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Native American Artists Restake Their Claim at the Crocker Art Museum by Nanette Kelley

Updated: May 4

Long before Sutter built a fort and California became a state, the waters and lands of the Sacramento region were a place of intrinsic value to the local Indigenous tribes. The present-day Sacramento and American Rivers were filled with pristine water and banked by an abundance of gathering places and hunting spots. The land, including land the Crocker Art Museum was built upon is unceded, land that was taken without a treaty.


The Multiple Horizons art exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum Community Gallery reminds us of our collective relationship to this region and that California history did not start with the gold rush, nor should it be defined by it. Although Sacramento is known as the heart of gold country, that single narrative erases the histories of the peoples who have lived here since time immemorial. So, if you don’t know whose ancestral lands from which the California legislature makes state law and you are not familiar with the vibrant, living Indigenous cultures of the Sacramento region (or even if you are) these two shows exhibited that knowledge. Multiple Horizons: Native Perspectives at the Crossroads and Tribal Perspectives from the Confluence were two group shows featuring Indigenous artists who give substance to community cultural wealth through art. I was especially pleased to see an exhibition at the Crocker curated by Indigenous members of the community.


The exhibition comprises tribes throughout the nation, so in addition to local Nisenan, Miwok, Maidu, and Eastern Pomo, viewers experienced works from descendants of tribes outside the region such as Cherokee, Nahuat Pipil, Seminole, and Ponca who skillfully contribute their ways of knowing to the exhibition. Each artist seems to express their personal connection to this environment through their own cultural knowledge. Traditional Ecological Knowledge, the knowledge of a people’s ecosystem including materials and land stewardship, is evident throughout the artworks.


The two exhibitions in one complement each other: The Native Perspectives at the Crossroads exhibit focuses on the layers of crossroads in this region over time. The viewer is invited to reflect on their own relationship within ancestral Nisenan territory. Also, the Tribal Perspectives from the Confluence exhibit features the interconnectivity of water and the life it provides to the local ecosystem and people at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers.


Viewing the exhibitions, I particularly appreciated the painting by Jacky Calanchini (Nisenan) of an ancestral cultural item, a duck decoy made from tule plant titled Tule. Crafted by regional tribes from tule plant fibers for millennia, presently, this artist chose to create a decorative piece by utilizing western art materials. What was an ancestral, utilitarian item is now a post European-contact style representation in acrylic and marker. In other words, this duck found itself at the crossroads of past and present, ancestral and western style, and utilitarian versus aesthetic. Regardless of its place in time on the land where the Crocker Museum now sits, this duck has a story to tell.


So, for me, Tule embodies the overall exhibition: The crossroads and confluence of cultures and ecosystems within this region including both the living ecosystem and the western art ecosystem which consists of an art market, art institutions, and collectors and dealers.


During events, the Crocker Art Museum acknowledges the museum was built upon ancestral Nisenan land and that the current state of California is the homeland of many tribes. I would urge the public to contact the Crocker Museum and show support for more local Indigenous lead art exhibitions and events.

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