through their work. The documentary, shown in Lander as part of the GROUNDED series at Trinity Epispocal Church, shares the stories and art of many, focused on Santa Fe artist Ken Williams (Northern Arapaho and Seneca) and Denver-based artist Sarah Ortegon (Eastern Shoshone/Northern Arapaho).
Ortegon, who showcased half of her major exhibit at the Lander Art Center and is a former Miss Native American USA, used to visit the Wind River Reservation and her extended family during the summer as a child. Those are precious memories for her, when she, as a quiet child, was free to roam and play and be the tomboy she is at heart. “Time on the reservation almost didn’t exist,” she said of the freedom she found in Wind River.
Ortegon’s artwork features striking images of Native women around the world who suffered from trauma, but who reject the role of victim. She paired portraits of her subjects with landscapes of their native land. One paired set of paintings featured at the Lander exhibition was centered on Ada Blackjack, an Iñupiat woman whose perseverance on an uninhabited island north of Siberia was detailed in a journal of her two years stranded there. She was sent to a Methodist mission school as a child, which divorced her from traditional Alaskan life. In 1921 she joined an Arctic expedition with a Canadian explorer group to work as a cook and seamstress. The five settlers journeyed to the island to claim it, but quickly ran out of food and supplies; three of the men left in an attempt to trek across the frozen Chukchi Sea, but never returned. Blackjack was left to care for the lone man, who was ill and abusive to her and later died. Blackjack survived in the extreme conditions until she was rescued nearly eight months later.
Ortegon said that, although Blackjack was removed from her family as a child, she retained the knowledge and strength of her ancestors through blood memory. “She survived through it all,” Ortegon explained.
Williams learned traditional beadwork from his family members, first watching his aunt and uncle creating colorful designs when he was a child visiting the Wind River Reservation. His unique artwork is a staple in the Santa Fe art scene, and while he retains much of the traditional beadwork styles and techniques he learned as a child, his pieces are all his own. “Inspiration is everywhere,” he said. “I’m not afraid to do something different.”
The film featured colorful regalia of fancy dancers performing at Shoshone Indian Days, drum circles and singers performing original and traditional music, and other artists, from potters to porcupine quill designers and every medium imaginable. Those interviewed for the film explained that Native art is both about traditions handed down over generations, and also new innovations that share a piece of the artist themselves. “There’s so much talent in what our people can do,” shared Williams. “Let’s all share. Let’s all take care of each other. That’s how we keep the world beautiful.”
Following the Lander film screening, which is part of the Episcopal Church in Wyoming’s GROUNDED series, local artist Al Hubbard led a discussion with the audience that explored the film and the world of art. “Art means expression,” Hubbard said in response to the question “What does art mean to you?” posed by the youngest audience member. “Art means expressing yourself. It could be painting your fingernails, singing, dancing, any way you want to express yourself, how you feel. That’s art.”
“The Art of Home: A Wind River Story” will air nationally on PBS stations on Monday, November 11. It can also be streamed on AppleTV and on PBS Living with Prime Video Channels.