People require a setting. From the short list of important questions, "Who am I?" as well as its plural, "Who are we?" come in at or near the top. Where and how we fit into "our" setting is an essential element of examining who we are. Culture, though hard to define, is the human setting--it is the picture into which we fit. Of course, there are also the issues of land and real estate or space and time. But what happens to identity when a culture loses its setting, when the picture into which that identity fit has been replaced by a very different picture? This is precisely the question Native Americans have faced for over a century now: How do you preserve a setting without a setting?
The Dog Head Stew Portfolio and Exhibition is a collection of archival quality prints created and gathered around the theme of Native American traditions and cultural persistence. It is part of a larger effort in Boise State's fourth biennial edition called the First Nations Conference. Organized and co-chaired by Native faculty members Gretchen Cotrell, Ph.D and Larry McNeil, Associate Professor, the conference is open to the general public as well as academics, students and all Native peoples. The conference focuses on issues pertinent to indigenous communities in Idaho and the Northwest, as well as the concerns of Native Americans across the country.
The Dog Head Stew Portfolio was organized by Elizabeth Struck and first seen at the 31st Southern Graphics Annual Conference 2003 in Boston. From the proposal: "This portfolio invites personal and political expression honoring or criticizing past and present representations of Native American culture." Twenty-four artists are represented, including Boise State's own Larry McNeil and Kirsten Furlong. Submission was open to printmakers working in traditional and non-traditional archival print media, regardless of cultural background. The title comes from the story/recipe "Dog Head Stew (for Fifty People)" by Dorothy Pennington in which a fictional group of Indians throwing a feast attempt to live up to the savage stereotypes they are more than aware of, and in doing so, hope to rid themselves of the white guests. From the recipe: "Carefully prepare one medium dog head, removing teeth from jaw bones and hair, putting these aside for future use. Into kettle, add heaping handfuls of camus bulbs and cattail roots ... At the proper moment, using ceremonial arrow, impale the dog head and bring forth for all to observe the excellence of the dish. Then allow fifteen to thirty minutes for all whites to excuse themselves and leave for home. Bury the stew in the backyard and bring forth the roast turkey with all the trimmings."
Like the title, the portfolio includes pieces with a sense of slightly bitter humor. John Hitchcock's piece, Pork, is a wry and sarcastic cultural crest that includes elements of the humiliation of reservation life, rather than a proud past. Sean Star Wars' woodcut, Pink Meat, likewise uses sarcasm to make a point, showing the ways in which modern consumerism and advertising have used a Native American slur to sell hotdogs. But there are also voices from the other direction. Maria Lee's solar plate, intaglio, Who's Keeping Tally, shows two caged eagles and is accompanied by the text, "My print was inspired from my first visit to Hopi Third Mesa a few summers ago, where dancing was taking place. I noticed that two young golden eagles were caged above one of the houses. After inquiring why they were there, I was told they were to be sacrificed after the dancing. This print started a series of monotypes that ponders the use of animals (the killing of) for cultural traditions. I wondered if various cultures and traditions might revise (would even consider) changing their rituals to keep up with the changes in our modern world, our present state of the environment ..."
At least one thing is clear: The persistence of a culture that has lost its setting and the way questions of identity are affected by such a loss do have a setting--in art.