Rescued Art

No-Way-Ke-Sug-KaI had been on a lone rescue mission most of the day. The expressway exits began to look all the same and this thrift store, I was sure, wouldn’t try very hard to lift me up . . . with its mid-week, nothing-on-sale, sort of art that didn’t need to be rescued. It would be another store filled with the very unproud leavings of a society that forgets its past quickly and conveniently.

But, soon upon entering and closing myself off from the expressway sameness, a very wide-eyed lift came over me. On the top shelf, one on each wall of the building, were displayed four beautiful prints of Indian chiefs. They were high above every other item in the store, including me. They didn’t look down; they simply watched over the place and made it feel safe and new.

The colors, no the quality of the colors, spoke of an age past. As it turns out, they are prints made from hand-painted lithographs from the 1830s and 40s. (‘Litho’ means ‘stone’.) The original lithos were collected into a famous folio-book by Thomas McKenney. He was the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs back then and his work made him very afraid that the native peoples were about to become an extinct race. So, when the chiefs came east to show homage to the President of the expanding United States, McKenney had them sit for a portrait. All the portraits were burned up in a fire, but the lithos lived on and these four prints of those lithos, themselves around 50 years old, were definitely the most lively things in that thrift store. They were strong and beautiful.

Mon-Chon-Sia, Pes-Ka-Le-Cha-Co, No-Way-Ke-Sug-Ka, and Chon-Man-I-Case. Just to say their names makes me shiver and wonder. Each of their faces looks resigned, a little sad. I wonder if they knew they were no longer chiefs of their people. Each is also wearing a silver medallion, hung around their neck. The medallions are relief carvings of the sitting president at the time of their signing treaties to acknowledge the national government: James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren.

Those medallions, at first, seem out of place among the bear claws, beads, animal hide robes, and red feathers of their natural regalia. They were an attempt to subdue the dignity of the chiefs. But, in this thrift store, those four Indians stood proud, watching over the leavings of a society and calling out to be rescued.