Friday, October 22, 2010

statements about work

Earth Renewal, Earth Return series
Double-exposed, hand-tinted black and white photographs
1997- 2010
The Earth Renewal series was conceived during a very difficult pregnancy. Upon my doctor’s orders, I withdrew from the political activism that I was involved with and focused intensely on imagery that would help me create a healthy pregnancy and birth for my daughter. I consciously settled into a place that drew strength from the nurturing qualities of our original mother, the earth. Traditional teachings tell us that we are the caregivers to this mother; she provides for us in return. The ten piece Earth Renewal series is one result of this meditative time. These images are double-exposed and hand-tinted black and white photographs featuring my family and friends. They are meant to illustrate renewal- renewal of the earth, and hence, of ourselves- which is the main focus of many of our ceremonies and dances.
The series Earth Renewal, Earth Return is an extension of the Earth Renewal work… it addresses the issues of repatriation and gives voice to the struggle tribes face when attempting to reclaim their dead ancestors, funerary objects and patrimony items from collections across the country. The healing of wounds inflicted by institutionalized racism can not proceed for Indian people until we are recognized as human beings rather than archeological artifacts. True healing can only happen through the mutual respect of acknowledging each other’s humanity.

From the Earth Renewal series, Kituwah Motherland
Hand-tinted, digitally layered black and white photograph
This image is from the Earth Renewal series, which illustrates the traditional belief of Indian people that we honor our role as caregivers to our mother, the earth. The main focus of many of our ceremonies and dances is renewal… of the earth and hence ourselves.
Kituwah Motherland features the Kituwah Mound, the most sacred place to all the Cherokee. It is located on Eastern Band Cherokee land (NC), which is still home to the descendents of those Cherokee who were able to escape the forced removal by hiding in the mountains or those who made the long walk back from Oklahoma. The Cherokee honor the Kituwah Mound because it is the place where we were first created and placed on this earth. It is recognized as the spiritual and political center for the Cherokee people. We honor this ancestral place as our motherland.
In Nov 2009, Duke Energy Power Company began bulldozing a section of the mountain directly overlooking Kituwah to prepare the site for an electric substation. A grass roots organization was immediately formed called Save Kituwah Valley and Swain County Coalition, which is devoted to legally persuading the power company to relocate and restore the landscape to its original beauty. As of June 2010, negotiations are still in progress.

Acrylic on canvas, wood cutouts
I have a life long fascination with birds. Several years ago, I obtained my federal license to work with wildlife… I specialize in orphaned and injured migratory songbirds, often logging over 100 birds in a year. I love watching the miracle details that happen virtually overnight and observing first-hand the personalities unique to certain species that reinforce ancient stories told to me by tribal members. Working with these barometers of the earth’s health, I feel satisfaction that I am giving back to the first mother. This work grounds me and helps me to feel connected to my ancestors.
Wildlife rehabilitation has made me keenly aware of a problem that scientists have validated, namely, the unchecked spread of two invasive species, the European Starling and English Sparrow. These birds have had a devastating impact on the indigenous population of migratory songbirds and have contributed first-hand to the declining numbers of our native birds. Sparrows and starlings were deliberately brought to this country from Europe. They are better suited to this environment than their native lands and ironically, their numbers are much greater here than in their own countries. They fight viciously with native songbirds for nesting spaces, food and territory and typically win as they have a much more aggressive nature and are better equipped for combat with stronger beaks. They have become so abundant that the alarming decline of certain native birds is attributed directly to them and some scientists grimly suggest that the sheer numbers of these interlopers could force native birds into extinction.
Displacement includes songbirds that I personally have cared for as a result of violence from a non-native species. This series features birds that have been the sole survivor when sparrows and starlings threw young hatchlings from their nests. Also featured are birds that fought attacks, often resulting in injuries so severe that euthanasia was the only option. There are documented cases of sparrows attacking over 70 different species of birds for reasons that we don’t understand. It is not uncommon but rather the norm that sparrows will kill bluebirds of all ages on sight and that starlings chase several breeds of woodpeckers and martins away from their nesting hollows (often killing the young) to use as their own. At one time in this country, flocks of songbirds would darken the sky for long stretches of time. Now flocks of this size invariably belong to birds that have invaded and claimed this land as their own.
I am speaking about birds; I am speaking about native species. Certainly it is not a far jump when discussing indigenous populations to also think about Indians but for the first time in my work, I am not sure of my statement. There are birds that live without conflict with these new neighbors but all birds have had to adapt to a new way of life as a result. Merely accommodating the sheer numbers of the new inhabitants and their need for food, territory and nesting sites requires adjustment and loss of a previous way of life. Of course, we are not birds. But there is an important lesson here for us as people if we can only understand it.
I rehabilitated a barn swallow this spring. The diagnosis was not good for him but against all odds and after weeks of intensive care, he made it. The release was magical- it was a foggy morning and the “barnie” was taken back to the place where he was injured. Three other swallows were circling overhead when the lid to his box was opened and he burst out in flight to join them. As he was flying up, one of the swallows flew to meet him- they dropped to the ground together for just moments and then flew side by side to join the others. This pod of swallows swooped and soared together over the pond and the fields for the rest of the day. Later that week, I asked the woman who had brought this bird to me if he was still around and she said that yes, he was…. at first, she always knew which one he was because he was slower but after 4-5 days, he was flying as well as the rest.
The swallow cutouts in Displacement are a nod to this precarious balance. Like shadows of hope, or voids likened to a memory past, these little birds represent my hope that against all odds, indigenous cultures will persevere and perhaps even prevail.

Pieced Treaty; Spider’s Web Treaty Basket
Woven paper splints
Purchased By Smithsonian Institution,
National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC
As a teenager, I illustrated 20 Cherokee basket designs in pen and ink for a book by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. After that, I felt like I could probably weave a basket. I didn’t ever try until recently when I had this idea to illustrate the tangled rewriting of the Oklahoma and Cherokee Nation tobacco compact. Non-Indian businesses felt that sovereignty gave Indians an unfair advantage when it comes to the sale of tobacco products and are lobbying to do away with Native sovereignty completely. The original compact was from 1993 to 2003- during that decade much in the tobacco world changed. The new compact was very complicated and the compromises unsatisfying; both the State of Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation felt the compact was being interpreted incorrectly by each other. Immediately after the rewriting they were (and still are) in arbitration trying to sort it out.
I had the agreements printed on watercolor paper; I then painted the sheets, cut them into splints and the woven result became Pieced Treaty; Spider’s Web Treaty Basket. Spider’s Web is a traditional Cherokee basket design; “Pieced Treaty” refers to the continual breaking of agreements. This basket has been deliberately left unfinished as these “negotiations” appear to be ongoing.

Sealed Fate; Treaty of New Echota Protest Basket
Woven paper splints
Sealed Fate; Treaty of New Echota Protest Basket is woven from splints cut from paper printed with historical documents. The outside of the basket is made from the Treaty of New Echota, a document signed under the cover of darkness by a handful of Cherokee men, supposedly authorizing the US Government to remove the Cherokee people from their homeland and forcing them to Indian Territory (now called Oklahoma). The basket interior is woven from 95 pages of protest signatures, signed by Cherokee members who disputed the legality of the document, as the men who signed it did not have the right to represent the tribe. The basket lid features the traditional design called Man-in-the-Coffin, woven out of splints printed with President Andrew Jackson’s signature. Jackson, whose life was saved by a Cherokee warrior at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, refused to even view the protest documents.
This basket is considered a double-weave, which means construction started in the interior center and woven up to desired height. The splints are ‘turned’, woven down the outside and finished on the bottom. Is a difficult technique currently made by only 13 people in my tribe and over the last year and a half, I taught myself how to do it. The Museum of The Cherokee, (Cherokee, NC) now considers me to be the 14th living maker of double-weaves. When I showed it to one of our premier basket makers, she said that this shape, called the Coffin shape, is the most difficult one to make and was considered sacred.

Honest Injun
30 hand-painted black and white photographs
Everyone is affected by mass media advertising; the impact of this advertising on Indian people is devastating. Who can take any of our legitimate problems seriously (problems unique to Indian people like tribal sovereignty, religious freedom, gaming, repatriation, toxic dumping on Indian lands, the highest rate of drug and alcohol related suicide in the nation, etc) when we are portrayed daily as cartoon characters? Would any industry consider promoting “Blackman Tobacco”. “Pope John Paul Malt Liquor” or a team called the “San Diego Jews”? When a race of people is reduced to laughable promo tools, it dehumanizes them and makes them unimportant. The names of great nations have become more identifiable as recreational vehicles, insurance companies, sports teams and buildings. Indians are real living people. Our culture is sacred to us and should be respected- not flaunted like some advertising gimmick.

Reclaiming Cultural Ownership; Challenging Indian Stereotypes
Black and white photographs
Installation at Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa OK 1995
And Western Carolina University, Cullawhee, NC 2010
With the onset of the 1992 Quincentennial, my work began to address issues of human rights violations directed at Indian people that are common in this country in subtle yet destructive ways. One series, Honest Injun, confronts the viewer with painted photographs of commercial products that reinforce the myth of “Indians” (read: noble savages or new age gurus) by using Indian names and images to sell merchandise that has little, if anything, to do with native people. Audiences were receptive, but with this awakening came the next step of replacing stereotypes with the truth.
Reclaiming Cultural Ownership; Challenging Indian Stereotypes is a response to this dilemma. Displayed in cases are current commercial products that perpetuate the invisibility of native people in contemporary society… advertising that dehumanizes us and makes our customs, our ceremonies, in fact our entire culture seem trivial and even laughable. But this insidious message is countered with black and white photographs of Indian people by an Indian person, photographs that illustrate the diversity of who Indian people really are.
History has proven that a way to successfully eliminate a people is to deny them their culture. We remember the obvious attempts of boarding school practices, but we can equate racist commercialism as an attempted genocide as well. I often hear that Indians have more important problems that need to be addressed before ‘the mascot issue’, serious concerns unique to Indians such as repatriation, sovereignty, gaming, and statistics among the highest of drug related suicide, poverty, and domestic violence in the country, but who can take any of our culture seriously when we are portrayed as cartoon characters everyday?
The time for us to challenge these stereotypes is now.
Smoky Mountain News
Wednesday, 13 October 2010 14:07

Taking ownership: Exhibit explores the exploitation of Native American stereotypes
Review by Leon Grodski de Barrera • Guest writer
There are a lot of ways to spin Christopher Columbus’ accomplishments or his misdeeds, depending on which version of history you go by. Some call him a hero, some a murderer, many a discoverer and many a thief, and the list goes on and on.
One that you don’t hear so much is public relations guru. Whether it was intentional or not, he initiated one of the longest lasting and most successful PR campaigns in history, that of the dehumanization of indigenous people. With the goals of conquest, riches and spices, Columbus played upon the racism and greed of the king and queen of Spain, the members of his crew and the throngs of conquistadors who followed in his wake. Invisibility and marginalization of indigenous people paved the way for their projects.
From the first mention of contact in his journal from the first voyage, Columbus portrays the people — whom he calls “Indians,” thinking he is in India — as at once noble and empty, deft guides and ready-made slaves for the king and queen of Spain. Columbus weaves these ideas prominently through his journal, and this legacy, this habit of mind continues as a prominent thread in the fabric of greater American society to this day, more than 500 years later.
In “Reclaiming Cultural Ownership: Challenging Indian Stereotypes,” Shan Goshorn is determined to reclaim cultural ownership for Native Americans. In her artist statement, Ms. Goshorn, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, said, “History has proven that a way to successfully eliminate a people is to deny them their culture. We remember the obvious attempts of boarding school practices, but we can equate racist commercialism as an attempted genocide as well.”
Goshorn has created an art installation that draws a direct contrast between racist commercialism that necessitates the invisibility of Native Americans within greater American culture and photographs of the everyday lives of people of different tribes as seen through the artist’s eyes.
When entering the gallery, one is immediately struck by the dramatic contrast between the varied and colorful commercial objects presented on several pedestals inside glass cubes that are thoughtfully situated throughout the floor space. These objects employ native stereotypes and appropriate native names to sell goods and services neither owned by nor representative of Native Americans. Goshorn presents her black and white photographs, taken through the 1990s, one next to the other at eye level completely lining the room. It’s almost as if they are surrounding the colorful and seductive lies of commercialism with a black and white look at and affirmation of everyday life of native people today.
The photographs are a sample from the artist’s greater collection that are at once unique to this group of people and common to everyone. People represented are from many North American tribes, including Cherokee, Cheyenne, Yuchi, Seminole, Muscogee and Lakota. These people and tribes are as varied culturally and linguistically as the Germans, the French, the Polish and Spanish or people of any other nations who have different customs, religions and histories. As Goshorn is part of the lives of the people in the photographs, she is able to represent them in a way that is snapshot and sophisticated document, avoiding the “sweep in and set ‘em up, size ‘em up and leave” shots that we frequently see in national magazines.
One may notice some trends in the objects. There are the wild-Indians-made-in-China-plastic-toys such as the “cowboys and Indians” action figures sets, some of which are packaged with pictures of non-native boys dressed up as “Indians.” There are the wildly happy looking team mascots and sports caps. Then there’s the back-to-the-earth food product, or better yet an Italian ice cream that has nothing even remotely to do with any native culture. Advertisements for industrial products, like tires, seem to use native names for their catchiness and ease of recognition. In the Unocal oil company’s sponsored foam-hand-shaped-Braves-souvenir, the continued connection between the empty use of native images with corporate goals is clear. The made-in-China-plastic “Pocahontas, Indian Princess” is up there in its implied racism with the stripper who is marketed as an “Indian Fire Goddess.” Wow!
Any of Goshorn’s photographs could stand alone, with their professional composition and unique viewpoint, yet their greater power in this exhibition is their cumulative effect. Grouped together they surround all the seductive and colorful lies put forth by corporations and their interests, using native images for the sake of creating money for non-natives. The photographs work directly against popular pigeonholing, mere dollar accumulation and simple stereotyping. As the black and white images show, none of these stereotypes have much to do with Native Americans as they really are and the contrast of the characterization of “Indians” with the multiplicity of real lives as seen in the photographs draws this to mind.
All of the photographs are particularly indigenous, by the nature of the subjects and artist. And some show elements of life that are unique to native people, or to particular tribes; Enos Taylor, Eastern Cherokee, is gathering honeysuckle vines for traditional Cherokee basket making; Russell Means, Lakota, protests the Cherokee Strip 100-year “celebration” of the Oklahoma ‘sooners’ settling tribal land; and Elsie Martin wraps bean bread in corn husks before boiling them.
In all of these pictures the content of what people are doing is special to their heritage and way of being. Yet the smiles, togetherness, accomplishments, struggles and love are universal.
You can see this through many of the other photographs: an elder, Margaret Davis, is sitting in her comfortable chair using her hands passionately while speaking; Nancy Bradley, Ina Driver and Melonie Bradley, women of three generations, sit together, the granddaughter with a warm, shy smile; two well respected multi-media artists, Richard Ray Whitman, Yuchi/Pawnee and Joe Dale Tate Nevaquay, Yuchi/Commanche are in a booth at an art exhibition. Director Mona King, Ottawa/Quapaw, and Curtis Zunigha, Delaware/IslettaPueblo are editing a show for television. Judicial Magistrate Charles Tripp is in his court. These people with joys, growth spurts, duties, generational differences, in their exposure, subvert the common questions one can hear in Cherokee, North Carolina, every day: “Where can I find some Indians?” or “My great grandmother was a Cherokee princess,” or “Can I take a picture with that Indian?” and so on.
And as with any other people on Earth, change is evident. The boy, Steven Ross, Eastern Cherokee, writes on a chalkboard words in the Cherokee Syllabary, reclaiming the language that had been forcibly taken from his family through the boarding school process. Junior Miss Indian Tulsa, Denise Graham, Delaware/Yuchi, gets dressed and prepares “cans,” a modern-day versions of turtle shell rattles for the American Indian Heritage Center’s Summer Celebration Stomp Dance Demonstration. American Indian Movement activists gather to support change at the United Nations World Hearings on Racism as a Violation of Human Rights.
The layout of the space encourages multiple viewings of objects and images, a back and forth between the vibrant colors of smiling, big teeth feather in the hair baseball caps, kitschy books about white women taking on native identities, made-in-china plastic warriors in canoes and large scale black and white photographs such as an elder standing in front of the frame of a sweat lodge, tribal council holding session, kids in school saying the Pledge of Allegiance and a grandfather adjusting his grandson’s clothing. The seconds that pass walking between the clichés of commercialism and the rare treat of visiting the individuals through the artist’s empathetic eyes allow for the time necessary to build layer upon layer of dissonant images, that when understood altogether incite an openness to change and the obliteration of the cliché.
(Leon Grodski de Barrera is the great-grandchild of Italian, Irish, German and Polish immigrants who came to the United States via Ellis Island over 100 years ago. He is an artist, writer and coffee man based near the Qualla Boundary in Western North Carolina.
Long Man, Turn Hole
Acrylic paint, copper foil, glass beads on canvas
Long Man, Turn Hole is a multi-media acrylic painting that was inspired by the Oconoluftee River that flows thru the Great Smokey Mountains, NC, the ancestral homeland of all Cherokees. We refer to the river as the ‘Long Man’ and include our respect for this being in many of our ceremonies. I wanted to reference the healing magic under the water’s surface by adding the copper foil and the glass beads.
The swirl represents a whirl pool (or turn hole) from my youth- when swimming, we were always aware of the strength and potential danger of this particular formation. It felt good to revisit this place from younger years and include this old friend.


  1. Oh Shan, you are such a good writer. Congratulations, you're off and running.
    I'm such a fan, girl.

  2. Thanks so much dor this powerful body of knowledge! I am a Kituwah historian from Southwest Georgia!