In the mid-1870s, the U.S. Department of War,
under the supervision of Lt. Richard Henry
Pratt, captured 72 Native Americans at Salt
Fork, Oklahoma, exiling them to St. Augustine, where they were held prisoner at Fort Marion (now called Castillo de San Marcos). This was, of course, just one of any number of indignities the Indians suffered at the hands of the American government, but it would also have repercussions lasting generations.
"The imprisonment that they experienced became a model for future generations of Native children who were institutionalized at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where its founder, Lt. Pratt, coined the phrase, ‘Kill the Indian, save the man,'" explains Emily W. Arthur, assistant professor of art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Arthur, who taught at the University of North Florida from 2001 until last fall, is co-curator and project director for Re-Riding History: From the Southern Plains to the Matanzas Bay, an exhibit focusing on this part of Northeast Florida's indigenous history, which runs Jan. 16 through Feb. 28 at the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum (CEAM) at Flagler College.
The exhibit is concurrent with St. Augustine's 450th anniversary commemoration, and features a regional collection of original ledger drawings made in Fort Marion, which are on loan from both the St. Augustine Historical Society's Research Library and the Fort Caroline museum collection.
"This history is not over, but is present in the
land that holds a memory specific to this place," Arthur says. "There is not one document that
tells the story, but it's carried by the many families affected on both sides of the imprisonment and the thousands of resulting boarding school children who define their experience as cultural genocide."
Along with co-curators Marwin Begaye and John Hitchcock, Arthur selected 72 artists who work with political, social and cultural issues to create artwork that retraces the capture, transport and imprisonment of each of the 72 Native Americans.
Edgar Heap of Birds was an obvious choice. An artist, professor and member of the Cheyenne tribe, Heap of Birds is a direct descendant of one of those prisoners. His piece, For Grandpa, Many Magpies, is a red-and-white monoprint with the word "Numshim" written three times.
"My great-great-grandfather, Chief Many Magpies, was one of the four principal chiefs of the Cheyenne tribe," Heap of Birds says. "Numshim means ‘grandfather' in Cheyenne. My piece cries out in remembrance for three generations. We need to reveal the history of Native Americans in St. Augustine and the suffering that the tribes have been through."
Other works featured in the exhibit include artist Chris Pappan's Through the Shadow of Cahokia, a colored-pencil-and-ink drawing dealing with Cahokia, the largest pre-Columbian city in North America. There's also Monte Yellow Bird Sr.'s The Journey to Remove Color from the People, a drawing on antique 1800s ledger paper, that depicts the impact of forced assimilation.
"Seventy-two artists were selected to symbolize 72 Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho and Caddo leaders," Arthur says, "and the artwork dimensions mirror the ledger-book-size drawings made at Fort Marion. In addition, we selected artists along the train route from Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida so that the artists would be able to carry this history into their community."
It makes sense that the exhibit's first stop is St. Augustine, the place where Lt. Pratt first developed his assimilation methods that defined a century of government policy. After its stop in St. Augustine, the exhibit will travel to Wright Museum in Beloit, Wisconsin, and A.D. Gallery at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke. Re-Riding History includes a symposium on Feb. 12 in Ringhaver Student Center's Virginia Room, featuring artists and scholars who discuss the exhibit in a contemporary context and how it responds to historical events.
"The weight of this shared American history is so great that not one work of art and not one
artist can carry this history alone," says Arthur. "Much of the work for the exhibit arrived with
personal notes from the artists, thanking us for
the project. Some artists were learning this history for the first time, and some were able to
share their family story with a larger community."