Indigenous warrior artists of every generation have expressed their combat experience in their work, from the decorated ceremonial weaponry of ancient times to ledger drawings of the 19th century to Vietnam veteran Harvey Pratt’s upcoming public art for the National Native American Veterans Memorial at Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Post-9/11 artists carry on that practice, inspired by veterans of previous wars like Pratt and Kiowa/Caddo painter T.C. Cannon. Dante-Biss Grayson (Osage, US Air Force), Miridth Campbell (Kiowa, US Army, Marine Corps, and Navy Seabees), and Monte Little (Diné, US Marine Corps) are among the Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans whose work is defining this generation’s response to combat.
All of the artists say they have been influenced by previous generations.
For Biss-Grayson, growing up in the Native American Church affected his outlook on both military service and art.
“I was familiar with the peyote church and the vision quest,” he said. “It’s a warrior society, within different tribes … and in the military sense, there’s a kind of ceremony involved when you are deployed. You have to have everything in place. There is a system and a process. So I think I applied those [Native American Church] philosophies into what I was trying to do.”
Biss-Grayson served his multiple deployments in a search and rescue unit that regularly engaged in operations that involved helping people who were gravely injured, recovering the bodies of people killed in violent ways, and witnessing wreckage of all kinds. To process the many traumas he experienced, he worked with a therapist who had him attempt to recall the details of each engagement. That experience led him to the post-war Abstract Expressionist style in which he now creates his large canvases. Biss-Grayson compared the process of creating the paintings to the intensity of ceremony.
“If I want to do one piece, that has to be in one sitting,” he said. “It’s eight hours or twelve hours until I just basically pass out. And it gets to the point where it’s like, just pushing that emotion and pushing that emotion. I use the warrior mentality of just, ‘until the mission’s done.’ And in parallel with the Native American mentality that there’s a certain process with a ceremony, but also the emotion and the connection with not just this plane, but also our clans, and our spirit, and the Creator.”
Campbell is from a military family, and she said that though she has served in three branches (Army, Navy, Marines), “I do and will always consider myself a Marine.”
“Much of what I do is a reflection of a time period of the US westward expansion across the Great Plains,” she said. “As a Southern Plains artist, I am intrigued with the trade items that were acquired during this time frame. Woolen blankets, broadcloth fabrics, metal buttons, seed beads, medals, coins, tin from barrel bands and cans. … There is just so much that was integrated into the personal items to reflect a beauty that the individual had a preference for, and some things were made with a specific design and meaning and were meant to convey that.”
Campbell said her work reflects her tribal history, but she also creates work for present-day warriors and veterans.
“Looking over the history of my work, much of it reflects the warrior aspect of my culture,” she said. “Bow cases, gun cases, war shirts, coup items like the Cavalry Coat. Knife cases, men’s traditional moccasins, and men’s leggings. Many of the moccasins I make are for veterans. I consult with them and we discuss our military connections, and I will incorporate their ribbons into a design that is specific and meaningful to them. It is always such a feeling of gratitude for me when I see any of my work worn with pride.”
All of the artists acknowledge that their generation’s war, which is still going on after 17 years, creates challenges, both personal and artistic, which influence their work.
“I know we learned a lot from previous Native war vet/artists,” said Little. “We all have similarities in experience, pain, loss, etc. but a difference is OEF/OIF vets are experimenting with different mediums. Both generations create raw, truthful work and I don’t see each generation as less important.”
Campell said that expressing the experience of war, whether through art, storytelling, or ceremony, is imperative.
“My take on the OEF/OIF generation of artists is that it is much the same as the [historical]warrior societies depicted their own battles,” she said. “We all have a story to tell and a desire to be heard and seen. We want to be well thought of and appreciated for our own sacrifices.”
Warriors are highly respected in most Indigenous nations, and recovery from the trauma of combat is part of most Indigenous ceremonial and medicinal traditions. For many OEF/OIF veterans, art is part of the recovery process.
Biss-Grayson was an experienced artist before he joined the military. When the war began, his unit was immediately called up. Then began a long series of deployments. For eight years, he focused on the mission and did not paint. When he finally had a moment to breathe, he found himself in a torturous struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Emotionally, it was like, ‘Compartmentalize that. If you’re going to see 20 people dead today, press on, because tomorrow we’re going to see 40.’ That type of thing,” he said. “And those tools were useful in war. But when you come back and try to process it, and you’re just, you’re vacant. Like your own body is a shell. And you look at yourself in a situation from a different direction. You’re not engaging the truth, in a way. It helps in war, but when you’re trying to day-to-day in America, that just doesn’t work.”
For several months, he worked with a therapist who had him attempt to write down every one of his many traumatic experiences in detail. It was illuminating but emotionally wrenching. While home with his family on a break from therapy, he read an article that cited the (much-disputed) statistic that 22 veterans a day die by suicide.
“Maybe that number’s a bit much, but regardless, it’s one of those ones that just kind of galvanized a movement of awareness,” he said. “For myself, I was in the middle of being the number. I was going to be a percentage. I was self-medicating and hurting myself. So I’m in my studio and started thinking about how many brothers and sisters we lose every day and a light went off, and I just started painting abstract expressionism. I studied Zen philosophy as well, and [the painting was]just kind of like one pure emotion. Because it’s hard to get your hands around what it feels like when you have PTSD. Or what it feels like when you have trauma. You know, to verbalize or express it, that type of thing. It’s definitely got a grip on my throat all the time. It starts small, like germs on the horizon, and then it comes to a point where you’re in the middle of a storm, and you can’t focus or do anything. So I was in the studio, and it just kind of just hit me. I did one piece, and it expressed how I was feeling, what I was saying.”
Art was one of many tools that helped him regain some stability, and the abstract style freed him from the constraints of words and concrete images.
“We’re on the precipice of something…this whole generation,” he said. “Native Americans are the highest percentage of people who volunteer every year for the military. Of any ethnic group. We’re here. That’s the warrior spirit. But then, throughout that, there’s going to be a new vision. And maybe it’s not going to be political, but it’s going to eventually hit that point. So the new post-war abstract expressionism is just a raw emotion of what it is…And that’s the great thing about an abstract, is let everyone figure it out. Here’s the emotion. You know, I’m not Mondrian, where you’ve got to read a whole three thousand page book to understand what those lines are. You know, here it is: take it for what it is. I don’t know. That’s where I’m at.”
Little also found art a healing conduit after the trauma of war.
“While I was a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts, I suffered most with PTSD,” he said. “My spouse, the faculty, and traditions gave me much support to continue to create work. As much of a clear reflection as it was, I started to look at my work and notice how ‘scary’ it was looking. These were my projections of PTSD, and everyone besides me thought my work was too intense and formidable. All of these projections were releasing and diluting my experience with PTSD. Painting helped solidify my courage to look at [my]reflection and be honest with myself.”
All three artists agree that stereotypes of veteran art can be insidious and limiting, just like stereotypes of Native art, with which they must also contend.
“When people read my bio and find that I am a veteran, there is this instant diagnosis of PTSD and therefore [they think]my work is about PTSD,” he said. “I have trouble convincing viewers that it’s not all about experiences of war, but if you meditate on my work, there are instances of euphoria when they unfold those perceptions and see discourse in indigenous complex topics such as identity, assimilation, and modernity.”
Campell said her work is personally healing, and she hopes it brings the same to those who wear or see it.
“Personally, my own art and way of approaching it have always been therapeutic for me,” she said. “With each new creation, I have countless hours to think, reflect and be truly self-aware about my own journey and path with the military. It’s a way of creating something good and beautiful and putting it out into the world to be enjoyed.”
Biss-Grayson hopes to offer art as an option for other veterans.
“Art doesn’t have to go on to exhibits and then to museums,” he said. “It can just be the thing that you do. The process of art is important as well. The thing is, [in the military]I was trying to save other people. And I’m really good at it. That’s what I’m doing in Indian Country right now. But it was me that I forgot about. I forgot, hey, I need to take care of myself, too. So I’m kind of working on that part right now. But I’ll probably maybe give some classes to other veterans, or just say, ‘Here’s an option. If you ever want to do it.’ And it’s there. Art is that open platform that may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if we can save at least one more veteran who doesn’t kill himself every day, then we’ve done something.”
Campbell and Little are among the veterans whose work is part of the Original Warrior exhibition of Indigenous artists at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago, which runs through April 22, 2019. Biss-Grayson’s work can be seen at the upcoming Collective Exhibition at Agora Gallery in New York, May 11-31, 2019.