From the Fortress of Solitude
This is Bob's newest painting finished over Christmas. Bob is married to Lisa Williamson Coronato, daughter of Charles and Luella and granddaughter to Charles Williamson. His commentary of the painting is below.
Lakota name: Oyate Wacinyapi "Works for the people"
"An upside down flag is an international signal of distress... now we, the Indian nations, are in distress. I will wear this flag upside down as long as my people are in distress!" R. Means
by Bob Coronato
size 36 5/8 74 1/4
Oil on Canvas
I have been researching and planning this painting for over 10 years. I First heard about Russell Means when I moved into the Black Hills and learned how much controversy there was around him in the "Hills". There were some that viewed him negatively and there were those that held him as a hero. I wanted to learn more for myself because it was a dramatic chapter in the history of the west that took place in my lifetime. With the rise of AIM, the American Indian movement, was critical in changing the lives of many. The armed Siege of Wounded Knee in 1973, was truly the last of the Indian Wars, and Russell and several hundred others along with him, fought the Government in a armed stand off, prepared to die as free people, just as there ancestors had.
I was inspired 15 years ago by my best friend, and artist Tom Waugh, who talked about Russell Means, Dennis Banks, The yellow Thunder case and all the different American Indian Movement activities. Tom was closely related to that time because he was married at the time to a woman that was Sioux and involved with AIM, and he was the chief of police at Hot Springs at the time of AIMs rise. He had valuable insights into both sides of the conflicts, and protests. Tom was First law enforcement on the scene of the federal Agents murder, and fired upon at Jumping Bulls Camp. Tom boxed, partied, and lived with AIM members and others that were closely related to the people involved with wounded knee 2. This first hand resource was inspiring to me, and He encouraged me to follow my heart, research the subject and paint about that time. As I traveled with him through different saloons in the Black Hills, heard the stories, met the people involved, I wanted to record in paint some of the leaders of this movement.
I began to research in-depth the entire AIM movement, I really wanted to meet Russell Means and paint his portrait. I didn't want to paint him as an "Pop Icon" like Andy Warhol, but as a revolutionary and important leader of his people, in a traditionl portrait.
Tom and I have an American Indian Museum in Hulett Wyoming, and we started a section in our museum dedicated to AIM. As I searched out Artifacts from the time, and followed the path to finding things from the Wounded Knee takeover in 1973, I met and talked to lots of the individuals involved on both the Feds side and AIM. eventually AIM members came in to see it and shared there thoughts. It created quite a stir, and evoked many passionate conversations pro and con, depending on the person. This was very valuable in understanding the time, the struggle and what changes were made.
Russell Means as well as others in the movement, stood up for unfair racism, and abuses against Indians and made definitive stands against the tierney of the cops, government, racist judges and citizens who felt that Indians were second class. Meeting the people involved gave me a very clear view of how the events of the 70's and the American Indian Movement had a very deserved place in history of the West. Russell Means is one of a group of people who really changed the way American Indians are treated.
The Black Hills of SD/Wyo is the heart of the Lakota lands, their "sacred lands" and living there in a time that is only 100 + years after it was Indian only, gives me a very clear picture of what developments the last 100 years brought. Wounded knee in 1890, is memories of the grandparents of the people currently living on pine ridge. The stories and wounds are still felt. Even as an outsider, I run into people that share stories and have strong feelings about the entire mishandling of the Indian People.
I was very persistent, and passionate about researching and digging for info, even going to remote places in the Hills to find people involved, meet with anyone that had an opinion about what transpired and even getting my nose broke around 2008. I remember one time in 2007 breaking a guys nose in the Ponderosa Saloon because I was talking to some people about AIM and how I was very excited because I just found a 30-30 carbine used at wounded knee 1973 and how I would incorporate it in a painting. I bought the gun from a family member of the owners of the wounded knee trading post that got burned down buy AIM, and I dug it out of a trunk, in a old barn, still with the FBI tags on it from the court case. Apparently the subject is still touchy and some cowboy didn't think it was something to paint about and away we went.
If Russell was not completely appreciated in this era because the fresh feelings of those hurt by the armed rise of AIM, surely, history would hold him in high regard.
I finally tracked down Russell and shared in an e mail my desire to paint him in a traditional manner as a important historical figure. It took several years, but eventually I got an invite to come to his house and prepare for a portrait. I had to drive to his house on Pine Ridge because he had an arrest warrant in Rapid City at the Time. We talked for a few hours about politics, reservation life, and what kind of thoughts that I had for the portrait. Russell seemed worried that I wanted to put him in a war bonnet and paint him as if he was living 100 years ago. I explained how I would use imagery that was very specific to "his time." He said to me "Im a late 20th century Indian" and "that's how I want to be portrayed." I was on the same page, and incorporated the traditional vest, hair pipe choker and the watch as the description of his time. Russell grew up in a time when as a kid, they still used horse and wagons on the reservation, (he was born 1939) elders who remembered the old ways were still alive, and he had seen tremendous change from the time of the elders, to the current. He was sending a tweet out on his twitter page as we talked. He is in a Limbo of those that grew up in a time where few traditional practices were left because of the governments attempts to squelch a people and a time where some had the desire to return to the some more traditional ways. The watch and tee shirt describe how Indians are not the idea of old Hollywood westerns or to be thought of as "in the past" but a people very much of today, and with a rich history.
The L.A. Times referred to Russell Means as the most important American Indian since Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. If your not familiar with all the things he helped change along with the other members of AIM, I highly recommend his Autobiography Where White men fear to tread. He inspired and lead people to stand up be proud to be Indian, and fought for the rights of All Indian people. After years of fighting the uphill battle of many of the injustices, and failures of the U.S. government, AIM made some strong headway to improving how Indian people are treated today. His Life is one of sacrifice, giving up freedom, personal relationships, family and selflessly fight for the rights of Indian people. although the situation still needs to be improved His efforts have had great impact for posative change.
In 1972 in Gordon Nebraska, Russell remembered how in high school he had done a report that described how the upside down flag was used by the navy as a distress signal, and in a AIM protest he decided to wear it and hang all the flags in town upside down, as AIM went there to protest the miss-handleing of the murder of an Indian, where the police were going to mearly slap the wrist of the white boy that killed him. This upside down flag left such an impression it soon became a symbol of AIM and was used everywhere they went. I said to Russell "you got approached by a woman that thought it was anti government and you explained how it was a signal of distress and that your people were in distress" I asked how he felt today.....
He looked out the window of his house at Porcupine and with a saddend voice said, "my people are still suffering." I asked if he would wear the flag for the portrait, and he agreed.
The failures of the US government have not been fully addressed or repaired, but Aim, Russell means, Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt and many others started many policy's that have lead to more freedoms and sovereignty for Indian nations around the country. AIM demanded that the Us government honor, and live up to its own laws, treaties and agreements with its people.
The ideas of AIM were critical in changing the oppressive ways that were excepted in the early 1900's up until the 1970's. Russell and Aim fought then and he fights today for the government to allow the Indian people to be "free and independant, free to be responsible"
In the words of Chief Joseph, the credo of the American Indian Movement and words held dear to Russell Means,... Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade were I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk , think and act for myself--- and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty.
It was a highlight in my life to meet, become friends with and paint one of a few revolutionaries in US history. A true icon and leader Russell means is a person that history will hold in high regard.
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