TATE WIKIKUWA: Wind Chases Sun

The Art of Leonard Peltier

Revolutionary Worker #1033, December 5, 1999

"The safest place to look for art is in a museum. There is a 100 percent chance that you will find it there. For this exhibition I went to a maximum security prison to look for art."

Rigo 99

"I am an Indian--an Indian who dared to stand up to defend his people. I am an innocent man who never murdered anyone nor wanted to. And, yes, I am a Sun Dancer. That, too, is my identity. If I am to suffer as a symbol of my people, then I suffer proudly. I will never yield."

Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings:
My Life Is My Sun Dance

People taking a stroll through San Francisco's Golden Gate Park on November 20 caught the first glimpse of something unusual. Walking by the famous M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, the first thing that stands out is one wing of the museum has been painted blue--so that the museum's walls appear to disappear into the sky. Banners, two stories tall, hang from the museum's walls, announcing an exhibition--"American Indian Centuries: The Art of Leonard Peltier."

On the banners, two paintings by Peltier: In "Elder" a Native American woman summons the wisdom from a lifetime of struggle. In "Sundancer," a warrior steels himself for the difficult Sun Dance ceremony--conjuring up the story of how the Sun Dance visions of Sitting Bull inspired the warriors at Little Big Horn to defeat General Custer. Above the door to the museum, large metal letters read: Taté Wikikuwa Museum.

Has a new museum opened in a wing of the de Young Museum, featuring paintings by Leonard Peltier--the Native American political prisoner unjustly imprisoned by the U.S. government? Not exactly.

But Rigo 99, a well-known muralist in the Bay Area, has transformed the exterior of the de Young as part of an art installation honoring Leonard Peltier and his art. The huge installation is part of a show called, "Museum Pieces: Bay Area Artists Consider the de Young." The show, on exhibit until March 2000, was inspired by plans for new buildings and other changes at the museum. Exhibit curator Glen Helfand said, "The impending changes, which will result in a very different institution, also foster a sense of artistic adventurousness that can only occur in a site that is awaiting construction crews."

The RW spoke with Rigo 99 who explained the context of the exhibit. "The de Young Museum is at a transition in its history. They are about to have the building torn down and get a brand new building within a couple of years. So they asked a group of Bay Area artists to come and do art work that addresses the idea of a museum in change and how could or should the museum be different in the next century, in its next incarnation.

"So my suggestion to them is that it's commendable that the museum will exhibit, protect, and maintain cultural artifacts from American Indian people. But one cannot honor the past at the cost of making it seem like there is no present. And a lot of times, I feel like Native cultures in the United States are dealt with as if they are something of the past. So I asked them: How can someone honor this regalia, honor this basket, honor these necklaces--and at the same time allow a situation like Leonard is in to keep on going?

"I feel like Leonard is being transformed himself into a museum piece--he is literally stored away and locked away and prevented from keeping on doing the type of work that he has always wanted to do. I wish there were museums showing his artwork but there are not, so I had to invent a museum that would be willing to show Leonard's work because unfortunately the ones that exist aren't doing that kind of work."

Taté Wikikuwa, the name of Rigo 99's museum/installation is taken from Leonard Peltier's name in the Dakota language, handed down from his great grandfather. In his book, Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance, "The name Taté Wikikuwa represents total freedom--a goal even those outside prison walls never achieve. When I think of that name to myself--Wind Chases the Sun--I feel free in my heart, able to melt through stone walls and steel bars and ride the wind through pure sunlight to the Sky World."

More than a dozen of Leonard Peltier's paintings, created in prison, are on display. Stenciled numbers--one for each of the 23 years that Leonard has spent in prison--line the hallway and lead to a small jail cell--reminding the viewer of the time that Peltier has spent in prison and of the brutal conditions he endures. Peltier's prison ID number is branded onto the back of all the pieces in the exhibit.

"I always wanted to be an artist," reads a statement by Peltier. "I remember the time I drew a picture and showed it to my teacher and she accused me of claiming someone else's drawing. I caught hell. It wasn't even that good, as I'd seen other kids my age whose drawings were much better. I never showed any drawings to that teacher again. Because our teachers and the Europeans who believe they are our superiors truly believed that we were not intelligent people, few doors were open for us. It was nearly impossible to get our work sold."

"I was fortunate enough to speak to Leonard on the phone a couple of times," Rigo 99 told the RW. "When I found out that he is also an artist, and that he has been painting from prison, I just found that really moving and relevant. Faced with a situation so full of despair and unbearable restrictions, he turns to art as a way to make his day-to-day existence bearable....

"My understanding is that what he always wanted is to celebrate his culture. His paintings speak to that capacity to find beauty, and I cannot think of something more beautiful than the dedication and righteousness that people like Leonard have. For me, this is really, really inspiring--the capacity to endure such adversities and still produce beauty."

Rigo 99 also told the RW about the impact that the exhibit and Leonard's paintings have had. "I saw this middle-aged lady and she started crying when she was reading Leonard's statement about his art. Another friend came up to me and thanked me for putting it together and then she said that it meant a lot to her especially now because in a couple of weeks her sister is going to be let out of prison. I asked her how long her sister had been in and she said since 1991. I think that there are so many people in prison, and sometimes there is such a stigma about it that there is a kind of vindication just to be acknowledged."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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