Whose land is it, anyway?

The revised exhibition "This IS Kalapuyan Land" at the newly renamed Five Oaks Museum makes an emphatic case for a reclaimed history

In 1985, the performance artist James Luna lay down in a display case at the Museum of Modern Man in San Diego, California. By putting himself on display and labeling his own scars and body parts as a Luiseno Indian, Luna sought to call attention to museum practices that treat Native American cultures as though they are things of the past: dead and gone and now isolated in a case.  Luna wanted viewers to wrestle with his presence, very obviously in the present. 

The exhibition This IS Kalapuyan Land at the newly renamed Five Oaks Museum on the campus of Portland Community College Rock Creek – until today it had been known as the Washington County Museum – takes a similar point of departure to Luna’s work. I would love to say that the point of departure had moved significantly forward in the 34 years that elapsed between Luna’s groundbreaking performance and the current exhibition, but this sort of change is often slow. 

Curator Stephanie Littlebird Fogel altered components of the museum’s previous installation, This Kalapuya Land, and added work by seventeen contemporary Native artists. The installation deftly raises pressing questions about narrative bias in addition to featuring contemporary work by Indigenous artists. It is a promising start for the Five Oaks guest curator program and shows the care and thought that the co-directors, Molly Alloy and Nathanael Andreini, have put into the museum’s direction. It establishes Five Oaks Museum as a forward-thinking institution worthy of consideration. 

Installation view of This Is Kalapuyan Land. Photo : Mario Gallucci / courtesy Five Oaks Museum

Alloy and Andreini were announced as the museum’s co-directors in May of 2019 and This IS Kalapuyan Land is the first exhibition of their tenure. Our Vision 2020 interview with the pair, which will be published Friday, gives a good sense of the careful consideration they gave to the museum’s guest curator program and the future of the museum. For a detailed look at the museum’s changes, see Brett Campbell’s ArtsWatch story Five Oaks: What’s in a name? Here, the focus is the exhibition.

Littlebird Fogel is a former student of mine from Pacific Northwest College of Art and occasionally writes for ArtsWatch. I think highly of her and anticipated that the show would be well-executed. I was less prepared, however, for how thought-provoking the show would be and for the implications it raised about my own education and bias. Although the exhibition starts with the way institutions address the history of Indigenous peoples, it goes beyond this to address how the history of a place is told and how that story can shift. 

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THE EXACT DATE OF ORIGIN for the museum’s original exhibition, This Kalapuya Land, is unknown, but it was at least a decade ago. The full exhibition was an installation in the museum’s Hillsboro Civic Center location, which closed in 2017, but Andreini recalls it as off-putting because of the overabundance of text and the fact that it framed Native American traditions as a thing of the past. The historical distance was underscored by the sepia color palette and black-and-white photos. When the museum consolidated its collections and opened in its smaller PCC Rock Creek location in 2017, the content was reduced to four wall panels and a single display of baskets in an acrylic display case. 

That single display of baskets is still part of the exhibition. The baskets are lovely and well-crafted. The wall tags indicate that they were made in the mid-19th century: clearly important artifacts that belong in a museum collection. The problem is the same that James Luna pointed out in the 1980s, though: How do you indicate the historicity of something and at the same time give a sense of its contemporary continuity? In other words, not give the impression that it is dead and gone? Littlebird Fogel, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde (which includes Kalapuya), grew up being told that her tribe was extinct. In an interview on Oregon Public Broadcasting, she indicates that part of her goal with the show was to proclaim: “Hey, we’re still here and thriving and creating and grappling with these histories.”

Littlebird Fogel uses two complementary strategies here: She altered the sepia wall panels, and she added contemporary art. The altered panels are immediately evident. Littlebird Fogel made edits of some sort on every panel. The most striking is the titular panel, which gets a double-underlined “is” in red letters. The edit emphasizes the present: The land is Kalapuyan, which implies ownership rather than the vague distance and mythic past of the original version. All of the panels received blue triangle and line motifs, primarily at the top. Littlebird Fogel speaks of these marks as a variation of petroglyph and a way for ancient hands to have a visual presence. It also was, in her words, a way to “enliven the sepia sadness that permeates the original incarnation.”

panel with edits
Edited panel from This Kalapuya Land. Photo: Mario Gallucci / courtesy Five Oaks Museum

Some of the edits are less nuanced. “Broken” was added to a panel original labeled simply “Treaties.” Another got a large heading “Intergenerational Trauma,” and yet another “Family Separation.”  Some words are visibly struck through: “Indian” in front of “Indian Tribes” and “Old” in front of “Old Oregon Country.” In the body of the panel texts, blue or red tape is used to alter problematic phrasing. Blue tape with handwritten overtext is used to draw attention to specific interpretational issues – for example, a reference to a “supreme being” in a panel on lifestyles and beliefs is changed to “helper spirits and monsters.” Littlebird Fogel explains that the tribes had no “supreme being” and that the formulation was imposed by monotheistic colonizers. A more egregious error concerns Ellis Hughes’s actions regarding Tamanewas, or the Willamette Meteorite: “moved” is overlaid with “stole” on red tape. 

A timeline of the region gets a number of additions that underline the point of view of the original timeline. Though purportedly a history of the Kalapuya tribe, the majority of original entries are about white Europeans, including notices about Francis Drake and Robert Gray. Littlebird Fogel points out that “when we tell our stories ourselves, we tell different things.” Oregon State University professor David Lewis provided the additional entries, which help to reorient the timeline to the native perspective and emphasize Indigenous agency. Accordingly, events such as the creation of the Grande Ronde Government in the 1870s and the establishment of the Grande Ronde Constitution in 1936 are added, along with a host of other clarifications and additional information. 

The featured contemporary artists have varied tribal affiliations, but all have connections to the local region in some fashion. Don Bailey’s large painting Everyone’s a Winner incorporates pop-culture references to Indians such as American Spirit cigarettes, the Cleveland Indian baseball team mascot, or Land O’Lakes butter, along with playing card symbols. The juxtaposition of these images along with the sarcastic title underscores the reductive representations of Indigenous peoples in mainstream American culture. Philip Thomas’s painting Floating Loksi takes its title from the Chickasaw word for turtle and depicts a hovering turtle shell in a surrealistic landscape; a deck with a potted cactus extends off the back of a tipi that also boasts a window air-conditioning unit. This nod to cultural hybridity and syncretism is equally present in Carol Haskins’ beaded yolk with “Guam” emblazoned in the center with a palm tree. All of the contemporary works contribute to Littlebird Fogel’s goal of emphasizing the vibrancy of artistic community. 

Installation view of This is Kalapuyan Land with Elizabeth LaPensée’s When Rivers Were Trails at center. Photo: Mario Gallucci / courtesy Five Oaks Museum

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THE WORK THAT GAVE ME THE MOST PAUSE, however, was Elizabeth LaPensée’s game When Rivers Were Trails. The game is available for viewers to play in the center of the exhibition hall, on a laptop. As a game, it requires time and interaction, and so viewers are invited to sit on a large beanbag with headphones. When Rivers Were Trails is a variation on the educational game Oregon Trail, which introduced American elementary school students to the routes, existence, and hardships of the thousands of settlers who headed west in covered wagons toward Oregon. LaPensée’s game uses the same premise – the player is traveling somewhere and needs to make decisions about routes to take, ways to procure food and supplies, and how to avoid danger – but instead of the players impersonating a pioneer, they take the point of view of an Indigenous person being forced from their land by arriving white settlers. One screen reads: “Despite your resistance to being relocated from Fond du Lac to White Earth Reservation, your land has been chosen for allotment to be taken and given to settlers. You are in a hurry to leave before settlers arrive, surely armed.” The player is given the choice to “look inside” or “look outside.” Sometimes there are no choices: One screen says simply “Settlers are coming” and the only choice the player is offered is “run.” 

I grew up playing the game Oregon Trail, both in school and at home with my sister. As an adult, I have found many things about the game and my engagement with it to be concerning. My sister and I would routinely name characters after one another and try to kill them off as quickly as possible (“Sarah died of dysentery”) or we would see how quickly we could kill off all members of our party by not buying any supplies and never stopping to rest. I’m not sure what we were learning, but it certainly wasn’t empathy. I can honestly say it never once occurred to me until I played When Rivers Were Trails the extent to which the game Oregon Trail privileged the singular perspective of white settlers and normalized it as the only narrative worth studying or learning about. 

It is easy to criticize the original researchers and curators of This Kalapuyan Land from a decade ago. Made at least 20 years after James Luna lay in a display case and 15 years after Fred Wilson’s scathing commentary on point-of-view in the Maryland Historical Society in Mining the Museum, the exhibit had issues from the outset. David Lewis, the OSU professor who helped Littlebird Fogel with the relabeling of the exhibit, even wrote a letter to the museum when This Kalapuyan Land opened, pointing out errors and other factual issues. There is no doubt that there were problems and misinterpretations that were overdue to be fixed, and Littlebird Fogel’s edits, alterations, and additions do this effectively.

In light of my own overdue realization about my elementary education, however, I need to temper my criticism. As a white woman who has spent many years studying European art, I know that my identity and area of study has long been assumed as foundational or the default. Citing Francis Drake as formative and imposing a supreme being may not be my errors, but I’m sure I’ve made similar ones. I’m grateful to the exhibit This IS Kalapuyan Land for helping me see this in an arena that I hadn’t considered. 

Alloy and Andreini are committed to making the Five Oaks Museum an institution that celebrates the diversity of Washington County and that, in their words, “always centers descendant communities in the telling of their own narratives and histories.” Five Oaks Museum will definitely be a place for educational field trips for students. It can equally be a place for the community at large to encounter different perspectives and challenge our own. 

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