Memorial for Durango Mendoza, Muscogee (Creek) writer/artist (1945–2020)
When I was younger, I walked with my mother, aunt, and their cousin, Roselyn Bunny-Frye, down to the creek near our church, Thlewarle Indian Baptist Church, to see some handprints in the cement that held up the little bridge. When the bridge had been built, Roselyn and her siblings and cousins had snuck down there and put their handprints in the cement. She pointed them out. “That one is Tango’s,” she said.
“Tango” was the nickname of her brother, Durango Mendoza, a Muscogee (Creek)/Mexican artist and writer. I thought how funny it was to think of his childhood handprint here, out in the middle of rural Oklahoma, when his words were in so many anthologies and his photographs hung on gallery and museum walls. To me, a young writer, Durango showed that someone from our community could write about our way of life and have people all over the world read it. Although, by then he focused on photography.
I thought of that incident when I heard that Durango had passed away unexpectedly on Monday, October 5, 2020, at the age of 75 in Urbana, Illinois, where he had lived for many years with his wife, Jean. He was born on June 23, 1945, in Claremore, Oklahoma, to Robert S. and Lucille (Smith) Mendoza. His stepfather was James Bunny. He was a member of the Fuswv (Bird) clan and Eufaula-Canadian Tribal Town.
Durango was one of the first fiction writers to set a story in a Muscogee church, and it was our church, Thlewarle. Literary theorist and novelist of Muscogee descent, Craig S. Womack calls “Summer Water and Shirley,” Durango’s short story, “one of the strongest short stories in American Indian fiction and one of the strongest short shorts in any literature.” Often anthologized, the story first appeared in the fall 1966 edition of the literary journal Prairie Schooner. In 1971, his story was included in one of the first anthologies of Native literature, American Indian Authors, edited by Natachee Scott, mother of Pulitzer Prize winner N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa). It has since been included in several anthologies and many textbooks. Because of this story, many people know Durango as a writer … yet it is one of only four stories he ever published.
In a 2015 interview with The News-Gazette (Urbana-Champaign, Illinois) about an exhibition of his photography, Durango was asked why he stopped writing.
He replied, “What I wrote needed to be written by me, and I can’t get the same kind of feeling I had about adult life that I had as a child, because I changed a lot.”
Durango studied painting, photography, and sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Later, he graduated from the University of Missouri, Columbia. He earned a master’s degree in education, specializing in interdisciplinary art education, from Columbia College in Chicago. He worked for many years as an administrator for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, where he advocated for social justice, the arts, and the environment. Throughout his career, he painted and sculpted, but he was primarily a photographer. Though he lived in Illinois for most of his life, he maintained strong connections with his family and community in Oklahoma.
“I remember going to his exhibition reception at Gilcrease Museum” in Tulsa, said his niece Melanie Frye, a Muscogee (Creek) language instructor. “When he was getting ready to talk he said, ‘My family is here. They take up that whole row!’ We all laughed. I looked at his photographs, and they were beautiful. It amazed me how he could take everyday items and make them into works of art through his lens. When I posted pictures to my Facebook, it always made me happy when him and my aunt Jean would compliment them. I was happy because not only was my uncle complimenting them, it was also like Durango Mendoza the artist was complimenting them too.”
In Durango’s life, art intermingled with “everyday life,” and he prioritized both.
In The News-Gazette interview he said of his art, including writing, “certain things catch my eyes and mean something to me. My hope is somebody else will see them and connect, not to me personally, but will see things differently.”
In the body works he created, from stories to photographs, they will.