Painter, Provocateur and AIM Activist Bill ‘War Soldier’ Soza Walks On
When you hear an old IAIA friend has died, you always think “is this real?” — because sometimes they show up at Indian Market, worn out but alive. But this was real.
“Billy Soza has passed on, Billy War Soldier has started his journey, good night good friend, his pain is over”.
At age 65, early Saturday morning on January 18, at Loma Linda Medical Center, California, we witnessed one Bill Soza story ending, but the Billy War Soldier myth will grow as we tell our stories. And that’s the way it should be. He would be tickled red to see the outpouring of affection and sentiment, I can see him thumbing through the papers reading his story through dark shades, the comments from friend and foe alike. Even his foes will weigh in with how important an artist he was, who he stood with in history, when Native Art just pivoted and how things changed. Affection mixed with fear and respect. Some people may now say they didn’t like him but we will hear from people who did like and appreciate him, back then and now.
PJ Vegas is the son of Pat Vegas of Redbone fame.
Billy had help, he didn’t do it alone, it was the 60’s. There was T.C. Cannon, Alfred Youngman, Earl Biss, Kevin Red Star, Dan Namingha, Doug Hyde, Linda Lomahaftewa, major Native artists who pushed the IAIA experiment into contemporary culture. That early IAIA group of painters was referred to as Fauvists, the wild beasts of the French Impressionist Movement. But Bob Dylan was the poet of this generation and he was probably more important than any painter or artist. Dylan told them the times they are a-changin’, and so they threw paint and ideas around and had a great time doing it.
Billy War Soldier at a 2012 gathering of IAIA's 1960s alumni, photo by Richard Ray Whitman
IAIA president and founder, Lloyd Kiva New hand selected art instructors, including soon-to-be legends Allan Houser, Otellie and Charles Loloma, Neil Parsons, Fritz Scholder, Louis Ballard, Josephine Wapp, Grey Cohoe. Many who were students returned to became teachers.
Of course to tell the story of Bill Soza is to mention that Fritz Scholder was his painting instructor. Bill Soza, T.C. Cannon and Alfred Young Man were vital painters who absorbed everything (Native history and culture, European art history, NY abstraction, protest music) and produced masterpieces. A common practice was for instructors to take the best pieces by students for various collections, and as demonstrations of what was going on at this experimental art institute. Some works in collections were unfinished, like T.C. Cannon’s early masterpieces, and the story goes that Fritz Scholder not only took Bill Soza’s unfinished paintings but actually “finished” them.
Painting by Bill Soza, from Wild Mustangs series. Source: warsoldierartwork.com
Did Scholder pass them off as his own? Or was he demonstrating the power of his students’ work and the cultural zeitgeist at IAIA? Scholder was painting stripes and butterflies until he hit IAIA. We will really never know the answer and I am just relating Billy’s version of the “who-influenced-who” story. Fritz Scholder would leave to paint those “ugly” New Indians, make millions of dollars and cultivate international fame.
It was hard to say if Bill Soza, as Billy War Soldier, was trying to get put in jail or to stay out of jail. Both men’s fame and myth would grow, very differently, yet always intertwined by these stories. Yet it’s a common archetype in art, of instructors pushing students and students influencing teachers.
Both men are dead now. Scholder’s work is worth millions, it was and is still important to collectors, galleries and museums. Soza’s worth will probably jump some. But Billy was an important figure to us Indian Artists and to the Native Art Movement because he didn’t give a fuck. He drove a big-ass red truck. He intimidated the galleries, the collectors, the museums and institutions.
Drawing by Bill Soza, from Truths From a Prison series. Source: warsoldierartwork.com
We were with him when he peed over the railing at the fancy new restaurant called Geronimo when they wouldn’t serve us Indian artists fast enough during an Indian Market 20 years ago. I was anxious about him sometimes, but you couldn’t show it, friends had to pass him around or learned to avoid him all together. Yet we all remember riding in his rented limos, him giving out free money, buying rounds of drinks and food and artwork from friends. His Indian Market visits became legendary, then dreaded, then dependent on conditions of his parole. When MoCNA celebrated the 60’s IAIA class a couple years ago during Indian Market, it became Billy’s forum as the old guard alumni were able to recount their glory days. The video is in the archives now.
I recall some museum wonks in a faraway state who only knew the myth, asking if I could get him for a show. I winced inside knowing what a freaking catastrophe it could be, or not. Maybe it would’ve been a great time, but those self-important art wonks thought they could capture Billy War Soldier in a glass, show him off and make some money. I really should’ve bit the bullet, done the show, laughing in their faces as their world temporarily blows up. And not helping to pick up the pieces either.
'Ghost Dance' by Bill Soza, installation at MoCNA, photo by MoCNA registrar John Joe
Ghost Dance by Bill Soza (Cahuilla/Apache), oil on canvas-triptych, acquired in 1969, now in the IAIA Permanent Collection. This is an important piece in contemporary Native art, depicting his modern interpretation of the Lakota vision of the spiritual Ghost Dance. The viewer can follow the vision and the dance as if we are there in 1890 and in the present of 1969, yet it also foreshadows the AIM occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. Soza went to IAIA high school from 1964 to 1968, producing this work in his graduate studies in 1969.
He became Billy War Soldier and a member of AIM, involved in actions at Plymouth Rock, Alcatraz Island, the BIA Takeover in Washington DC and others. Rick Hill, the Tuscarora artist, said of him, “Soza became a modern day “warrior” in his own right and participated in much of the Indian activism of the 1970’s…His personal commitment to social activism and the pursuit of Indian rights led him to several brushes with the law.”
“I had various exhibits of my work from 1966 to 1973, but I was a federal fugitive at the time, so I couldn’t attend. During the past decade my radical political beliefs have not changed, but have been strengthened through outside experiences in the Indian underground. Demonstrations, takeovers, occupations only lead to bloody confrontations, arrests, beatings, murders; to be beyond this law you must be wanted…Through my art I say what is inside of me and direct it at the U.S. Government and fear no reprisal because it is my art.” – Bill Soza War Soldier
For more on Bill Soza, look him up in Creativity is Our Tradition: 3 Decades of Contemporary Indian Art(IAIA Press, 1992) and The Sweetgrass Lives On (Lippincott & Crowell, 1980), and visit his website warsoldierartwork.com — “Not Your Average Savage.”
Alex Jacobs, Santa Fe
January 19, 2014