Land Where His Fathers Died
In his open letter to America, Wisconsin artist Tom Jones revels in the difference between recognized history and history that’s ignored.
Using archival postcards from a collection he began acquiring 16 years ago, Jones, a member of the Ho-Chunk Indian tribe, juxtaposes the familiar — the lyrics of “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)” — with the well-documented but seldom-acknowledged abuses suffered by Indian tribes throughout U.S. history. Dear America was prompted by what Jones describes as his “need to portray an account of the Native American experience and their contributions to the history of the United States that is largely without a voice in American history education.”
Jones deftly treats a difficult and politically charged subject with gentleness and caution. In all 16 pieces, his tone is careful, not caustic. The lyrics of “America” are written, or beaded, onto each digital print, giving each work its title. “Dear America” (25 inches by 35 inches) opens the show, its words scrawled onto a black-and-white photograph of a white man with thin, pasty skin and flaccid swimming trunks. He’s leaning to the right in a boxer’s stance, ready to brawl. The background consists of a separately photographed ocean wave crashing. Together, the two images symbolize a clash between white, male America and the natural world of the Native American. (The show and letter close with this same image reversed. Jones signs it: “Sincerely, White Eagle.”)
“My Country ‘Tis of Thee” also consists of two photographs blended into each other. In the background is a black-and-white picture of a vacationing woman by a lake, all 1940s innocence. Young, attractive, with brunette curls blowing in the wind, she unfurls a flag on the July 4 weekend. In the foreground, an older Indian woman sits proudly, holding a walking cane, while a Native American girl stands next to her. Jones has manipulated the background flag, making it brighter and sharper, and it nearly grazes the girl’s back. Though the flag connects the two images, it hardly provides an easy transition; there’s a shocking difference between the two women’s worlds. With her long, smooth, ivory legs, the white woman celebrates obliviously, whereas the Native American woman’s wizened skin suggests hard-earned pride.
Jones uses this layering technique in nearly all of his work, prompting viewers to consider the images and the text as a whole — and to consider whether their relationships are harmonious or in conflict.
Perhaps most upsetting is “Sweet Land of Liberty.” It shows a denim-and-leather-clad young male showing off his fresh kill: a dead raccoon hanging snout-down from his hands. In the background to his right, the members of a tribe stand for a portrait. Beneath them is this sobering text: The hanging of 38 Sioux and Ho Chunk men took place just south of Mankato, Minnesota, near the current Holiday Inn and Minnesota Valley Regional Library. The Unites States Government, under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, ordered the largest mass execution in North American history, the day after Christmas, 1862.
Text is also an essential element in “Great God, Our King!” which depicts Chief Seattle’s famous — and controversial, because its authenticity is debatable — renunciation of President Franklin Pierce’s offer to buy land from the Dwanish tribe. “The president in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? This idea is strange to us,” the chief writes (in Jones’ hand). “Every part of the earth is sacred to my people, every shining pine needle,” the chief continues, illustrating the obvious disparity between two cultures. Yet, the chief points out, “We are all brothers after all.”
Ultimately, because of Jones’ thoughtful and clever juxtapositions, a tense dialogue develops between images of the past and notions of the present. His goal, it seems, is not to incite anger but to push viewers to think and ask questions. How does one react when a chief of the Ho-Chunk tribe — its name translates to People of the Big Voice — is misidentified as one from the Winnebago (the insulting People of the Dirty Waters)?
Jones shows how one particular truth, unsweetened by apple pie, leaves a bitter taste.