About my gas mask paintings…

Nawa All…

Throughout my career, I’ve often been asked about my use of gas masks in my art. Here is my original artist statement about the series that started it all:

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GAS MASK AS MEDICINE

This series came about after learning about toxic, radioactive waste sites popping up in Indian Country.  I felt compelled to share the knowledge of their existences, and to tie in the relationship of biological warfare of past years with the construction of these sites, which typically target Indian reservations.  I wanted the message to be strong, undeniable, and memorable.  I wanted people to think about it, to ask questions.  So, I used the image, and idea, of the gas mask.

The gas mask is a very formidable image. It conjures up memories of past wars, and perhaps, very tangibly, thoughts of impending wars. The gas mask image bridges the gaps between wars, the present, and the future. Though it is a symbol of war and a targeted nation, it is also one of preparation, organization, and survival.

The gas mask, worn by Native Americans, signifies several other subjects. It is a reference to the Native American demographic collapse, or Holocaust, due largely to primitive colonial means of biological and germ warfare. In 1539, Hernando De Soto invaded Florida. He brought 200 horses, 600 soldiers, and 300 pigs. The swine carried and spread anthrax, brucellosis, leptospirosis, trichinosis, and tuberculosis. Forests were contaminated, which in turn contaminated native animals, and consequently killed at least 200,000 Native Americans. In 1763, Lord Jeffrey Amherst ordered smallpox-infested blankets to be dispersed among the Ottawa as gifts, so that “we may extirpate this execrable race.” This has long been the government’s attitude toward Native Americans.

In recent years, the U.S. government has been using the Native American population as guinea pigs. In Washington State, for example, the Hanford nuclear waste, weapons and research facility performed a secret experiment in 1945. Hanford released nuclear waste into the environment over the years onto nearby Yakama and Spokane reservations. The total number of nuclear waste released is estimated to be ten times greater than the quantity released from the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.

The images in this series are bold and contemporary. The gas masks are juxtaposed with traditional clothing, which exemplifies the dualities of contemporary Native American life, the perseverance of culture and religion through hardships, and the stark reality that we have survived.

In 2003, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) featured several paintings from this series in their annual report.  It was an opportunity to reach a mass group of people with my art.  It was amazing, and very humbling, to see these paintings in print alongside NARF’s case updates. To date, my gas mask paintings have been used to illustrate numerous publications about environmental justice.

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Bunky Echo-Hawk

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  • Teresa Thorpe

    Well put – couldn’t have said it better – also the forced sterilization of NDN women – “On the phone, during long marches, occupying federal surplus property, in court fighting for treaty rights — wherever Indian activists gathered during the “Red Power” years of the 1970s, conversation inevitably turned to the number of women who had had their tubes tied or their ovaries removed by the Indian Health Service. This was, I heard one woman joke bitterly at the time, a “fringe benefit of living in a domestic, dependent nation.”
    Communication spurred by activism provoked a growing number of Native American women to piece together what amounted to a national eugenic policy, translated into social reality by copious federal funding. (See sidebar) They organized WARN (Women of All Red Nations) at Rapid City, South Dakota, as Native women from more than thirty nations met and decided, among other things, that “truth and communication are among our most valuable tools in the liberation of our lands, people, and four-legged and winged creations.”
    WARN and other women’s organizations publicized the sterilizations, which were performed after pro-forma “consent” of the women being sterilized. The “consent” sometimes was not offered in the women’s language, following threats that they would die or lose their welfare benefits if they had more children. At least two fifteen-year-old girls were told they were having their tonsils out before their ovaries were removed.”
    Sterilization of Native American Women Bruce E Johansen http://www.ratical.org/ratville/sterilize.html

    Bruce E. Johansen