In Search of New Metaphors: A Response to COVID-19 and Other “Wars”

Tao Te Ching / 46

When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
The factories make trucks and tractors.
When a country goes counter to the Tao,
Warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.

There is no greater illusion than fear,
No greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself,
No greater misfortune than having an enemy.

Whoever can see through all fear
Will always be safe

Unnamed 2020. Mixed media on canvas. 14″ x 18″

“Waging War” on COVID-19

As I start writing this essay, on March 29, 2020, the novel coronavirus pandemic has claimed 30,000+ lives worldwide, and health officials in the U.S. expect 100-200,000 deaths as the crisis unfolds. New York City and other major metropolitan areas are experiencing local outbreaks that have overwhelmed health system capacity and resources, further endangering communities and the workers that care for them. Here in Minnesota, we have a relatively controlled situation, but experts expect a surge in illnesses and deaths. Today, Minnesota has only lost nine people to COVID-19, but that number is expected to grow exponentially in the coming weeks. In response to the fast-spreading pandemic, cities have instituted measures to slow it down: social distancing, lockdowns, health care facility visitor restrictions, business closures and much more. As such, the economy has come to a grinding halt as governments attempt to “flatten the curve” of infections, or at least delay the spike to allow our fragmented health care infrastructure time to adequately prepare. This moment has resulted in job losses, resource scarcity, and widespread suffering – everything about how we live contemporary life is being redefined. Needless to say, it’s a fraught, challenging time.

The words “unprecedented” and “uncertainty” seem to bounce around much more than usual these days. During times of great uncertainty, Americans have often relied on the metaphor of war for inspiration. The war on drugs, war on crime, war on poverty, and even war on chronic disease are examples. This moment of COVID-19 is no exception: you hear every day of community members, patients, doctors, nurses, health officials, politicians, trying to “fight” the pandemic, declaring war on COVID-19. President Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act to manufacture a therapeutic arsenal: ventilators and protective equipment. Simultaneously, the humongous military hospital ships Comfort and Mercy approach our eastern and western shores, and hospital systems fortify their wards for the coming onslaught of the sickened. Meanwhile, the public “shelters in place,” subjected to the grim 24-hour news cycle, with its images of overflowing hospitals around the world. Infection rates and death tolls climb, horror-stricken people hoard food and, yes, toilet paper. It’s a moment that, filled with fear, anxiety and uncertainty, feels very much like war. In order to fight this “war,” many of us have had to withdraw from our social networks, our families and our livelihoods – the very elements which give us strength. We are asked to operate at a safe “social distance,” to quarantine, and not to leave home. In other words, it’s not an active fight. Most of this feels like passive action, an almost Buddhist “doing by not doing.” So one has to wonder: in the absence of a way for individuals to truly “fight” against this pandemic, and acknowledging the compounding effects of fear on the problem, is the tired and convenient concept of “war” the right metaphor for this moment?

It’s no surprise that the war trope pervades contemporary society. At every stage of our history, the human race has proven its propensity for violence and destruction. Despite our evolutionary trajectory, or perhaps because of it, we are a warring species who, particularly in America, identify with a gritty, fighter-warrior attitude when it comes to adversity. Framing problems as “wars” may serve a purpose by drawing mass attention to a greater cause (the war effort), inspiring political, economic and social will to collectively mobilize. In previous wars, the government used crisis as a pretext for broad powers and control over critical resources. Finally, the invocation of wartime stirs up an American nostalgia for the golden post-war periods of the 1920s and 1950s, times of sacrifice followed by relative prosperity – the “good old days.” At best, characterizing the COVID-19 pandemic as a war may appeal to American’s fighting spirit of survival, encourage people and companies to work together, and pave the way for broader government control of a rapidly evolving situation. Despite our millenia of experience with war, I worry about the metaphor’s implications for our collective psyche. In the words of Star Wars’ Master Yoda: “To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is, of losing who we are.” In thinking of national and global challenges such as COVID-19 as wars, what of ourselves do we stand to lose?

Imagining our challenges as wars necessitates the creation of a monolithic, semi-fictional “enemy” that deepens our sense of fear. Fear leads to a dynamic response by our sympathetic nervous systems commonly called “fight or flight.” Our response to fear can be organized and appropriate, but often it results in frenzy, panic and insane behavior. The news, while keeping us informed, commands our rapt attention to often unsettling developments, and the far corners of the internet propagate the darkest stories. The isolation from our routines, friends, families and communities, the missing sense of purpose that work brings to our lives, and the insistence that we are fighting a war also compound uncertainty, increasing our fear. As fear mounts, so too does the likelihood of insane, individualistic behavior: hoarding food and resources, extreme isolation and refusal to engage with the world, promoting negative rumors and mistrusting and/or resenting or blaming those around us. Throughout the outbreak, we have seen steadily rising rates of domestic violence, mental health crises and suicide. These negative outcomes fanning out from fear, this collateral damage, confronts us: how do we address this crisis without adding other unnecessary suffering in the process?

Searching for the Bigger Picture

If we are to fight a war against COVID-19, then logic demands the novel coronavirus must be the enemy. Not to forget the other “enemies” that become scapegoats in the “war effort.” The creation of such an enemies increases the illusion of our separateness from Nature and each other, cutting us off from the natural rhythms and cycles within which we are born, live and perish. Much of our human experience, the built environment, our faith traditions, our scientific practices and our assumptions about the world serve to separate the human from the rest of Nature, and sometimes from each other. We create categories, walls, boundaries, borders, limits, quarantines to identify, divide and keep difference at arm’s length. Whereas the individual is the “self,” all else becomes “not-self:” other humans, animals, plants, fungi, bacteria and viruses become the “other,” the “foreigner,” the “invader” or the “enemy.” These artificial degrees of separation make us forget that We (all species, all beings) are all connected in a complex web of interdependence. Just as humans are manifestations of Nature, so too are each living and nonliving formation in the universe – and we are all related. By emphasizing our relationship to the virus instead of our resistance to it, we may creatively explore new strategies, new ways of thinking about how to adapt.

This is about the big picture. In the Planetary Collective’s short film Overview, astronauts describe the “overview effect,” the experience of viewing Earth from orbit, as a whole. From such a vantage point, our imaginary boundaries and national identities vanish, our constructed differences dissolve. Only the truth of the big picture remains: We (all life) are residents of “spaceship Earth,” a living, breathing superbeing in which we all participate, within which all our destinies are woven. Global crises such as COVID-19 or climate change have the power to change our perspective in a similar way, but only if we let them – it is a choice. As unpopular a notion as it may currently be, viruses and all microscopic pathogens figure into this vast family of Earthlings, these expressions of Nature. Is waging war on fellow Earthlings – parts of the larger Us – really the best way forward? Especially when the “enemy” is invisible to the naked eye, spreads rapidly, infects insidiously? At best, waging war on oneself is useless or insane. At worst, it is gravely self-destructive.

One might argue that our very bodies “wage war” or “fight” against foreign invaders. The metaphor of war has often been applied to the work of our immune systems against pathogens. The assigned language for immune responses includes “attack, defend, kill, neutralize, dissolve, etc.” Specific cells have been given intimidating names like “natural killers, macrophages (big devouring cells), cytotoxic (cell-toxic) cells” and “antibodies.” War may be a convenient way to characterize the behavior of the immune system, but it’s more complicated than that. As we look further into immune responses, it becomes apparent that pathogens are not only disarmed and dissolved, but their protein marker components are incorporated into our own immune cells, effectively merging with them to allow room for coexistence. In one way of looking at it, our bodies seek to increase our sameness with other life rather than increase our difference. Simply put, when faced with a challenge, our immune systems seek to transform rather than eradicate.

Unfortunately, in our imperfect reality, humans and pathogens cannot always coexist harmoniously in a dance of balanced adaptation. As we overprescribe antibiotics, we create “superbugs,” resistant to many of our cures. As we mistreat the land, encroach on animal populations, and generally live out of balance with the natural world, we encounter “novel” viruses that jump from a reservoir species to our own. When the immune system response fails or overreacts and treatments for disease run out, we acknowledge mortality as a result of infection. Until very recently in the human story, infectious disease killed most humans, and much earlier than most humans live today. Death by infection was commonplace and a near-expectation, part of the human condition. When our fragile bodies succumb, we are reminded that infection and death are a natural part of our life cycle. Imagining our total separateness from infection and death only reinforces the lie, prolongs our suffering. When physical and psychological suffering become inevitable, I suggest we are in need of new metaphors for our health, wellness and survival – metaphors that inspire growth, adaptation and connection instead of metaphors – like war – that increase fear and, in turn, lead to further suffering.

Alternatives to War: Growth, Adaptation & Transformation

As a registered nurse, I naturally look to nursing theory to gain perspective on such questions. Nursing theory gives us concepts, frameworks, models and metaphors to help us understand the complexity of human health. One theory I have come to appreciate is Sister Callista Roy’s Adaptation Model, which characterizes the human health experience as a series of successful or unsuccessful adaptations. In this model, the nursing process focuses on increasing the subject’s capacity to adapt. Growth and adaptation can be enveloped into the concept of “transformation,” which I think is an ideal alternative metaphor for overcoming crisis. Transformation implies that something about us can change in response to the changing external circumstances, in this case COVID-19. In Roy’s words: “Health is not freedom from the inevitability of death, disease, unhappiness and stress, but the ability to cope with them in a competent way.” Instead of resisting or “fighting” an enemy, the disease, we have the opportunity to cope by transforming.

One opportunity for adaptation is a change in how we perceive ourselves in relation to Nature. Since the industrialization era and exponentially since, we have become more and more separate from Nature, walled off and protected from its rhythms. As evidenced by environmental activism around the climate crisis, this has begun to change slowly. Understanding that both humans and vectors of disease are part of Nature’s great wheel of renewal may help us overcome our fear. Indeed, viruses and humans have some key similarities: we overtake and manipulate resources to ensure our survival; we seek to reproduce ourselves; our true motive is not necessarily to kill, but nevermind that killing happens as a result of our expansion. Discarding the pretense of “separateness” from viruses, from disease, and realizing the need for coexistence (through vaccines or herd immunity) can help us accept this fact and overcome the pervading fear that causes us to run, hide and fight.

We need to cope with and adapt to COVID-19, and realistically that means enough of us contracting it – very gradually – so that our fragmented and limited health care resources are not overwhelmed, and the vulnerable have a place to receive treatment when needed. To achieve this, we are asked to cultivate separateness, however temporary, from each other. Social distancing, isolation and quarantine are now everyday, household terms. These passive actions run counter to the war metaphor, which involves “fighting, killing, eradicating,” – yet more evidence that war is not the right metaphor for these times. Withdrawal into our homes and internal, private lives represents an opportunity to transform: changes in the pattern of our days, changes in the pattern of disease spread, and perhaps changes in the pattern of our hearts and minds. Instead of fighting wars for us, these actions, these passive forms of non-resistance are Zen-like in their quiet powers: to protect, heal, and to reveal to us something new about ourselves.

Even as we separate, we must remember that separateness is merely an illusion made more tangible by these “unprecedented” and “trying” times. During this time of social distancing and isolation, we can learn from the Dakota concept mitakuye oyasin, or “all my relations,” which reminds us of the intrinsic ways we are all connected to each other in an endless web of relationships. Each being in the system plays a part connected to all the others, exactly like an ecosystem. We see this reflected in the economic challenges we face, the supply chains, the social networks, and our own family communities. But where crisis exposes failure and weakness, it also unearths tremendous potential for growth and adaptation. People are finding ways to preserve connections, or reach out in new ways: mask-making to protect others, virtual hangouts and happy hours to stay connected with friends and family, drive-by parades for kids, food drives, the list goes on. These examples provide hope that we can grow and strengthen through participation in our social-ecological roles, even during a time of fear and crisis.

Conclusion: Choosing the Right Metaphor

We are all part of the bigger story of Earth – the boundaries we create that separate species, people, and nations are all imaginary. Many of the lines we draw to divide and categorize us are drawn as a reaction to fear. COVID-19 doesn’t believe in all those lines, and neither should we. Instead of fighting wars from behind our constructed barricades (physical or imaginary), we must seek to cooperate with our fellow Earthlings, understand our role in the greater ecological picture of Earth, love each other, help each other, and grow and adapt creatively through the course of this crisis.

We have choices to make. Fear is real: fear of isolation, fear of scarcity, fear of ourselves or loved ones dying alone in a hospital, fear of the unknown. With this essay I ask: what do we do with that fear? What do we take away from the COVID-19 pandemic? What damage do we risk to ourselves by fighting this as a war, letting this very real fear control us? In the words of Richard Rohr, “Love alone overcomes fear … We are in the midst of a highly teachable moment. There’s no doubt that this period will be referred to for the rest of our lifetimes. We have a chance to go deep, and to go broad. Globally, we’re in this together. Depth is being forced on us by great suffering, which as I like to say, always leads to great love.” Through love instead of fear, we grow and adapt. By reaching out to others in inventive ways, promoting the health and safety of others in the daily decisions we make, we shift our focus as a nation from the individual good to the collective good.

As I finish this essay, on August 17, 2020, 1706 Minnesota residents have succumbed to COVID-19, the vast majority of those living in congregate settings. As a state, we appear to be climbing a (hopefully) smaller curve of infections as we reintegrate after sweeping shutdowns. As a nation, we have lost 170,000 people to COVID-19, the worst national death toll in the global community. How can a rich global power, awash with funds and technological prowess have such poor COVID-19 outcomes? This question is a topic of fierce debate. Rather than pin the blame on any one cause, I suggest we look back to the defects in our relationships with each other, the natural world and the universe.

I would be remiss not to mention the the additional challenges/opportunities 2020 has brought to the table. With the backdrop of a global pandemic, we are also living in the time of George Floyd’s killing, social upheaval around race relations, deep disruptions to our work and school lives, lack of coherent national leadership, and a bitter election on the horizon. These are liminal times; I hear again and again: Our society is unraveling. Our culture is being canceled. Times are changing. Things might actually change this time. It’s time to rise up. It’s time to move to the country and build a bunker… It seems we all agree we are on the verge of something new. How can we avoid approaching this moment with fear and war in our hearts, and instead approach it with love and openness? How can we harness the transformational power of this era and emerge from crisis with greater understanding of ourselves, each other and our relationships?

Turbulent times, and more loss, surely lie ahead as we re-integrate, as we grapple with all we are currently faced with. I believe we can do this: if we put as much energy, ingenuity, political will, money and effort into this as we generally put into fighting wars all over the globe, I have no doubt we can meet this challenge and emerge stronger than before. But we must not lose the opportunity here, the choice: do we choose the path of fear and resistance – the path of war – or the path of love? The path’s end may not end up being more consequential than what we became along the way. We must allow this moment to be our teacher, to help us grow stronger, as we adapt and transform as a species. We have the power to choose love over fear; life over war.

Unnamed. Mixed media on canvas. 14″ x 18″

Response to Changing Horizons: A Reflection On Native American Art, Identity and Belonging

Introduction: Changing Horizons, 1/8th Dakota & Beginnings

“Surrealist Landscape – Automatic Variation” by George Morrison

In Fall of 2019 I participated in the “Changing Horizons” exhibit at All My Relations Arts and Two Rivers Gallery in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The show’s concept challenges the popular notion that art by Natives should conform to stereotyped ideas about what Native American art is. The submission guidelines indicated the show was open to all indigenous artists living on Turtle Island (or North America). Being partly Dakota, I decided to submit a few pieces from my “Coagulation Studies” series. However, I did not want to misrepresent myself; By “blood quantum,” I am 1/8th Dakota, and I did not grow up on a reservation or within any appreciable Dakota community. There are two tribes associated with my Dakota heritage, but I am not enrolled in either. As such, I felt obliged to indicate in my submission that I am not an enrolled tribal member and have a mixed background, 12.5% of which happens to be indigenous.

A few weeks after my submission to “Changing Horizons,” I was notified that all three of my submissions were accepted. I was excited for the opportunity to participate in a show with such a salient theme and hear what other artists had to say about how their heritage shapes their work. I had conversations with curators Angela Two Stars (of All My Relations Arts) and Tamara Aupaumut (of Two Rivers Gallery) about how awkward it felt to quantify my Dakota blood in my application. Why did I assume it would be an issue? Interestingly, this question reflected somewhat on Changing Horizons’ central theme: the complexity of “Nativeness” in art, and how it impacts the work of Native artists. I agreed to participate in an artist talk about the show in late October, which prompted me to write this essay as a way to organize my thoughts. For years, questions and insecurities related to my Dakota ancestry have been swirling in my head. Changing Horizons gave me a tangible reason to examine these thoughts and explore my Dakota heritage as it pertains to identity, belonging, and how I think about Native art.

Great Grandparents Ephraim P. Taylor and Rose Taylor with children at Pipestone, MN

Let’s start from the beginning: my ancestors were either already here in Minnesota, living in villages along the lower Minnesota River or came to North America from Norway and Finland by various means. The Scandinavians eventually settled in Minnesota and later South Dakota. On the Scandinavian side, my forerunners were farmers, shipwrights, pastors, doctors and nurses. They came to the Midwest seeking prosperity, just as many European settlers did during that time. Along the way, my great-grandmother Rose Taylor (née Niemela) married a full-blood Dakota by the name of Ephraim Phillip Taylor (Dakota name: Looking Eagle). On the Dakota side, my ancestors were hunters, warriors, spiritual workers, pipestone quarriers and artisans. My father is enrolled in the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe (FSST) near Pipestone, MN where my great- and great-great-grandfathers carved traditional ceremonial pipes in the pipestone quarry. Their works of art and labor to preserve the sacred quarry site are enshrined at the Pipestone National Monument. The families belonging to FSST originally came from a Minnesota band called the Mdewakanton (Dwellers at the Spirit Lake), whose ancestral territory included the river banks, woodlands and prairies of Southern Minnesota. Some of the Mdewakanton Dakota resettled in Flandreau, SD after being exiled from Minnesota in the events following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The present day Mdewakanton Dakota are represented by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC), located in Prior Lake, Minnesota.

Great Grandfather Ephraim P. Taylor (Looking Eagle) with a ceremonial pipe quarried at Pipestone, MN

Generational research has helped me engage with and take pride in both my European and Dakota heritage. I am interested in finding patterns within our heritage, learning about what was important to my ancestors and how this relates to my family and community today. For example, I was not aware until recently that I could trace my Dakota heritage back to the Twin Cities area, where I have made my adult home. Having moved here at the age of nineteen, and having purchased my first home near the sacred Dakota site of Bdote (Meeting of the Waters), I am in wonder at the irony that my sister and I unknowingly retraced our Dakota ancestors’ steps backwards, from resettlement in Flandreau to genesis in present-day Minneapolis. In another example: the fact that both Dakota and European ancestors had deep spiritual lives helps me understand my natural curiosity about metaphysical frameworks for understanding the universe. Finally, as an artist and a nurse, I am fascinated by the amount of health workers and artisans in our family history. Without always knowing it, I have followed in their footsteps in more ways than one. The stories of individuals and family groups illustrate our narrative and inform our understanding of ourselves. These same stories, placed within the context of history and global events, help us understand the story of humans on a longer arc of time and space. This journey of self-discovery through generational research has been fascinating and enlightening, and continues to keep me engaged.

The Experience of Heritage

Growing up, we had no lack of opportunities to engage with our Scandinavian heritage. We went to a Lutheran church with predominantly other white Scandinavian families, who also mostly populated our western Sioux Falls, South Dakota neighborhood. At Christmas, we ate lefse, lutefisk and krumkake. Mom told us fairy tales and ghost stories drawn from Norwegian folklore. I read and re-read a large picture book detailing the Norse mythologies and all the capricious gods in their endless conniving. My parents made sure we engaged with our Native American heritage as well. My parents took us to indigenous craft fairs. We went to powwows, and my sister and I ate heaping fry bread tacos with ground bison and participated in hoop dances. We attended the Hiawatha Pageant at Pipestone, MN with our Dakota relatives a few times. When we were born, my parents had our umbilical cords sewn into beaded animals, a Lakota tradition. Mine was a snake, and my sister Stephanie’s a turtle. These amulets symbolize the link between phases of existence – before and after birth – and are thought to encourage long life.

For multiple reasons during my childhood and early adulthood, my Dakota heritage was infinitely more interesting to me than my European heritage. For one, we were surrounded by other Christian, Scandinavian families, and those traditions and stories permeated our lives. As an alternative story, our Dakota history was more interesting, more wild and unique. Admittedly, this was a child’s fascination with the plains Indian caricature created by Hollywood (read: Dances With Wolves) and popular media. As an adult, I have come to appreciate and revere the aspects of our shared European and Native heritage that are based in reality: my ancestors’ stories of migration, exile and resilience, rich spiritual tradition, and relationship to the land which we occupy and depend on.

Under Two Heavens by Wes Dakota

The evolution of my spiritual life has also encouraged me to identify more with our Dakota heritage than our Scandinavian background. As a young teenager in confirmation, I was told by a Lutheran church leader that being gay was not compatible with the bible’s teachings. With my rebellious phase in full swing and little patience for intolerance, I found zero ways to reconcile this. Instead of suppressing my sexual orientation, I dropped out of confirmation, gave up on Christianity and began exploring different spiritual systems. Since then, I have become familiar with principles from Universalism, Buddhism and indigenous philosophies – something that may account for my pride in our Native heritage today. Like my blood, my spiritual constitution is mixed, incorporating bits and pieces from here and there. Interestingly, my great-great-grandpa Joseph C. Taylor had a similar experience with spirituality. His life is chronicled in the historical-fiction novel Under Two Heavens by Wes Dakota. Born into the local mayhem of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, he was brought up and trained as an Episcopal missionary. During the course of his life, Joseph tried to bring Christianity to bands of Natives throughout the Great Plains, but ultimately gave up missionary work, returned to Pipestone, MN and began answering a “different spiritual calling” as a Pipestone quarrier and artisan. My grandpa’s experiences resonate with me: his spiritual journey echoes my own in some ways; his life of navigating the space between Native and white cultures is related to the ambiguity I write about here, and the confusing space many Natives find themselves in today.

“You Lost It In Your First Nosebleed” – Mixed Blood, Tribelessness and Identity Complexity

Intermittently, I have met resistance to the assertion that I am part Native. Usually, this has been based on assumptions about how Natives are supposed to physically look. From time to time, others will say “I can see it!” remarking on the subtle ways my sister and I  “look Native” based on these assumptions. My father and I share a somewhat darker skin tone than my mother and sister and many other Scandinavians. We have high cheekbones, strong nose bridges, dark hair. Aside from this, we don’t physically read as Native people by popular opinion. My sister, also 1/8th Dakota, ended up with wholly Scandinavian physical traits – fair skin, white-blond hair and bright blue eyes. Not looking Native enough to satisfy others, or not “passing” as Native, generates an insecurity of identity and poses several interesting questions about identity and appearance on its own.

In other conversations, the reactions of others have seemed to reject our Dakota heritage based on our lived experience. Yes, we may be genetically Native, but we did not grow up on a reservation or immersed in an indigenous community. The experiences of my sister and I have largely been of white European privilege, and we certainly owe a lot to this fact. The result is a feeling of disconnect between our Native heritage and a lived “Native experience,” but again, in a country with over 500 federally recognized tribes, with hundreds of thousands of full-bloods, half-bloods, one-fourths, one-eights, one-sixteenths, one-thirty-seconds, in year 2019, what does a “Native experience” really mean? My research into the lives of my ancestors on both sides, Native and European, has revealed experiences that are far from privilege. Their struggles have brought about our privilege in surprising ways. I choose to honor them through generational research and celebration of multifaceted heritage.

All this complexity, and we haven’t even gotten to the topic of blood. “You probably lost it in your first nosebleed,” one Native acquaintance told me as a teen, referring to the apparently minuscule fraction of blood in my body that qualified as indigenous.  Blood quantum rules, or the system of quantifying Indian blood imposed on Native populations by the federal government, overlays yet more identity complexity on Natives of mixed ancestry. It’s incredibly easy to feel “not Native enough” when a system of exclusivity turns your living blood into a pie chart that others use to decide things about you. The highly controversial tool of blood quantum is used by many tribes to determine membership, and sometimes poses a significant conundrum for those of mixed-blood status. The FSST of South Dakota maintains a blood quantum rule. One must have at least one quarter Dakota blood to be an enrolled member. Because the Dakota in Flandreau, SD originally came from the Prior Lake, MN area, I suspected and confirmed through research that we can trace our Dakota lineage back to Prior Lake, the geographic center of the SMSC. SMSC’s rule indicates anyone, regardless of blood quantum, can be enrolled as long as they can prove lineage back to a tribal member on their books (called lineal descent). Our ancestor, Oceti Duta (Place of Red Fire) was Mdewakanton, and was sentenced to hang at Mankato, MN for participating in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. This event ended up being the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Ultimately, he was spared. Despite our familial trace back to the Mdewakanton, we have been unable to petition for enrollment in SMSC. For the last several years there has been a moratorium on new enrollment claims. Phone calls and emails to inquire why have not been returned.

In summary, at several junctures, I’ve encountered an assertion that my Dakota heritage is simply “not Native enough.” Not Native enough to identify with our ancestry, and certainly not Native enough to belong to a tribe. A question that comes to mind: to what degree have blood quantum policies resulted in a crisis of identity and belonging among all Native people, and how have they inadvertently stifled or damaged families and communities because of it? The double standard here is interesting to me – it has never mattered to anyone that we are not 100% Norwegian or Finnish either. We are not 100% white, Native, or anything. Who is really 100% anything in the larger picture of human existence on planet Earth?

Shifting the Focus: Identity Versus Belonging

So here we stand –  mixed Norwegian-Finnish-Dakota people, tribeless, living in the heart of ancestral Dakota homelands. As I have asked myself many times, why does any of this matter? The identity question is messy, fraught with complexity. So much of the above ambiguity is based on how others view us, what they decide about us. What kind of recognition or acknowledgment are we looking for, and what difference would it make? Why are identities so fragile? I believe that identity is a construction of the mind – one’s own mind and the minds of others. As such, the constructed identity or ego becomes a distraction from who we really are, a distraction from the deep understanding of our true being which is separate from names, labels, and artifices. Still, at times I have been frustrated, especially that we are unable to be formally acknowledged by either tribe as belonging to their story. What would tribal membership even mean for us? The ultimate benefits of enrollment remain unclear. Nonetheless, there exists a persistent inner discomfort that comes from this “tribelessness.” As I write, it becomes clear that this uneasiness is not necessarily based on the precarious construction of identity, but rather on the deeply human need for belonging. Belonging to something larger than ourselves.

I am learning: what matters more than identity validation is seeking belonging where it counts. Formal membership in a tribe is not necessary to cultivate belonging, to honor and experience our heritage. What does it even mean to honor and experience our heritage, or even to cultivate belonging? Perhaps it means contributing to our community in whatever ways we can, participating, forming bonds with others, learning a language, carrying on meaningful traditions, spending time in the places where our family story unfolded, or allowing our ancestors’ stories to teach us something about ourselves. These are all things that can be done without anyone else’s allowance or recognition. Indigenous people in North America have survived through war, famine, smallpox blankets, systematic destruction,  and exile. Our ancestors’ struggles and resilience made our own lives possible. In Tommy Orange’s 2018 novel There There, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield explains to her grandson: “Don’t ever let anyone tell you what being Indian means. Too many of us died to get just a little bit of us here, right now … You, me. Every part of our people that made it is precious … You’re Indian because you’re Indian because you’re Indian.” Opal’s point here is that acknowledging one’s Native heritage is almost a duty, not to validate ourselves, but to respect our ancestors’ fight for survival – even the survival of just a little bit, even 1/8th of a little bit. Ultimately, the reasons identity and belonging matter to each of us are complex, and cannot be resolved in a single essay. Rather, these questions are explored through a lifetime and the “answers” evolve with each new phase of the journey.

Changing Horizons: An Exploration of “Native American Art”

As I have stated above, the search for identity and belonging are lifelong explorations. As an artist, I see the creative process as a similar exploration. Generally, the themes and ideas contained in my paintings actively explore concepts rather than seek to make a statement or resolve a question – especially the more abstract pieces. My art practice is a journey which brings discovery, poses questions and challenges, and leaves the viewer with something to consider as well. The “Changing Horizons” exhibit at All My Relations Arts and Two Rivers Gallery exhibit gave me a platform to use my art to explore questions about Native art as well as my own story with Native identity and belonging.

First, what does “Native American Art” mean? To me, this category can be described as art by and of Native Americans, usually reflecting culture, values, beliefs or stories that are unique to the indigenous experience. Often, viewers seem to expect a more historical or cliched experience to be reflected – these are the experiences of colonization, conquer and dispossession. Indeed, the Encyclopedia Britannica’s definition of “Native American Art” offers an almost anthropological characterization using the past-tense. It’s no wonder “Native American Art” from a colonizer’s perspective has not flourished in the mainstream – it would be too depressing.

By contrast, today’s Native art often reflects a living contemporary experience – an important counterpoint to the popular notion that indigenous culture and communities have been erased. Native communities exist today, in urban environments as well as in rural communities. Likewise, “Native American Art” does not exist only in the context of history. Today’s indigenous painters, poets, novelists, sculptors, actors, rappers, dancers, craft workers, journalists, weavers, animators, designers, artists of all stripes are here to stay, and they have a different story to tell. These stories are messy, complicated, beautiful, funny, tragic, nuanced, uncomfortable, transformative. Theirs are generational stories of strength, pride, staying power, even stories that don’t have anything “Native” to say at all.

George Morrison

Through my participation with Changing Horizons, I learned about George Morrison, a celebrated artist whose avant garde artwork was often labeled “Native American,” though not much of his work actually contained any overt “Native American” themes. In fact, the majority of Morrison’s work can be described as abstract, modernist and decorative with only subtly recognizable forms, such as landscapes, horizons, water or other organic shapes. It is argued that Morrison’s categorization as a “Native American” niche artist may have limited his exposure in the larger art world. Contemporaries and acquaintances Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning all experienced celebrity while Morrison remained relatively obscure. It is possible that critics and art enthusiasts excluded Morrison’s work from the contemporary cutting edge due to the assumption that “Native-ness” belongs to uncomfortable, misunderstood narratives of the past. The stereotyped images of Native Americans and “Native American Art” seem to have no place in the metropolitan, sophisticated and nuanced world of visual art.

This leads us to the question – what do non-native folks and the public expect about “Native American Art?” Must it be generated by a physically Native-looking artist, depict traditional dress or ceremony, include animals, landscape, feathers, or other stereotypically “Native American” elements? Viewers are so comfortable with this narrative and its symbols that they will go out of their way to participate in it. For example, the “Coagulation Study” pieces I submitted to Changing Horizons were purely abstract with colorful, vaguely organic shapes connected by an underlying network of geometric marks. During the opening reception, one viewer remarked on a blob of red paint in the center of my composition: “Perhaps it’s just because I’m here, but I can almost certainly make out a painted horse or a buffalo right there!” In this exchange, it became clear that the viewer was striving to connect with familiar images that have persisted in popular media – visions of buffalo, horses on the prairie, Indians fighting cowboys. They also revealed that their perception was biased by the setting – a gallery dedicated to Native art. Now, I’m not saying there was anything really wrong with this association – only that it’s fascinating how desperately people want to connect with the comfortable, popular symbols of “Native-ness,” rather than search for something unique.

Coagulation Study (Golden Ratio). Mixed media. 12
Coagulation Study (Golden Ratio). Mixed media. 12″ x 16″

Participation in the Changing Horizons artist talk, I was asked to explore how my artwork relates to ideas about “Native-ness.” As I said above, the pieces I submitted are mostly abstract. They include tiny chips of paint scraped from pallets over the years, which are layered into a mixed media matrix arranged in a somewhat geometric and organic-looking shape. As I work, I try to maintain a balance between planning and intuition – the underlying grid has been designed to be mostly symmetrical or aesthetically formatted, however decisions about placement of certain elements are made with a flowing, “stream-of-consciousness” sensibility. This tension between defined aesthetic frameworks and intuitive “play” is key – I view it as an extension of creative processes found in nature such as growth, development, iteration, accident and mutation. The use of old, dried paint simultaneously with new, shiny and supple paint juxtaposes similar materials at different “life stages,” and explores the idea of salvage or regeneration of refuse, dead material. The connections between the mixed media elements recall food chains, thought webs, family trees, ecosystems, and remind the viewer how all the elements of the composition are connected to the others. Mitakuye oyasin, Dakota for “all my relations,” is a concept in Dakota philosophy which underscores the relationships connecting all living things. While I was not explicitly thinking about this during the creation of these pieces, its reflection in the work is fascinating to me. George Morrison maintained that there was nothing particularly Native American about his art practice: “I have never tried to prove that I was Indian through my art. Yet there may remain, deeply hidden, some remote suggestion of the rock whence I was hewn,” he said. Here, Morrison illustrates the idea that we all have a deep inner nature passed down from generations before us. Certainly these inner natures carry the energies of our ancestors, their history and memories and perhaps also their dreams, their trauma. I suspect there are many other ways my ancestry, Dakota or European, subconsciously affects my life and art practice.

For indigenous artists and art appreciators, know that there is not one single story of Native Americans that defines us. The perspective and voice of each and every individual is precious beyond value and contains within a gift that only that perspective can offer. When engaging with Native art, try to look deeper and avoid the clichés of the past – these Hollywood silhouettes of conquered people. Search for the universal – what is being shared in the context of global human experience, human consciousness, human vitality and survival. Open your mind to the story of Today, and consider what looking forward, toward the changing horizon, may offer.

Thank you. Takk. Kiitos. Pidamaya.

Vessel Work or “Paint, Do What You Will!”

Vessel Work. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18" x 36"
Vessel Work. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18″ x 36″

A still-life of prismatic containers divides cold winter light into rainbow jets of color, filling my studio space with a brilliant playfulness that leaps away from November’s funeral pall. My assignment was to rework an old watercolor sketch based on a dream about water basins. It became a meditation on the warmth, love and trust inherent in my art practice.

In October I began volunteering at Vine Arts Center, a local community-run gallery in my neighborhood. During one of our exhibition discussions, another artist discussed his view of people in the world as “vessels,” each in a varying state of being filled, empty, or something in between. Vessels can be reservoirs for anything we can imagine inside them. They can be a potential space or a void. They can be man-made or naturally occurring. Vessels can be filled with physical matter or the intangible. Vessels can be broken or leaky. They hold valuables or transport. Vessels can protect. In short, vessels do a lot of work. I frequently find myself pondering this metaphor as it relates to art and the human condition – I have been curious about how to incorporate it in my work.

With this commission, I decided to start with a simple composition of arranged “vessels,” the various containers, plastic jugs, mason jars and empty fruit cups repurposed for paint that litter my studio. I “filled” or imbued the skeleton drawing of the piece with the “core” of my own formal artistic sensibilities: expressive color and brushstroke patterns, heavy contrasts between muted, cold tones and vibrant, living hues, struggle between linearity and ambiguity, representation and abstraction. Throughout the process, I paused to examine my thoughts and actions, took notes, looked inside to acknowledge the intuition that guided my hands, something I have rarely done on purpose. In this way, Vessel Work feels like a deliberate meditation on the spiritual, inner aspect of art creation and what it means to me personally.

Warmth and radiation of light are treated with paramount importance. The elements in the working space are tied together and interconnected by their participation in light, their energetic vibrations in the field. The work is related to love – making a painting about (simply) what I love to do is freeing and spontaneous without constraints of any kind. And yet there must be constraints, that tension between rule and misrule, which mystifies and generates beauty. And through this sensibility comes trust. Trust that the work will become what it will – I am reminded of Schmendrick the Magician from “The Last Unicorn,” yelling “Magic, do what you will!” as he grasps at the reigns of a force he can’t control. I cling to trust that in the end, the painting and the artist (and yes, the client) will be satisfied if I play to my strengths, challenge my skills accordingly, and take risks in the creation of the illusion. Trust that in painting no act is final, and the painter therefore has relatively less control than it would seem.

Three Gold Figures (Essay in Cubism)

Three Figures. Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 24 " x 30"
Three Figures. Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 24 ” x 30″

Coming in the midst of a furious week of art production, here is the formal result of my recent research into cubism! This commissioned piece moderately deconstructs three poses (one model – unharmed in the production process) and the studio space around them. I treated this subject with all of the cubist sensibility I was able to scrape together from online searches, a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and biographies of the likes of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques. My final composition borrows heavily from Picasso’s bold “Demoiselles d’Avignon” and samples the palette of Picasso’s blue period, Braque’s somber spectrum, and adds an iridescent gold flare because decorative art!

This being my first relatively abstract, non-photographic commission piece, the ideas and prototypes came together through consultation. Trading pictures of murals, famous paintings, and devising color schemes, we carved out a shared mental model of the painting to come.

I began working on this piece by reading and observing. I was curious to find out what my giant art history textbooks, the internet, and our local free museum had to say about cubism. I was surprised to find that certain aspects of cubism were similar to what I was trying to do with “time-lapse” figure painting in the latter half of my art school years, so picking up that line of work felt a bit like coming home. Read more on what I found out about cubism’s “greater context” here. Once I had determined how cubist sensibilities could fit into my style, I invited over a friend to model for some gestural sketches. These loose and expressive sketches helped me form the basis for the figures and I built up the geometric environment around them. From there, the challenge became walking a thin line between decorative, calculated abstraction and representational figure painting, my client preferring something in the middle. See process snapshots below.

I could go many directions from here in order to fully invest in this way of working. Some cubists section off the surface in such a way that objects and bodies are barely recognizable, obscured by geometry and the conceptual/perceptual notions of cubism. Which to me is less interesting as I am still in love with drawing and painting the human body. Another idea is to fully push the idea of poses changing through time. I recently attended a figure drawing cooperative at a local art academy, and wondered how I could incorporate all the 5, 10, 15 and 20 minute poses over four hours into the same composition. The final result would probably be something quite abstract but also quite recognizably human. Overall, I have befriended cubism and feel like I’ve grown a bit as an artist after examining and producing in this way. I’m eager to get deeper into the water.


Returned from the mountains I recognize something
Unlocked inside me. Deep in my core
As if my parts and the gears of my mind have aligned. And
Yes now the universe eddies up through my vacant gates:
Eyes, ears, mouth, nose, skin, ventricles, foramina, lodgepole spine. And
All corporeal channels.
With a satisfying click and thud, the river key turned. And
I am centered, weighted and primed.

I realize this at the gymnasium today
Sprinting uncharacteristically through my 1.25 mile run.
Legs not tiring, spring-like, reed-paddled. Yes
I run like a river unleashed
Around banks, parallel fish, and the rocks
Something unlocks inside me. And
When it is over my un-dammed watersheds eject
A river of brine brewed thick in my season of trouble
Soaks my shirt and shorts, my socks
Free flowing now to the unknowable air, drying salt flats on my cheeks.

And yes, I ran like a river
Ran for who I am, was and will be
Ran for the ones before and the ones that are now. And
Mostly, I ran for the land.

Schatzie, Synergy & Blasting Off

Schatzie. Acrylic on canvas. 11" x 14"
Schatzie. Acrylic on canvas. 11″ x 14″

My latest project, a portrait of my second cousin Anna’s pooch Schatzie, is now finalized! This was an incredibly fun piece to work on, both for the larger size, the opportunity to play with color, and the detailed brushwork that such a close-up demands. In this portrait, I continued to tease out color nuances and “transitional” hues between distinct color stations, as well as creating a sense of depth, an overall goal in my painterly development. Throughout this process I also dove deep into the rich complexity of the color blue. Particularly, I worked with ultramarine blue – a sober, stoic blue who does not want to be green or violet, and would much rather fade to gray than roll with change – and primary cyan, an energetic, electric blue that readily mutates but has a naive quality that is somewhat related to finger paint. As I worked through the phases of this portrait, the intriguing synergy (yes, synergy!) between these blues became the primary focus.

Overall, the pet portrait projects have blasted off. So far this year I have had four commissions, and there are a handful in the pipeline, including portraits of two-legged (read: human) subjects. Through these portrait commissions I have begun to carve out a unique style, deepen my understanding of color theory, practice classic techniques such as layering and glazing, and also develop my business sense as an artist – something I certainly did not learn in art school. They also help me escape from puzzling over my recent abstract work when I get in a rut.

In other news, tonight is the opening for Norseman Distillery’s first juried exhibition. My older painting “Tuberculosis” will be featured alongside the work of 34 other artists selected for the show. If you can make it, I would love to see you there! Make sure to follow this blog for updates on upcoming shows, or simply if you are interested in the cracked insights of a 30-something-artist-geek-nurse-by-day/eve/night-animal-lover-freak-of-nature ;)

Schatzie Progress 1
Schatzie Progress 1
Schatzie Progress 2
Schatzie Progress 2

Fjellhytte (Mountain Home) Still Life

Fjellhytte Patio Progress
Fjellhytte Patio Progress

Emerging darkly from the petrified air, a wooden plaque carved onto Smokey The Bear warned fire danger was “extremely dry, extremely high.” No campfires, no grills, no cigarettes, no huckleberries under the desiccating pines of Northwestern Montana. Grandma had texted (expertly, with many emojii) “we can’t see our mountains!” The drive up highway 83 this year, approaching our mountain refuge, was brimming with smoke. Flowing downwind from blazes in Idaho and Washington, the roil blotted out Montana’s Big Sky, tainted the Sun and Moon with toxic orange, and sent Glacier Park road-to-the-sunners scrambling back to the drawing board, travel guides and gas station free attraction brochure stands. Continue reading

Study: Eros Bendato Screpolato

Study. Charcoal on heavyweight drawing paper. 14 x 17"
Study. Charcoal on heavyweight drawing paper. 14 x 17″

This monumental cranium, titled Eros Bendato Screpolato (Bandaged, Cracked Eros) by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj has rolled onto the front lawn of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (now referred to as “The MEE-yah”). Our plan to sketch a naked human in the drawing studio fell through, so we spent an afternoon on the wet museum grass, sketching Eros’ bandaged cranium in bronze instead. Continue reading