MINNESOTA: Priest's pop art challenges contemporary stereotypes, recalls church history

January 7, 2010

Pop art is one way the Rev. Robert Two Bulls delivers a powerful message about persistent Native American stereotypes as well as painful chapters in church history.

Decades of personal encounters with non-Native people, from "the irksome offensive call-out 'Hey, Chief' to 'I really like your profile,'" became the inspiration for his brightly colored self-portrait, "Chief What-They-Want-Me-To-Be," Two Bulls said recently.

The 16x20-inch acrylic on canvas is included in "Hokah!," an exhibit of self-portraits by more than 25 contemporary Native American artists, showing throughout January at a south Minneapolis gallery.

Two Bulls, the vicar of All Saints Indian Mission in Minneapolis in the Diocese of Minnesota and an Ogala Lakota Oyate, recalled his quick reply when complimented on his profile: "Like the nickel?"

Self-portraiture "gives American Indian people the power to reflect back what we see in ourselves, and to put ourselves within a context that the general public is not used to seeing, thereby overcoming these stereotypes," explained guest curator Carolyn Lee Anderson in an introduction to the exhibit.

"Hokah!" is a popular greeting at powwows and other gatherings, according to Heid Erdrich, owner of the Ancient Traders Gallery, which is hosting the exhibit as part of its tenth anniversary celebration.

For Two Bulls, it means: "Let's go, let's do it."

"I chose the war bonnet and red blanket images in profile because it's a well-worn, universal image … an image used famously by Hollywood," said Two Bulls. Although such images date back more than a century, they persist in contemporary culture "as images most folks will now conjure up when thinking of what an American Indian looks like," he added.

"An elderly lady my wife and I would give rides to would oftentimes say, 'You would look great in buckskin and feather'," Two Bulls recalled. "I would respond, because she was an elder, with 'Thanks.'"

Another portrait by Two Bulls is exhibited in nearby St. Paul, at the Undercroft Gallery of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church incorporates church history, depicting the Rt. Rev. Henry Whipple, the first bishop of Minnesota in 1859.

Whipple advocated for Native Americans against what he considered to be abusive and corrupt federal policies toward them. "He is a major figure in church history and was a huge player in Minnesota history," said Two Bulls.

He is remembered for his clemency pleas for a group of 303 Dakota who fought against the United States government in the Dakota War of 1862 along the Minnesota River in southwest Minnesota. Ongoing treaty violations and unfair practices had created increasing hardship and hunger for the Dakota, a group of whom decided to drive white settlers out of the area. There is no official report of the numbers of settlers or Dakota killed during the four-month conflict. At Whipple's urging, then-President Abraham Lincoln pardoned 265 Dakota.

Eventually, 38 were hanged December 26, 1862, at Mankato, Minnesota, "the largest mass [government] execution in American history," said Two Bulls. Hence the title of the acrylic on canvas, "38 Tears of Bishop Whipple". It depicts Whipple, in a purple cassock, and 38 tears or a noose -- depending on the viewer's interpretation.

"I used actual cord on the canvas and then drop-painted the blue onto it," said Two Bulls, who holds a bachelor's degree in American history with a special emphasis on Ogala Lakota and Native American history.

"I have always known about this tragic story in America; one that is, sadly enough, rarely told," he said. "I remember reading once that executions were presented as a public spectacle, having a circus-like atmosphere ... (as) a cheap form of entertainment. To put to death all 38 in unison is still mind-boggling.

"It might shock people to know that 37 of the 38 hanged were baptized Episcopalians."

Two Bulls, the son of an Episcopal priest, hails from a family of artists and painters and combines vocations by teaching art and spirituality classes.

In recent years, he has transitioned from fine art and watercolor to tribal and pop art. He considers the "simplicity of pop art ... a kind of contemporary pictograph. It resonates with me with tribal art ... where you convey a message in a few words. It's very expressive in the most simple sense."

His sums up his self-portrait "Chief What-They-Want-Me-To-Be" in seven words: "They can't put us in a box."

He added: "I've met people from all different tribes. We're all different. We're pretty complex people."

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