When multimedia artist Wendy Red Star went to public school in Montana as a kid, she wasn’t taught any Apsáalooke (Crow) history. She and many of her classmates were of Crow descent and lived on the nearby Crow reservation. Still, the stories of her tribe and names of her ancestors were completely excluded from the curriculum.
Red Star has spent her artistic career researching what the public school system failed to give her: her history. Combining knowledge of the Crow tribe from within the reservation as well as external archival sources, she uses her rich cultural heritage as visual source material in the hope that it is carried into the future. Historic photographs of an 1880 Crow Peace Delegation that negotiated land rights with the US government, for example, are annotated with red pen; she’s transformed drawings of animals by Peelatchiwaaxpáash (Chief Medicine Crow) into stuffed toy dolls; a series of self-portraits shows her dressed in Native American clothing and set against comically plastic backgrounds that are meant to look authentic.
Red Star creates images Native Americans using humor, her personal connection, and the gravitas of deep research — helping viewers better understand the past and present of Native American people.
Usually these viewers are adults, but as of this month a new solo exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA)’s Kidspace is bringing Wendy Red Star to kids. Whether or not the show’s school-aged visitors return to the classroom at the end of the summer, Red Star’s work certainly enhances the standardized American history textbook.
Red Star and I spoke about Apsáalooke: Children of the Large-Beaked Bird over Zoom last week, while she was in Montana visiting family. This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
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Karen Chernick: How did this show come about?
Wendy Red Star: I had an exhibition at the Newark Museum that opened in early 2019, and Laura [Thompson, the curator of MASS MoCA Kidspace] came and we started the conversation there. They had a political theme in mind for 2020 — it’s a political year, a chance to vote — so I pitched to her that I’ve been doing a lot of research on my tribe and our relation with the US government.
I think it would be really wonderful to present that history to children because when I grew up, I attended public school in Hardin, which is a town that’s surrounded by the Crow reservation and once was part of the Crow reservation. We never talked about anything having to do with Crow history, even though the student population was a mix of Crow kids and white rancher kids. So, to me, it’s always been a fantasy to have that history presented in some way. Then we tried to figure out a way to best engage that age demographic, for the exhibition.
KC: This exhibition is different from others you’ve participated in, because it’s geared toward kids. Has this target audience made you present your work differently?
WRS: I actually had great practice, because I collaborated with my daughter starting at the age of seven. (She retired herself at age 11, she’s 13 now. So we had a good four-year run!) She really opened my eyes to how receptive children are, and that you don’t have to make things easy for them. They get it. That was a big eye-opener, and a great entry point for myself to approach working with the future generation.
We did a lot of tours together and she made a body of her own work based on the 1880 Crow Delegation piece. There are things that were totally influenced by working with this seven-year-old and thinking about that project. Another reason why I thought it was a perfect fit for Kidspace, is because there are activities where kids are given the English translations of Crow words that pertain to animals. That’s something that I came up with together with my daughter, Beatrice.
KC: Is that activity being presented for the first time at this show?
WRS: We actually did a little test run, knowing that I had this exhibition coming. Beatrice and I did a test exhibition at King School, which is an elementary at Portland, Oregon — it’s a social practice project where they’ve taken over King School and added a museum and the kids curate exhibitions, and they bring in different artists. They invited me to show work, and I pitched this idea of how do you make children make drawings from the literal translations of Crow words?
I’ll give you an example. We didn’t have pigs in Crow country, and when they were introduced, the Crow word is daxpitcheeúuxe. The literal translation is a deer and a bear. So we wouldn’t tell the kids that it was a pig, we’d just say: can you draw something that looks like a deer and a bear? And they came up with these really amazing illustrations. I can’t say the Crow word, but for monkey the literal translation is dog and man, so: can you make a drawing that looks like a dog and man? And they produced these drawings and we exhibited those.
And really, it’s about perception, and perceiving the world, and translation. I really liked that idea, especially going back to relations with the US government and how Crows are thinking and a Crow perspective, and how European settlers are thinking and this other perception. And then coming together and that gray area there, to me, is fascinating. That was the thinking about having the kids make these drawings, or making them think a little bit in a Crow perspective but also coming from a very colonial — well, we’ve all grown in a very colonial settler structure.
KC: How are you hoping kids respond to your work and this show?
WRS: For me, it’s very important that the ancestors that are presented in the exhibition are really thought of as people. And relatable people. I try to do that by writing about them directly on their image, or by making them life-sized and having an opportunity to walk up to them. And really humanizing them, because Native people have been dehumanized so much or made into this mythical part of the West that doesn’t exist. My hope is that there’s a human connection that the kids can make and relate to.
KC: Are you hoping that the show helps kids question the colonial version of history that they’re usually taught at school?
WRS: Absolutely. And I think that’s kind of the in, right? To see these ancestors as humans, first. The next step would then be to recognize that this is a history that they aren’t encountering, and they have to encounter it at Mass MoCA, you know? There were talks of the show traveling and just getting out there. Hopefully that continues.
KC: What are you working on now — do you have any exhibitions or projects on the horizon?
WRS: Yes, I’m doing another historical project that’s based on the Indian Congress that happened in Omaha, Nebraska in 1898. It was one of the largest gatherings of Native people at the time, and it was for the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition. My connection to wanting to investigate that piece of history was that a group of Crows traveled to Omaha, and were photographed by this photographer named [Frank] Rinehart.
Through that connection, Rinehart actually came to my reservation. I’m literally staring out the window of my dad’s place, looking at the very spot in which Rinehart photographed my community. It’s kind of incredible, just to piece those together.
He took over 500 images of all the Native people who came to the Indian Congress. I’ve been so fascinated by it, and the really amazing thing was that he actually put down a lot of the individual peoples’ names and their tribal affiliation. I have all these prints of the portraits, some are sitting and some are full-body portraits. I’ve printed as many as I can and I’m cutting them out of the image, and they’ll stand on their own. Each display stand will have a tribal group together with their names, because I just want to see them all together.
I wanted to make that large gathering again and have their names there so that whoever walks into that space gets an epic feeling of the Indian Congress. And there’ll be another section where I photograph exactly where Rinehart photographed here on my reservation, and include those cutouts.
My fingers are very sore from cutting out all these figures but it’s amazing to see all the different Native nations, and look at their outfits, and look at the different expressions. It’s been a wonderful thing to do during this time of pandemic and being home, and a great opportunity to connect with this piece of history.
Wendy Red Star: Apsáalooke: Children of the Large-Beaked Bird continues at MASS MoCA (1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, Massachusetts) through spring 2021. The exhibition was curated by Laura Thompson. The museum is currently open, though advanced, timed tickets are required.