American democracy: ‘Merciless Indian Savages’

Eric Carpio, Director of Fort Garland Museum and Cultural Center, stands next to an image of the Declaration of Independence, which contains the phrase - and title of the upcoming exhibit - "Merciless Indian Savage". Courtesy photo

Exhibit opens Friday at Fort Garland

FORT GARLAND– On the walls of rooms that once housed Army commanders, officers and their families, Eric Carpio, Director of Fort Garland Museum, hangs artwork from “Merciless Indian Savages”, an exhibit opening at the museum on Friday, June 24. 

The exhibit is the creation of nationally renowned Gregg Deal, an artist, “sometimes-activist” and member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.

Deal is “primarily a painter”, working in mixed-media and paint, creating “work that is about indigenous identity, historical consideration and decolonization.”  

Deal is also a performance artist who “tackles things like stereotypes, conceptions and misconceptions, and concepts from Standing Rock to blood quantum - the way we are quantified through an American process that decides how much Indian we are and whether or not we’re Indian enough to matter.”

To Carpio, displaying the exhibit at Fort Garland is key. “The original purpose of the fort was to facilitate western expansion and control the indigenous population to protect the settlers.”

The rooms holding the exhibit were Fort Commander Kit Carson’s living quarters for eighteen months and, upon its closure as a fort and transition to museum, held an exhibit for 69 years dedicated to Carson alone.

Mount Blanca, one of four mountains sacred to native culture, can also be seen through the window.

Both of those things are its history, Carpio says, and Deal’s work has a strong historical component. “Especially in native cultures,” Carpio says, “artists are historians.”

Deal’s work is evocative with images, some straight out of historic newspapers and others reminiscent of illustrations found in old comic books, that will likely seem familiar to visitors.

That familiarity is at the foundation of much of Deal’s work, for it’s born of the centuries-long, monolithic, disparaging stereotypic portrayal of indigenous peoples in mainstream popular culture. And the consequences of those images have had a damaging, generational impact.

“The value of indigenous people is really low in the eyes of America and American culture,” Deal says. “They tell indigenous children and ultimately indigenous adults what our value is.”

In contrast and defiance, Deal’s artwork presents those images in a different context, revealing something that goes deeper than the image to the cultural and political history that gave it birth.  

Where the exhibit is on display is significant. So is its timing.

As the national election approached in 2020, History Colorado sponsored a series of programs collectively titled “This Is What Democracy Looks Like.” Curated as part of that series, “Merciless Indian Savages…leads visitors through an Indigenous exploration of what American Democracy means in Indian Country.”

After being on display in Denver, the exhibit traveled first to the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose and then to Fort Garland.

Events since 2020 have made the exhibit even more relevant. Public discourse about the meaning of democracy to diverse perspectives, the debate over what history is to be taught (and not taught) in school and changing the names of historic places and team mascots has only grown more intense, and the conversation that arises from those issues are reflected in the exhibit’s title.  

On a story card that introduces the exhibit, Deal quotes the Declaration of Independence with words penned by Thomas Jefferson:

“The inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an Undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.”

Those words are contained within the same document that declares “all Men are created equal.”

Deal writes, “What does American Democracy mean to a person whose ancestors were dehumanized in its founding document?  How does an indigenous person stay true to their identities while participating in a society that has historically marginalized and stereotyped them?”

In a segment of the exhibit titled “The Others”, Deal recreates illustrations from 1940s and 1950s comic books, replacing characters’ dialogue with lyrics from 80s punk music, much of which is about “disenfranchisement, injustice, inequity, gentrification and the overall effort of fighting power structures meant to oppress or suppress”. In Deal’s words, “those lyrics…surprisingly speak to the indigenous experience.”

The exhibit also includes a painting that stands out among the rest, created after a friend of Deal’s told him a story.   

A native elder, whom the friend knew, was enrolled as a young child in an Indian boarding school where forced assimilation was the curriculum.

Children’s hair was cut off. They were forced to wear unfamiliar, uncomfortable clothing and forbidden to speak their native language.

“They were basically captives,” Carpio says.

Upon his arrival, a young boy was forcibly bathed by a woman who fiercely scrubbed his knees and elbows, mistaking the darkened skin for dirt. She scrubbed until the skin was scrubbed off, leaving his limbs bloodied and raw.

Back in the bed he had been assigned, the boy was found crying, sheets soiled with blood. As the story goes, he was taken to a room to where he was beaten and never seen again.

Deal’s painting depicts that young boy, his back and legs covered in talc, his elbows bloody and raw as he stands, back to the viewer, in a world of shadows and darkness.

“These are our stories,” Deal says. “Our stories matter.”

Gregg Deal’s stories – both with and without words – are told like no other.

When asked what takeaways he thinks the public will have from the exhibit, Carpio smiles, just a bit. “We don’t offer the solutions,” he says. “We ask the questions.”

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