A Reflection: Judith A. Lowry and Frank LaPena


By Susana C. Mata

I am a Chumash-Tongva woman who is no longer invisible; Spirit and my ancestors helped me find my way and I have learned that California Indian culture is not a relic of the past, but a living, breathing culture. My father, Celestino Antonio Mata, was a Chumash descendant of Rosario Cooper who was the last speaker of the Obispeno Chumash language. My mother, Margaret Abril Garcia, was a Tongva California Indian from the San Gabriel Mission. Their deaths compelled me to begin a process of discovery and recovery of that which made me invisible.

The images shared by Judith A. Lowry and Frank LaPena tell a family story that is unique to our experiences as California Indians. While some of the stories are intensely personal, they convey a larger message about indigenous peoples in California. Our family story is about our struggle to preserve and protect our culture and language from extinction. Art is a medium for telling our stories. It is how our ancestors reveal themselves to us and symbolize a renewal of our cultural identity in a modern world.

We all have our own personal moments in history. We remember different events in our lives. Our reality and experiences are shaped by what society deems is appropriate. As California Indians, our experiences are shaped by these forces as well. We are ancestors and descendants simultaneously. The artists, Judith A. Lowry and Frank LaPena, capture and illuminate the past and future. They share personal moments in history that resonate with our experiences as California Indians.

Judith A Lowry used humorous examples to depict what she remembers about growing up. Her work is a reflection of the tradition of storytelling and a reflection of what American culture worships and values. She paints the facade of what it means to be an indigenous person and how stereotypes become a reality for us all. She draws her artistic inspiration from her experiences growing up in a mixed-race family, traveling, and living around the world.

Lowry's painting, My Aunt Viola, challenges the notion that Indians are colorful relics of the past. It is a humorous example of contesting the stereotype of the modern Indian who lives in two worlds. Lowry creates symbolic imagery of a Hollywood Indian by painting a picture of her Aunt Viola, a Pit River Mountain Maidu, as a beautiful woman dressed in Plains Indian clothing, wearing a headdress with ermine ties.

In Family (1953): Love's Unbreakable Heaven, Lowry tells us about her father, a colonel in the United States Army. During Christmas in Germany, her parents dressed her brother in "Indian" clothing and gave her a drum to play for him as they took home movies. While her brother danced, she stood off to the side, more an observer than a participant. She says, "It was the day I realized my family was different. I took after my mother (Australian), while my brother is Indian-looking. He went through a lot of pain growing up. On this day, my parents were encouraging him to be proud of his Indian heritage. It was then that I realized the difference between my brother and I was that my family was bi-racial.

There are also many painful survival memories in our family stories. Lowry's Sacrifice: June 21, 1936 is a sad memory about our history when two cultures made contact. These memories are a tribute to our survival as indigenous peoples. California Indians were forced to live on Spanish missions as slave labor; we were denied expression of our religious beliefs and cultural identity; our population was decimated by Spanish policies and the Church.

Much of what I have learned in the process of recovering my language and culture has come through reading and writing; however, there are some aspects of being a California Indian that cannot be measured or explained by historical facts or scientific methods. Linear models and analyses do not fit the spiritual aspects of our cultural identity. The sense of being or awareness of our Indianness is real when we participate in ceremony. As I have become more involved in traditional ceremonies and life-ways. I have a deeper understanding of my own spirituality and connectedness with the culture and language of my past.

Artist Frank LaPena conveys this connection in Deer Spirit and Dance Spirit. It reminds me of the first time I participated in sacred ceremony. As we danced and sang around the fire, the shadows reflected on the walls around us made me wonder how long ago my ancestors held ceremony in this sacred site. At that moment, I knew what it meant to be Indian. LaPena's work symbolizes that profound reconnection to the past in a modern world.

LaPena's Earth Mother: Red Cap is a ceremony to acknowledge the symbiotic relationship between humanity and earth. His Blue Shadow Spirit focuses on messages and symbols in rock art left by our ancestors thousands of years ago. The images and sacred and powerful. When we are in ceremony we feel their power and guidance. In Blue Dog, LaPena shows us an example of power and transformation. California Indians share similar stories about powerful people who carry medicine and can change into sacred animals. LaPena paints a spiritual ceremony conducted in his home after his father's death in I Was Young When My Father Died: Sending the Spirit Home. This work conveys a powerful ceremony conducted by many California Indians who are honoring traditions while living in a modern world.

Often there are conflicts between traditional native religions and contemporary western religions. The actual events that happen in our lives must always be balanced with our spiritual world on a daily basis. We must keep balance in our lives in a world that has not always been kind to us as a people. We must remember our connection to nature and the earth. We must listen, observe, and learn from our ancestors.

Susana C. Mata, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the School of Education and Human Development at California State University, Fresno.

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