I felt close to my ancestors when I painted. This is how I came to know my grandmother Naomi Harjo Foster intimately. I never got to know her in person because she died long before I was born.
Throughout childhood I studied her drawing of two horses running in a storm, which lived on the wall of our living room. And now, as an art major at the university, I found her in the long silences, in between the long, meditative breaths that happen when you interact with the soul of creation.
I began to know her within the memory of my hands as they sketched. Within marrow is memory. I heard her soft voice and saw where my father got his sensitive, dreaming eyes. Like her, he did not like the hard edges of earth existence. He drank to soften them. She painted to make a doorway between realms.
As I moved pencil across paper and brush across canvas, my grandmother existed again. She was as present as these words. I saw a woman who liked soft velvets, a clean-cut line. She was often perceived as “strange” because she appeared closer to death than to life. I felt sadness as grief in her lungs. The grief came from the tears of thousands of our tribe when we were uprooted and forced to walk the long miles west to Indian Territory. They were the tears of the dead and the tears of those who remained to bury the dead. We had to keep walking. We were still walking, trying to make it through to home. The tears spoiled in her lungs, became tuberculosis.
She exists in me now, just as I will and already do within my grandchildren. No one ever truly dies. The desires of our hearts make a path. We create legacy with our thoughts and dreams. This legacy either will give those who follow us joy on their road or will give them sorrow.
My grandmother Naomi copied the famed 1838 lithograph of Osceola, her uncle, to make a painting. He stands regal in a stylish turban with ostrich feathers, with a rifle in his hand. She was proud that he and the people never surrendered to the U.S. government. Osceola did not subscribe to the racist politics of blood quantum that were and continue to disappear us as native peoples. He was Seminole, and he acted in that manner.
Because my grandmother’s thinking inspired me, I was sketching an idea for a series of contemporary warriors to present in one of my university art classes. I considered including Dennis Banks, a leader of the American Indian Movement, and Phillip Deere, one of our Mvskoke spiritual and cultural leaders. He was a beloved prophet and a teacher. I considered Ada Deer, the Menominee warrior who fought for tribal recognition for her people after the U.S. government disappeared them.
As I sketched, I considered the notion of warrior. In the American mainstream imagination, warriors were always male and military, and when they were Indian warriors they were usually Plains Indian males with headdresses. What of contemporary warriors? And what of the wives, mothers, and daughters whose small daily acts of sacrifice and bravery were usually unrecognized or unrewarded? These acts were just as crucial to the safety and well-being of the people.
There were many others who fought alongside Osceola, and as a true warrior he would have been the first to say so. For the true warriors of the world, fighting is the last resort to solving a conflict. Every effort is made to avoid bloodshed.
I often painted or drew through the night, when most of the world slept and it was easier to walk through the membrane between life and death to bring back memory. I painted to the music of silence. It was here I could hear everything.
Lots of other great parts in this book; this one stands out to me most at present. (Emphases in bold mine.)
Featured Image of Crazy Brave book jacket; Jacket design by Jen Wang; Jacket photograph by Eve Domingsil.