Wily, Witty and Whimsical

An American Indian artist takes to the canvas with colorful critiques.

By Almah LaVon Rice Oct 03, 2007

A Native man lounges with cigarette in hand, wearing only a traditional headdress and crisp, white underwear. On his face there’s a look of strained cheer, as if he were posing for an ad. Well, that’s the point. Painter-provocateur Bunky Echo-Hawk called the work Designer Loin Cloth and intended it as a commentary on indigenous invisibility in advertising and throughout popular media. The expected visual marker of a “real Indian”—the headdress—is playfully and pointedly accompanied by the designer underwear, illustrating Echo-Hawk’s insistence that the Native experience is as contemporary and complicated as any other.

The 32-year-old Pawnee and Yakama artist and poet is passionate about presenting Native people in a dynamic, modern context. “There is a widely preferred view of Indian people as a people of the past,” Echo-Hawk says. “It irks me a little that contemporary artists my age or younger are still depicting us the way we were 100 years ago, with little regard for who we are today. That confinement is really damaging in a lot of ways [and affects] the way people view us and the way people don’t view us.”

    Echo-Hawk has always been sensitive to the ways in which Native people have been poorly seen or simply not seen at all. Although he was born on the Yakama Nation Reservation in Toppenish, Washington, Echo-Hawk spent a good portion of his childhood among non-Indians in a rural area. That meant he also spent much of his time confronting misconceptions about Native cultures. “I felt the responsibility to educate my own peers just for my own sanity’s sake,” recalls Echo-Hawk, now living in Longmont, Colorado. Eventually, he found a way to have those conversations in a manner that he contends is “more inviting.” The means is his métier. “Art and self-expression was a way to bridge the gap,” he says. 

    Just as Echo-Hawk resists the notion that his visual work should be confined to Native galleries or look like a traditional “Indian painting,” he also cannot be limited by genre. He studied creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and at the Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder. It was at the Institute that Echo-Hawk really took off as a multi-genre artist. “I was studying creative writing at the same time that my best friends were painters,” he says. “I would hang out in the studio [painting], and one of the instructors critiqued [my work] as if I were a student.”

    Echo-Hawk continues to draw upon both artistic vocabularies to express himself. “When I am in the middle of a painting, I tend to write a lot; I tend to do a lot of research around my subject matter,” he says. “And the same thing goes for when I am trying to write. It melds.” His written work has appeared in several anthologies and magazines, and, as with his paintings, he uses humor to get straight to the heart of the matter. For example, in his poem “Sentenced for Life,” the speaker finds himself handcuffed at a bar and thrown into jail. But there were no iron bars on his cell or black and white uniforms. It wasn’t so bad, until the reader reaches the end of the poem:

Near sleep, my cellmate announces
his grandmother was a full-blood
Cherokee princess.
I have to wonder if the cop instructed him to say that
as part of my punishment.

    The neon-bright hues and playful juxtapositions in Echo-Hawk’s paintings also have daggers hidden in their cloaks. In one painting, the background is a scorching pink, almost painfully cheerful. Yet upon it a menacing chimera lurks, with helmet and military insignia on his uniform. Who is this hybridized villain? The painting is entitled Darth Custer. Mainstream images, then, attack themselves under Echo-Hawk’s brushstrokes; U.S. popular iconography self-administers the fatal wound.

    Not everyone appreciates the barbed-wire wit of his art, as evidenced by some of the reaction to his play, The Essence. “I wrote it while I was in Santa Fe, a creative epicenter for a lot of Indians,” Echo-Hawk recalls. “I wanted to tell a story that was revealing of some of the issues that are alive in Indian Country and not really talked about.” One of those issues, according to Echo-Hawk, is the negligence of some Native fathers. “Within the context of the script, there’s lots of single mothers and a lot of Indian men with children all over the place, and little accountability for that,” he explains.

The play’s main character is a half-Pawnee, half-white girl searching for cultural grounding as she encounters her estranged father and two New Age adherents. It was the New Age characters that raised hackles, according to Echo-Hawk, as the play poked fun at their sloppy appropriation of Native belief systems. When the play received a fully staged reading at the Institute of American Indian Art Museum’s First Annual Playwrights Festival, some Santa Feans were offended by it. “Cultural appropriation is an issue that’s ongoing,” Echo-Hawk states, adding, “I think it’s really damaging, because when a group of people endorse a kind of…generic spiritual outlook and one-dimensional view of our people, it’s almost as if they’re saying that one aspect from several different tribes put together is all that we’re worth.”

Even at the Kerouac School he witnessed a similar kind of disrespect and disregard of Native authorship. “Fellow students would appropriate Indian literature and pass it off as their own,” he says.

Echo-Hawk’s gallows humor is starkly portrayed in his Gas Mask As Medicine series of paintings, which all employ his trademark palette of vivid colors and feature Native people wear gas masks. In one, a pig stands sentinel in an emptied landscape, in front of a horizon of skyscrapers. The name of the painting is Chief Weapons Inspector, reminding the viewer that it was Hernando De Soto’s pigs that brought disease that would kill at least 200,000 Native people in a short period of time. The gas masks are meant to simultaneously invoke past genocide, the present proximity of nuclear waste facilities to reservations and the threat of wars in the future—positioning Native people throughout the continuum of history and contextualizing their ongoing struggle for social and environmental justice.

    Echo-Hawk had no idea what kind of impact the series would have. “I thought it was going to be my most unpopular series, with its kind of morbid imagery. But I was really surprised that the imagery was really instrumental in helping me to get my show over in Germany,” he reports. It has turned out to be his most popular body of work, with only two paintings in the original series left available for sale. He realized that the gas mask had a kind of universal visual currency. “Anybody in the world can understand what it means to see a gas mask on somebody,” he remarks. What was also surprising to him was the ignorance he encountered as he traveled to and lectured in areas that harbored nuclear waste. Some of these communities knew little, if anything, about their nuclear neighbors.

    Echo-Hawk continues to raise consciousness every time he raises his paintbrush or pen. His paintings appear in museums, galleries and private collections across the Southwest and beyond. He has just started a new series of paintings called Living Icons, true to his commitment to portraying Native people as alive and definitely kicking.

    “It’s a series of portraits of Native celebrities, if you will, that are leaders in their own right,” he says, including painters, religious leaders, politicians and notable names like Sherman Alexie, Adam Beach and Chris Eyre. “They’re all people that I respect for the way they’re leading our people and representing our culture. They’re all really contemporary, like-minded individuals,” he adds.

Echo-Hawk is a leader as well; he is the cofounder and executive director of NVision, which focuses on Native youth empowerment through leadership development and multimedia art. The collective offers workshops on everything from filmmaking to wellness to youth throughout Indian Country. NVision’s current projects include a Native hip-hop documentary and the film DNA: Defining Native America.

Echo-Hawk’s refusal to be captured by either the anthropologist’s backward gaze or the art collector’s reductionistic prowl for “authentic” Native art has some parallel to Pawnee color theory. Within that system of meaning, which informs the use of color in his paintings, each semi-cardinal direction has a color and attendant symbolism. “Black represents death as well as medicine,” he explains. And so the complex humor in his paintings and poems wounds and heals in one strike, slaying viewers and readers with sanguinity and a smile.

LaVon Rice is a freelance writer in New Mexico.