To the left is one of my favorite images from a mural painted by Shonto Begay at the Fort Sumner Memorial in New Mexico. What’s to be memorialized at Fort Sumner, you might ask? It was the site of an internment camp, one which held the Navajo people for roughly 4 years (about 1864-1868). It also held Mescalero Apaches, but Shonto Begay’s mural is about the Navajo end of this story. Specifically, it is about “the long walk” to this place, still called Hwéeldi out in Navajo country.
What fascinates me about the image is a trick of context. It’s just one part of a rather breathtaking piece of art, but to me it’s definitely the most interesting. The larger mural wraps around the wall on both sides of a hallway at the memorial. If you follow the hallway, you come to a small movie theater where you an watch a short film about the long walk and the Navajo experience at Hwéeldi. The images are striking. Devastating. They depict a national disgrace, and in surrounding us with the images, Begay’s mural invites us to see that disgrace, not from the standpoint of objective observer, but from the standpoint of someone in the midst of it. Walking down that hallway, one is surrounded on both sides by images of people (Navajos) herded along by soldiers and scouts. The mural depicts a great deal of suffering, and it places that suffering all around us. Begay’s work seems denies us the chance to step outside the event and view it as a disinterested party.
But when you come to this image, the immersion takes on a different significance. Suddenly, it becomes clear why all the solders seem to be facing us. The Navajo figures simply plod along, mostly looking in other directions, but the soldiers, they look right at us as we stand in that hallway.
It’s an interesting effect to begin with, but when you walk down that hallway, at some point that soldier’s rifle is pointed at you. The soldier in that painting doesn’t care who you are, what your ethnicity is. He doesn’t even care what your plans are later in the day. And as my girlfriend pointed out, his rifle seems to follow your movements a bit, at least for a step or two. (I swear it does!) It’s a rather brilliant move on Begay’s part, because it places his viewers in the scene more effectively than anything else. More than placing the viewers in the scene, it confers a specific role on the viewer, as one of those forced along the walk.
It’s just art of course. We will at some point walk on to other parts of the exhibit, and many of us will no doubt shake off the effect of the image a bit quicker than those whose family histories include stories of those lost along the way. Still it’s an interesting contrast with the many times non-natives have chosen ourselves to assume some aspect of a native identity. Whether playing Indian as school-children, wearing a headdress at some music festival, or aping the Tonto-speak of Indian characters in countless westerns, many of us have done it at one time or another. Hell, some people have made a life out of it! Countless non-Indian actors have played Indian on screen, and countless non-Indian characters have become Indians in the story-arc of a common movie theme. And of course there is the Washington football team! What all of these other examples have in common, is a choice to assume some part of native identity, if only for a moment. They also have in common that the identity assumed is positive. When we non-natives play at being Indian, we get something out of it. It may not be much, often little more than a momentary source of amusement, but the choice is ours, and when choose it, we do so to our own advantage.
That’s the genius of this particular image. It forces that same transformation on anyone walking through the memorial. For just a moment, it makes us play Indian, and to do so on terms we didn’t choose for ourselves. On terms no-one would choose for themselves! We will survive that moment of course, perhaps even without really learning much from it. Still, it’s an interesting twist in the narrative.
That moment, when the business end of a rifle points you right into the story.
Here are a few more images from the mural (click to embiggen)!