Native Americans Reclaim Space in ‘The Continuous Thread’

An art exhibit for and by indigenous artists that is ‘unprecedented for the city.’

Left to right: Christine [seated], Melanie, Michelle, Arianna. Photo by Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie

Last September, San Francisco’s indigenous leaders won a long-fought battle that made headlines across the nation. They successfully petitioned for the removal of a 124-year-old statue entitled “Early Days,” which depicted a Native American on the ground at the hands of a triumphant vaquero and Catholic priest. In short, it glorified colonial oppression.

So when “Early Days” was finally taken down from its spot at Civic Center Plaza, Barbara  Mumby Huerta, an indigenous artist and director of community investments at the San Francisco Arts Commission, knew that it was time to reclaim its space.

“How do we take a place that held so much trauma and pain — how do we transform that?” Mumby Huerta says. “What is our role as a city of transforming space to then make it a place of hope and resiliency?”

The result was “The Continuous Thread: Celebrating Our Interwoven Histories, Identities, and Contributions,” an exhibit celebrating both the removal of “Early Days” and the 50th anniversary of the Native American Occupation of Alcatraz — a historical display of activism that happened in San Francisco’s bay. The exhibit consists of three different photoshoots by three indigenous artists, each with its varying concept and purpose. For Mumby Huerta, finding indigenous artists was integral to the exhibit’s process.

“The community not only needs to be elevated and portrayed in a way that is authentic and uplifting, but also the quality and the excellence the community has needs to be on display too,” Mumby Huerta says. “We’ve been very intentional about having the heart work and hard work being done by indigenous people.”

One photoshoot by Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie, an associate professor in the Department of Native American Studies at U.C. Davis, took place over two days in April, regardless of rain or sun (there was a “steady downpour” on the first day). Tsinhnahjinnie’s photos had indigenous lawyers, activists, and more smile, stand, or raise their fists in power on the plinth where the original “Early Days” sculpture used to be.

Another photographer, Britt Bradley, used a 19th century wet-collodion process to capture group portraits with vignetting edges and a monochrome palette. Or in other words, making these contemporary photos appear from another century.

“She’s taking the process and spinning it, and questioning the concept of the ‘vanishing Indian,’” Mumby Huerta says.

The third photographer, Jean Melesaine, took close-up portraits of indigenous individuals against a black background with dramatic lighting. These photographs — in addition to being displayed in “The Continuous Thread” — were then projected on the Asian Art Museum, larger-than-life.

“It’s unprecedented for the city, the Arts Commission specifically, to support what I feel is one of the most marginalized communities in such a profound way,” Mumby Huerta says. “The Continuous Thread” builds upon a whole series of both pre-existing and new fall initiatives, like the annual American Indian Film Festival, a fashion show, and a concert with Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Carolyn Kuali’i, the curator of the exhibit, feels that “The Continuous Thread” is one way indigenous history and the complexities of the community — shaped by centuries of colonialism, assimilation and relocation policies, and multigenerational activism — can be visualized through art.

“It was really important for me to honor that history. That’s why ‘Continuous Thread’ was chosen,” Kuali’i says about the title, which Kuali’i and Mumby Huerta both worked on. “If you look on the wall you’ll see multiple generations.”

Those generations — new and old — represent the concept of the continuous thread, of the ongoing story. One of Kuali’i’s favorite photos in the exhibit is actually one of the youth — of young indigenous community leaders.

“They’re finding their way. They’re making their mark,” Kuali’i says. “They’re continuing the thread.”

“The Continuous Thread: Celebrating Our Interwoven Histories, Identities, and Contributions”

Through Dec. 14 at SFAC Main Gallery, 410 Van Ness, Ste. 126, free; sfartscommission.org.

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