Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to ICT
The latest: The spectacular work of abstractionist Oscar Howe is featured in a new show, Jim Thorpe’s life is the subject of an extensive new biography, and the tangled history of a little-known player and an infamous mascot is told in a documentary film
ART: Oscar Howe’s modern art aesthetic opens in Portland
Swirling abstractionism marks the work of artist Oscar Howe. Now an exhibition of his works will introduce new generations to one of the 20th century’s most innovative Indigenous painters.
The traveling retrospective, “Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe,” opens at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon on Oct. 29 and runs through May 14, 2023.
Howe, Yanktonai Dakota, (1915–1983) had dedicated himself to art and the preservation, relevance, and deep visual expression of his culture. He created art that was simultaneously modern and embedded in customary Očhéthi Šakówiŋ culture and aesthetics.
Born at Joe Creek on the Crow Creek Reservation of South Dakota, he was sent to Pierre Indian Boarding School in 1922 at age 7 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1938, he graduated from the Santa Fe Indian School, where teacher Dorothy Dunn encouraged her students to use their Indian culture in their artwork.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Howe challenged the art establishment’s preconceptions of how Native American painting should “look,” energizing a movement among Native artists to express their visions rather than conform to an established style.
His imagery swirls in circular patterns, invoking water, wind, and smoke. He called the compositional patterns “tahokmu,” related to the Dakota term “tȟahóȟmuŋ,” which refers to a protective spiderweb.Over a 40-year career, Howe earned honors and awards, and first prizes in national competitions. As a student in Santa Fe, Howe exhibited works internationally in New York, London and Paris and was represented in more than 50 solo shows.
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“Whoever said … that my paintings are not in the traditional Indian style has poor knowledge of Indian Art indeed,” Howe is quoted in the exhibit catalog. “Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting … with no right for individualism, dictated to as the Indian always has been, put on reservations and treated like a child and only the White Man know what is best for him … Now, even in Art, ‘You little child do what we think is best for you, nothing different.’ Well, I am not going to stand for it.”
Curated by Kathleen Ash-Milby, Navajo, “Dakota Modern” traces more than 40 years of the artist’s career from early conventional work created in high school in the 1930s through his innovative and abstract painting in the 1950s and 1960s.
BOOKS: Extensive new biography charts Jim Thorpe’s life
Jim Thorpe excelled in every sport he played. A mythic talent, he won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, was an All-American football player at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the star of the first class to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and played major league baseball for the New York Giants.
In a golden age of sports celebrities, he was truly one of a kind.
A new book, “Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe,” by bestselling author David Maraniss, details Thorpe’s life of struggle and success against the odds. A member of the Sac and Fox Nation, he went up against shady authority who turned away from him when their reputations were at risk. At the infamous Carlisle School, he dealt with the racist assimilation philosophy of “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
In the biggest setback of his life, his Olympic gold medals were abruptly and unfairly rescinded in 1913 because the financially struggling athlete had played minor league baseball for $25 a week. Later in life he was troubled by alcohol abuse, broken marriages, and money problems.
He traveled the U.S. from state to state to find his way in the world, and took bit parts in Hollywood, but even a film of his own life did not improve his fortunes. But for all his travails, Thorpe did not give up or give in. The man survived, complications and all, and so did the myth.
(Related: Jim Thorpe's Olympic record reinstated)
His Olympic medals were finally restored in July of this year, and a major motion picture called “Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe Story” starring Martin Sensmeier, Tlingit, is in production.
This definitive book, at a whopping 672 pages, is a worthy tome of a once-in-a-century athlete.
FILM: ‘Deerfoot of the Diamond’ honors legendary athlete
The complicated and little-known history behind the baseball team originally called the Cleveland Indians – renamed as the Guardians in 2021 – is told in a new short documentary “Deerfoot of the Diamond,” directed by Lance Edmands. The film debuted Thursday, Sept. 27, on ESPN.
It tells the story of the legendary but long-forgotten player named Louis Sockalexis, who was born on the Penobscot Indian Reservation near Old Town, Maine, the grandson of the chief of the Bear Clan.
Sockalexis was a star player, and eventually landed with the Cleveland Spiders, as the team was known in the early 1900s. He became known as the Deerfoot of the Diamond, and fans dubbed the club the Cleveland Indians. While intended to honor star player Sockalexis, opposing teams began shouting racial slurs toward him, imitating war whoops and war dances in his presence. Later, sports journalists attributed his rapid decline into alcoholism as the inherent "Indian weakness." He left the team after three years and died Dec. 24, 1913, at age 42.
By 1914, the team – by then known as the Cleveland Napoleons, or Naps – was looking for another name after the new namesake, team captain Nap Lajoie, left. They chose the Indians, after the former star player, and the racist Chief Wahoo mascot emerged.
The story of the team’s long journey from stereotype to enlightenment encompasses heroism, tragedy, racism, and the changing tides of history over more than a century of time. “Deerfoot of the Diamond” juxtaposes the tragic story of Sockalexis with a behind-the-scenes look at the history of the controversy over the Indians’ name.
“To me, the little-known story of Louis Sockalexis is as fascinating as it is timely,” Edmonds, the director, said in a statement. "Although his phenomenal rookie season was over 100 years ago, he made an outsized impact on baseball and American culture at large. In 2021, the Cleveland team played its final season as the Indians, a name inspired by Sockalexis. But with the change to the Guardians, would he become just a quirky historical footnote, or worse yet, entirely forgotten? Our goal with the film was to preserve his legacy and connect him to the present by telling his tragic story from a new perspective.”
The documentary, which premiered at the Camden International Film Festival on Sept. 18, edits artful recreations of real-life events along with transcripts of interviews with Sockalexis to tell the story of his legacy.
The end credits feature a song called “I’m an Indian, I’m an Alien,” by the late pioneering folksinger Peter La Farge, Narragansett, who was the first in the Greenwich Village folk scene to sing of the racism and prejudice against Native people in the 1950s.
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