Tahlequah Daily Press

April 12, 2013

Respect is a fire

Special Writer

TAHLEQUAH — When most people think of artists, they imagine a painter in a garret, creating in solitude.

Bunky Echo-Hawk (Pawnee/Yakama) shattered that stereotype, and others, during his interactive live painting presentation Wednesday evening at NSU’s Webb Auditorium. The event was part of the 41st Symposium on the American Indian, which continues through Saturday on the campus.

Wearing an orange graphic T-shirt, paint-splattered jeans, and an Oklahoma City Thunder cap tilted to one side, Echo-Hawk, who hails from Pawnee, shared images of his artwork, which has been exhibited nationally and internationally in galleries that include those of the Museum of World Culture in Sweden and the Chicago Field Museum.

Echo-Hawk – who is also a photographer, graphic designer, writer, traditional Pawnee singer and dancer, and co-founder of the nonprofit NVision – merges traditional Native American images with pop culture references in his work, such as the Star Wars-influenced “If Yoda Was Indian, He’d Be. …” That series features paintings of the famous movie character dressed in traditional Native American outfits representing roles such as “chief” and “straight dancer.”

“When people see these images, they will laugh,” he said. “When Native people see it, they will laugh because Yoda is an Indian. When non-Native people see it, they will laugh because of the juxtaposition of Yoda, who is a good character, dressed as an Indian. In movies, Indians are always the bad guys.”

Humor is one way to change those stereotypes, Echo-Hawk said. But even though his paintings often include humor in the form of references to pop culture figures, such as Shrek or the Hamburger Helper hand logo, they also include serious messages about issues that affect Native American people.

A recent series, for example, takes on the Hanford Superfund Site, which is located on the Yakama Reservation.

Echo-Hawk, a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts, said that of all his projects, his favorite is interactive live art.

“It’s a modernized concept that Native people have carried on for centuries,” he said. “Groups of people would get together and choose an artist to entertain on a long winter night. The artist would orchestrate the conversation and narrate an event, interviewing the audience as he depicted it.”

That is what Echo-Hawk did at NSU: Standing in front of a blank canvas, he asked the audience members what changes they would like to see in their community or in the larger Native American community. Current issues such as bullying, elder abuse, and racism were suggested, but when someone suggested “respect” as the root of all the problems, Echo-Hawk decided to make that the subject of his painting.

As he began painting, he asked audience members to introduce themselves, tell their tribal affiliation, and tell about their ideas of respect and how to increase it.

Among the ideas volunteered was that of Oaks Mission School fifth-grader Alyssa Cummings (Cherokee/Navajo).

“Respect is a fire, and eventually it runs out, and we need to build it up again,” she said. “We can’t let it go out. We have to keep respecting people like we want to be respected.”

Echo-Hawk continued to talk about respect, encouraging audience members to continue the discussion as he painted – with paint brushes, with his fingers and by squeezing paint straight from tubes onto the canvas. Wiping excess paint off on this jeans, he stepped back to check the effect of his work as the audience continued to offer definitions and examples of respect.

The head of a Native American man with a black braid and a feather in his hair emerged, as he painted broad strokes of bold red, black, tan, and white, and then a light blue background and fluorescent green highlights.

“I think we should write words on it,” Echo-Hawk decided.

He then asked the audience to come up with a word or phrase for the painting.

He nominated Travis Wolfe (Keetoowah) of Tahlequah as referee, and several of the audience’s phrases were put up for voting – by “lulu,” a Native American vocalization often heard at powwows.

Inspired by Cummings, the audience voted to have Echo-Hawk paint “Respect is a fire” across the cheekbones of the painted face.

As the painting dripped and dried behind him, Echo-Hawk addressed the audience members – who were now his fellow artists – one last time, reminding them they have a voice and a responsibility to use it.


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