Swaneagle Harijan: A feminist artist heeding her heart Print E-mail

" ... resisting war, genocide, ecocide and enacting a livable future. It is my sacred duty"

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September 2006

Art Beat

Swaneagle (Tremblay) Harijan: An Artist with a Conscience

by Gloria J. Geary

Swaneagle Tremblay is an artist with a mission. One might label her as an activist-artist, but labeling is something that transcends her persona; she's not easily categorized. The Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard said, "Once you label me you negate me." Yet, she is, by her own description, "an odd woman." Swaneagle willingly lends her voice to disenfranchised people. Also, she is very passionate about being a force in the world for indigenous people. When she speaks about the atrocities in our world today, she is extremely articulate and knowledgeable about her subject.

 Her art is a response to those atrocities and injustices she sees all around her. Other people and other artists may shy away from the tough issues of our times. They may look the other way when they encounter injustice or racism. Swaneagle does not. She faces the tough issues of our times. And, because of her multi-racial children, she has experienced racism first-hand, with her children teaching her many valuable lessons. Their courage and determination is commendable in the onslaught of unsound race relations that is the "norm" for our country today. Some might argue that racism is non-existent at best or subtle at worst. Swaneagle is cognizant of the dominant majority culture and how the world is shaped by the hand that rocks the cradle. The xenophobic culture that is America today is disturbing to some people, but to this self-described "hippie," it is especially disconcerting. As a mother, artist, and activist, she feels very deeply about the issues in our country. Our country's legacy will be defined by how it treats its most marginalized and vulnerable citizens.

Swaneagle's art reflects her deep convictions and beliefs on women, children, Native Americans and racism. The art is often autobiographical, depicting a white mother/multi-racial child living in the eco-system of this region. Other artworks are directly influenced by her time living in the southwest with traditional elders such as Pauline Whitesinger and Roberta Blackgoat. One piece from this period depicts a lone DinÈ Woman headed from a tipi towards her hogan (The hogan is a sacred home for the DinÈ (Navajo) people who practice traditional religion. Every family -- even if they live most of the time in a newer home--must have the traditional hogan for ceremonies, and to keep themselves in balance) in the distance. At first glance it looks like a serene, typical Western Art Scene, until one looks a little closer to see the helicopters hovering in the background, signifying to the viewer an intense conflict. The title of the piece is "Witness Peace Camp."

Or, a drawing displaying a white mother/brown child in the forest, surrounded by trees that were recently cruelly harvested -- without regards to the environment. The forest is clearly a pine forest, and reflects clear-cutting practices. This artwork is titled "What Will We Leave for Our Children?"

Another piece depicts a woman in the desert near a large Saguaro cactus, with a single teardrop falling from her eye, and her bleeding heart in one hand, titled "Border Agony." In this piece, sugary Valentine-like hearts also form a type of fence in the background symbolizing the deaths of over 4,000 people attempting to cross the Mexican/U.S. border since the implementation of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) on January 1, 1994.

Drawing ever since she could hold a pencil, Swaneagle's only formal art training consisted of several art classes she attended at Santa Barbara City College in the late 1960s. Swaneagle began doing political art in 1980 when she created a piece about the attempt of the AAMAX corporation to desecrate Mount Tolman near Keller, Washington, on the Colville Reservation, by mining the mineral molybdenum, used in the formation of alloys.

 Swaneagle met a woman named Noguns ã a "powerful frontline Hippie mother" -- who told her about the Gandhian action against the Seabrook Nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. She explains, "Traveling east, I studied Gandhi for several months and then participated with two other people in the civil disobedience that put myself and the organizer, David Slesinger, in jail for 4 months."

In her own words, Swaneagle describes the processes that have shaped her life and ideals. "In l982, David Slesinger organized the nonviolent response to the Seabrook nuke after the citizens of Seabrook voted four times to stop it from being built. It was constructed anyway. I had just participated in voting to ban out-of-state nuclear waste from being imported to Hanford. It was an overwhelming "NO" vote, but the Supreme Court overturned the wishes of New Hampshire State citizens. I felt the need to participate in direct, nonviolent action. I did not bargain for a 6-month sentence (reduced to 4-months with good behavior). While incarcerated, my art became very political as I was witnessing the suffering of women from Haiti and El Salvador facing execution upon deportation. It was also during my confinement that I learned that 75% to 90% of uranium used for nuclear weapons and power came from Native American lands where the tailings piles were never covered. Then I learned about the struggle at Big Mountain, Arizona, from Noguns when she came to visit me in jail. The experience irrevocably altered my life. Before doing civil disobedience, I was shy, afraid to express my opinion. But when I was presented with a bouquet of a dozen microphones held by reporters as I prepared to commit my crime of conscience against the Public Service Company of New Hampshire, Seabrook's main shareholder, I became uncorked and have had no trouble speaking truth as I know it to this day. Though I am silenced in many ways due to the positions I take, I no longer fear speaking out."

Swaneagle elaborates, "Shortly after returning home to Onion Creek, I left the area with my two young children to attend Evergreen State College where I studied nonviolence, [and] enrolled in the Native American studies program as well as studying performance art. In l984, I began traveling to Big Mountain, Arizona, in response to a call put out by traditional Hopi and DinÈ Elders for non-Indians to bear witness to their spiritual resistance to forced relocation enacted by the U. S. government and Peabody Coal Company. The human rights abuses were so blatant that I truly believed this would be the civil rights movement of the 80's, but I saw that the press participated in a blackout. When the mainstream media did report on this serious situation, it was called "The Hopi-Navajo Land Dispute." But the truth was the dispute existed between the Federal Government, the Peabody Coal Company and the U.S.-backed tribal councils against the traditional peoples of both tribes. I have been doing what I can ever since to keep people educated, but the blackout is so successful that few people know that there are traditional people speaking their own language, herding sheep, growing corn, weaving rugs and living as self-sufficiently as possible. In retrospect, it will be seen as the greatest human rights violation of the 20th century within U.S. borders. Of 16,000 people already relocated, over 8,000 have died already. It is shameful. Yet, Pauline Whitesinger is still out there living her ancient way of life against all odds. She is my life's greatest teacher.

"Artists have an obligation to make human conscience tangible and visible. Artists have always had a deep connection to conscience and are often among the first to disappear in dictatorships. Art transcends the barriers of language. It reaches people where words often fail. I call my art 'spiritual' as it comes from my own experiences of extreme marginalization -- because my family disowned me for never marrying and having mixed-race children. This has kept me in visceral contact with the suffering of other voiceless people as well as exposed me and my children to the cross-cultural plea for solution that is emerging in places of resistance all over the world. Writers such as Alice Walker, Anna Castillo, Leslie Marmon Silko, Barbara Kingsolver and others express the stories of these multi-cultural communities essential for survival in these fractious times.

"Our children need to be part of inclusion that contributes to healing of the planet and their very future. My children are part of this Rainbow reality in the diversity of their friends and the new cultures being shaped out of dire necessity. The damage being done continually by the invader dominant society is being reversed, thrown aside in very healthy and creative ways everywhere the human spirit rises above death and destruction to keep thriving. Hanging on to oppressive, vengeful methods only spells doom for all life. All of us have an obligation to instill compassion, kindness, love and responsibility in ourselves, our children and our communities. All of us, everyone, is hurt by war, culture, and greed. By remaining silent in the face of atrocity, we undermine our children's chances at a decent life.

"I have a right to define who I am as a human being. Though I have been accused of being a "cultural thief" because of my name, I maintain my efforts to reclaim my pre-Christian ancestry in Ireland that also honored the earth where people were named after the elements, flora and fauna. All names having meaning that dominant society strips away--this is a colonial attempt to demean those who do not conform to narrow structures that perpetrate abuse. In taking my name in a Wiccan ceremony where the old was thrown into a fire and the new taken on, I also made a lifetime commitment to human rights. I have no way of knowing my Irish culture directly, but I can shape what it means to live responsibly with integrity. Just in doing this I am attacked by a variety of people who really are in pain themselves. I must heed my heart in resisting war, genocide, ecocide and enacting a livable future. It is my sacred duty."

Swaneagle's politically-charged artwork is available for sale. She also sells the incredible weavings of the DinÈ women from Big Mountain, Arizona. Please contact her at 732-4875.

Paintings above are by Swaneagle and are entitled "Grandmother Holding Native Child" and "Teepee with Helicopters."