Artbound

S12 E5 | FULL EPISODE

Imagined Wests

Southern California’s Autry Museum of the American West is working to recontextualize a large mural, dating from the Disney Imagineers-designed museum's opening in the 1980s. It depicts a widely accepted mythology of the West, which prioritizes white settler colonialism at the expense of other perspectives including those of Native Americans, Black settlers, Asian Americans and women.

AIRED: November 10, 2021 | 0:56:55
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TRANSCRIPT

Woman: When we talk about

memorials, do we keep them up?

Do we take it down?

People think this is a yes or no

answer, but it's really a

conversation.

Woman: This mural

romanticizes so much about

Western culture, but there's all

kinds of people missing and

narratives missing.

Woman: I think contextualization

is key.

Rather than pretend that this

interpretation of the past

never existed,

we need to question grand

narratives and think about where

they come from and why they

continue to be told.

Announcer: The National

Endowment for the Humanities,

bringing you the stories

that define us.

This program was made possible

in part by City of Los Angeles,

Department of Cultural Affairs,

Los Angeles County Department of

Arts & Culture,

National Endowment for the Arts,

and the Frieda Berlinski

Foundation.

Man: Once upon a time, there was

a West that conjured a set of

symbols, icons, visions, and

heroic depictions.

It's not that easy to

disentangle what really

happened from what

people believed happened.

Man: Couple of fool

kids playing with Indians.

Man: We had our times, didn't

we?

[Marlboro commercial theme]

Man: What matters is not whether

the story is true or not true.

[Whistles]

It's whether people believe it

to be true.

[Thunder]

In that way, the West and the

frontier provided foundational

myths about how America came to

be, what it is, and who we are.

The Autry Museum itself is

almost an artifact of how

changing interpretations have

played out.

Woman: The West, I think,

in the past 20 years since I've

been here at the Autry has

taken on many new meanings apart

from sort of the linear

chronology of expansion to be

something that is more dynamic

and complex.

Man: So the Spirits of the West

mural sits at the heart of the

Autry building, and it

functioned as a sort of guide

to the galleries.

The mural tells one story of

Western history and the idea of

the West, but over the years,

through many types of exhibits,

the museum has told all sorts of

other stories, and our

collections continue to tell

different stories.

Man: The mural makes a valiant

attempt at trying to tell a very

complicated and complex history

of the American West,

but it gets so much right and so

much wrong simultaneously.

And this is why we must continue

to imagine who, in fact,

inhabits the American West.

Woman: Every curator who starts

at Autry grapples with the

mural. It's a signature piece.

It takes up a lot of real

estate.

It's loved by many of our

visitors. I respect the original

intention of it, which was a

chronology of one version of the

Western history.

Of course, history doesn't go in

straight lines. History has

multiple paths.

Man: I often wonder if our

mission and the work that we do

is in alignment with what the

mural depicts, and we want to

ensure that what we are

depicting in our institution

is reasonably accurate and

reflective, not only of history

but also the people around us.

I'm not sure the mural does

that.

Woman: I think what we're trying

to tell our visitors is that a

lot of these ideas, even things

that they're learning in history

and in school or in other

institutions, there's not

a one side, and its broad

and it's complex.

Woman: I think that's an

important part in

contextualizing murals.

It's not to say that murals like

this don't have a place

in our shared history,

but they do need to be

contextualized and not just by

one group of people, by everyone

involved in that history,

all the shareholders, so to

speak.

Pat Buttram: I'm enjoying

hearing Jackie Autry, your wife,

tell about the Great Western

Heritage Museum.

I see it being built there.

You can see it right from the

freeway. I go by every day,

and it's gonna be a big

sucker, I'll tell you that.

Jackie: It sure is. Ha ha!

Gene Autry: I wanted to build a

museum for many years and kind

of leave something for the

future generations to see.

And we have a lot of people ask

just what this is going to be.

Man: My wife and I visited Los

Angeles and interviewed for

the jobs at the Autry Museum.

And I think what drew me was

just the idea of being able to

create something totally from

the ground up.

Jackie: We're building a museum

in Griffith Park in Los Angeles.

It's a 140,000-square-foot

building, and this is a serious

Western History museum.

It will depict the cowboy from

the 16th century to the modern-

day cowboy and how our

forefathers came across the

mountains to Arizona and New

Mexico and Colorado and

Wyoming and California, and how

our West really began.

Man: News reporters today were

treated to a preview of the

soon-to-open Gene Autry Western

Heritage Museum in Griffith

Park.

James: The initial charge of

the Autry project was to create

a museum about the West.

It was never to create a museum

about Gene Autry but to create

something much broader that

addressed the West and its many

aspects of human presence in

what we think of as the West.

It was always meant to look at

how mythical forces--literature,

film, television, et cetera--

affected people's

perceptions of the West,

but that vision was to be a very

whole view, multidisciplinary

view of the West viewed through

art and artifacts.

Jackie: We hired some time ago

as part of our construction team

Disney Imagineering,

and they, of course,

are doing all the exhibit

designs within the museum.

So it will be fun,

it will be creative,

but at the same time, very

educational.

James: Walt Disney himself

was a storyteller. What he

created in Disneyland became a

model for other museums.

Storytelling as an art form was

certainly something that we

wanted to realize in the Autry.

Woman: There was a fine line

between designing a true museum

exhibition versus a themed

environment, which coming from

designing for theme parks,

you have to be very conscious of

"I'm expressing an environment

for guests so that they will be

enticed to continue, but I don't

want to be false with it so

that it's contradictory to the

authenticity of the artifacts."

That took a lot of discussion

with the curatorial and

the historian individuals, and

they didn't want it to look like

Disneyland, because this was a

museum.

It's a fully accredited museum.

James: Developing the mural

was very much based on

the research that was going into

developing that plan for the

galleries.

Doris: It was decided by the

team, "You know, this is

a big space," and it's

a space that encompasses

basically 3 major walls,

just because of the way the

architecture was designed for

it.

We went, "You know, it would be

wonderful if we were able to

tell chronologically the story

of the entire museum in a

fashion where it would be

palatable and understood

quickly.

So that bubbled up to the senior

leaders, and they all agree.

"Go for it."

Guy Deel was an amazing artist

in Imagineering, and I knew Guy

loves the West.

James: He grew up in Texas and

considered himself to be very

much a Westerner. Guy did

hundreds of covers

for Elmer Kelton and

Louis L'Amour and others,

certainly highly romanticized

expressions of the content of

those books.

So he had prominence as an

illustrator, and for the

purposes of this mural,

that was a great fit.

Man: At the time this museum

was established,

the mural served as an

appropriate orientation space

that introduced visitors to the

interpretation and to the

perspective of this museum.

Doris: It was a collage, it was

an historical collage that

emulated all the galleries.

James: The basic sources

that we were using,

whether they were library

resources or archives and

manuscripts,

we were collecting materials

that could be useful both for

the exhibits themselves

and for the mural.

Doris: I remember clearly James

struggling with myth and reality

and how far do we go with

storytelling.

And in the end, we ended up just

deciding being balanced with it.

James: We spent a lot of time

talking about a number of broad

themes related to the history of

the West.

Ultimately, when the project was

done, that had evolved into a

series of galleries we

referred to then as the Spirit

Galleries--Spirit of Community,

Spirit of Conquest, Spirit of

Imagination, et cetera.

In some ways, that now becomes a

problem.

One of the things in creating a

mural is that it's so closely

tied to the museum as it existed

in 1988 that any changes in the

galleries themselves, which have

to happen--museums constantly

need to evolve--that mural is

sort of frozen in 1988, while

the galleries themselves are

changing.

Ronald Reagan: One of the things

I'm proudest of,

the resurgence of national

pride that I called The New

Patriotism.

Announcer: Here's to you,

America, from Dodge, giving you

the cars and trucks you want.

Announcer: ...thanks to the

services, you've got the chance

in the Army, Navy, Air Force,

Marines. It's a great place to

start.

Josh: The mural was created 33

years ago. There was no

Internet. It was still in the

Cold War. So the U.S. thought

of itself in relation to

the Soviet Union in a lot of

ways.

Ronald Reagan was President.

Man: The fifties were

fashionable again

in the 1980s.

And this was Ronald Reagan's

America, and Ronald Reagan

brought back a conservative,

Republican, Cold War, suburban

perspective to the nation's

political culture during the

1980s.

Announcer: It's morning again in

America.

And under the leadership of

President Reagan, our country is

prouder and stronger and better.

Woman: The mural is painted at a

moment when the study of

the history of the American West

was undergoing a sea change.

Up until the 1980s,

the study of the history of

the American West had been

influenced by the Turner thesis.

So, Turner was a historian.

He comes up with a "Frontier"

thesis in 1893, and he argues

that the way to understand

American history

and American identity

is through this process of the

frontier unfolding across the

American West.

This is what defines the United

States as unique--this process

of turning what he understood

as unpopulated, uncivilized land

in the American West and

bringing it into American

democracy.

In the late 1970s and 1980s,

there's a number of historians

who start to argue that really

the history of the American West

needs to be understood in terms

of a process of conquest, of

settler colonialism on the part

of the United States, and of

racial and ethnic violence

against people of color in the

American West, rather than this

celebratory unfolding of a

frontier and the bringing in

of new regions into American

democracy.

So when you think about that

history and how understanding

the history of the American West

shifts in the 1980s, I think you

can see threads of both

approaches to the history of the

American West in this mural.

Stephen: By providing some

evidence of the diversity

of Western peoples,

the mural captures Western

history at a moment of pivot.

And in that sense, the mural

still works wonderfully as a

statement about where this

museum was at its inception and

where the understanding of the

West was 30-some-odd years ago.

John Schubeck: He's back in

the saddle again.

That's right. The singing

cowboy Gene Autry.

Man: Western Star Gene Autry is

back in the saddle again.

Man: Back in the saddle again

tomorrow, but back in the museum

again. His long-awaited Heritage

Museum opens in Griffith Park.

Man: The $54 million museum

is the biggest facility ever

dedicated to Western history.

Autry, a long-time western star

before he turned businessman,

cut the ceremonial lariat with a

Bowie knife.

The museum is Autry's dream

come true.

Gene: ♪♪ I'm back in the saddle

again ♪♪

Woman: Whoo!

[Applause]

Gene: Thank you.

James: With the opening of the

museum, there was a very

rewarding response to the public

to seeing the museum.

Of course, there'd been a lot of

publicity, and there were large

crowds that came to see the

institution.

But from the first opening of

the doors, it was clear that

there needed to be ways to help

that mural ask questions as much

as to answer questions, to

provide the means to help

people express themselves about

what's not included in the mural

or what's included in the mural

that might be questioned or what

is the rest of the story.

The mural was never designed to

tell the whole story, and one of

the things that any museum needs

to do and what the Autry did

was to listen to those visitors

and the comments that they made

when they visited. One change

was made because an Asian

visitor observed the Chinese

man in the mural

was looking down and that

impressed upon them

the idea that he was being

portrayed as demure or less

important in the story. Not

everyone would react to it the

same way, but it's an important

point to address.

Woman: If we're talking about

the Chinese worker,

if I had his life,

I would also have a downcast

look. You know, he wasn't

allowed to emigrate with his

family.

He had the worst, the most

dangerous jobs.

What is the point of repainting

him to look noble when his lived

reality that was structured by

laws, by sanctioned violence was

something that would make him

look downcast?

So, to me, the context is much

more important than trying to

make everybody look proud

in the mural.

Stephen: I recently have coined

the term "wishtory" to describe

the ways in which people

reach for histories

that we wish for. I think today,

the wishtories tend towards what

I call kinder, gentler frontier

stories.

Jessica: So if a grand narrative

about the past exists,

who created it, who perpetuated

it, what does it mean?

Are there ways that we can take

it apart?

Some historians have argued that

the best way to understand the

past in a multi-faceted way is

to be exposed to and have an

understanding of a variety of

subjectivity.

So whether that's reading a

letter from a Chinese miner that

he's written home to his family,

a diary entry of an Irish

railroad worker, a letter from

a woman who has traveled west

and is really in the minority in

the 19th century. There are not

a lot of women in the

American West.

So understanding what happened

from a wide variety of sources

and voices that brings us

closer to understanding the

past. If you ignore those,

you end up with this kind of

triumphalous narrative that

the North American West was

brought in to the United States

in kind of a adventurous,

rollicking, frontier narrative,

and that's simply not true.

Natalia: If you look at the

mural, that's based on

an understanding of,

you know, progress and community

and conquest.

But whose viewpoint is that

from? To me, it feels like a

19th-century Manifest Destiny

remix.

It's almost like no time has

gone by between John Gast's

painting and this painting.

It's just John Gast painting on

a larger scale.

James: John Gast's "American

Progress" is sort of

a visual catalog of

ideas of American progress

walking across the continent.

They're sort of vignettes that

deal with stringing

the telegraph, with stagecoaches

moving West, with dominant

white society pushing Indians

out of the way, of Buffalo

being pushed out of the way.

It is a painting of triumph and

progress of ideas of the 1870s

of what was good and important

about the West.

Stephen: "American Progress"

represents that older vision

of how the West was understood

as a story of progress.

Natalia: And yet, we see it in

the media all the time.

We see it in television

representations.

We see it in terms of who does

the labor in a movie. We see it

in so many ways that people of

color still aren't active agents

when we represent them.

So while it's easy to pick on

this mural, it's also not the

exception. I would still argue,

it's the rule.

Jessica: Americans in the

21st century

can't understand racial, ethnic,

economic inequality that exists

right now, unless we're telling

accurate, nuanced, and honest

stories about the American past.

There are ways to do this

that must be responsible to what

happened in the past, and issues

of conquest, settler

colonialism, racialized violence

are some of the most important

threads in understanding the

history of the American West.

[Whistling and cheering]

Man: Push it!

[Loud cheering]

[Thud]

Natalia: I think that a lot of

times when we talk about civic

memory or memorials,

do we keep them up?

Do we take it down?

People think this is a yes or no

answer, but it's really a

conversation.

What work is a memorial doing?

What work is a mural doing?

Maybe it was a perfect memorial

and everybody agreed it was

at the time that it was built,

but maybe now in hindsight,

there are other questions being

asked. Why not revisit

memorials?

Why not revisit murals and ask,

is it still serving us?

Eric: The 1980s was a very

different political,

economic, social climate

than where we're at now.

I mean, this is post-George

Floyd, post-9/11, post-2008

crash. Our sensibilities

have been shocked, and not

necessarily entirely in bad

ways. We go through trauma and

suffering, hopefully to come out

with broader perspectives and

more inclusive understandings of

who belongs and who's been left

out of particular social

movements or social

developments or artistic

perspectives.

Woman: There's definitely a

shift of the assumptions

that the role of a museum

or a collecting institution

is to entirely hold and own

the reins of expertise, the

reins of knowledge,

and instead, really

understanding that the audience

that you serve comes with their

own knowledge, their own

cultural forms, and that we all

have knowledge that's valued.

Jessica: How do you engage

various communities

and many diverse types of people

in retelling stories

of the past and in

creating and memorializing

stories of the past and weaving

that into institutions and

civic memory?

Stephen: As you go through

different galleries,

you can see the ways

in which the history of the

West, even the reflections

between myth and history have

changed over time. And that, I

think, was a deliberate effort,

again, to keep up with a

movement in scholarly circles to

really emphasize the ethnic

diversity of the West.

As time has moved on, we're

really interested in ways in

which cultures don't exist in

isolation from one another in

the American West,

but the ways in which cultures

are in conversation with one

another in which it's the

combination of cultures that

create this interesting weave

where the threads are still

discernible, but the weave,

the tapestry they make is

something quite interesting and

different.

Woman: One of the ways that I

teach about U.S. history

is that I always do

this parallel timeline to show

that U.S. history starts on the

East Coast with Columbus and

then the Mayflower, but Juan de

Cabrillo was here in the West

around the same time.

So I try to show this parallel

history, but we're not ever

taught that. Right?

I think that sort of linear

progression is something that we

should challenge.

Jessica: When we approach

Western history in that way,

then we de-center this frontier

narrative from East to West, and

we understand the influence of

the Spanish Empire of indigenous

nations in fighting back against

European empires in the West,

the continued influence of

Mexico, of Mexican-Americans, of

Mexican immigrants,

and that all of these

kind of entities, nations,

empires, sovereignties

overlapped in what is now the

American West.

And I think that approach gets

us closer to a more

representative and nuanced

understanding.

Theresa: It's really about

actively seeking out

and representing,

making visible, those histories

that have been erased,

oppressed, silenced, ignored.

It's not just about dismantling

and deconstructing.

It's, I think, actually about

rebuilding, repairing, and

reconciling and reimagining.

Jessica: One of the things that

can be done, rather than erase

and pretend that this

interpretation of the past

never existed, is to

provide audiences with context,

help audiences understand why

these narratives or these myths

exist in the first place, why

they were perpetuated, and often

that can be done by posing

questions.

What does this reflect?

What do you see going on here?

What do you think might be

left out? What might be a more

accurate interpretation of the

19th-century West and the myths

that come out of it?

Josh: The mural tells one story

of Western history and the idea

of the West,

but the institution

continues to evolve all around

this mural that kind of stays

the same.

Our latest project this year is

we're renovating the former

Spirit of Imagination gallery as

a long-term exhibition called

Imagined West.

And this is really about

storytelling,

the way people tell their own

stories about the West, and that

takes many forms, from clothing

to comic books to movie posters

to art sculptures and

paintings in other forms. We

are hoping that these objects

can kind of help tell those

stories. They're examples of

different groups or people,

individuals throughout the West

telling different versions of

the story.

Woman: What I'm drawn to in

working with the objects

is opening up how we think

about these things,

what they have meant both to the

people who initially created

them, what they might mean to us

today.

And it's those kind of meanings

that I think we need to return

back to the mural and kind of

figure out how to account for

them and how to reckon with

changing in meaning,

changing interpretations.

Man: I think, looking at the

mural through the lenses of our

objects allows us to reimagine

who, in fact, inhabited the West

and also to interrogate who in

fact, is not represented in our

narratives of the American West.

[Film projector clicking]

James: We all back? We're all

set?

The mural has a lot of different

elements.

What we've done, in brief, is to

be basically chronological,

starting with prehistoric

peoples and moving around to

the mythical West of film

and television.

You can get an overview of the

museum if you look at the center

section and see the band at

the bottom. And the names at the

bottom, of course, refer to the

different names of the galleries

in the museum. Spirit of

Discovery, Opportunity,

Conquest, Community, Cowboy,

Romance, and Imagination.

We've represented the presence

of prehistoric peoples in a

variety of ways.

The hunters that you see here

and the woolly mammoth represent

the nomadic hunters who followed

the herds for subsistence. The

habitations above them are

pueblos, representing the

presence of village peoples in

the prehistoric Southwest.

Woman: As an archaeologist,

we get to push back on some of

the fixed notions and

understandings about who

actually occupied the American

West, and we have the

collections to support it.

I guess they went with what is

common and popular belief. Start

with the mammoth, and then you

jump to a ruin, and then shift

really quickly to the 1600s,

when Spain is starting to

explore through the Southwest.

Condensing it like that gives

your average viewer probably

not the right kind of

big picture, since it's more and

more common knowledge that there

were communities here that

existed 10,000, 12,000 years ago

that you don't hear talked

about.

What's so nice about the

collections is that they support

how long people have been in

this landscape.

The Autry Museum merged with the

Southwest Museum of American

Indian in 2003.

That was a unique opportunity

for the Autry to work with the

second-largest collection of

native objects in the nation.

One perspective is that the

Autry was focused on pop

culture, history of the West,

and with the inclusion of the

Southwest Museum

of American Indians collection,

it's an opportunity to tell a

more older and historical story

with support of the collections.

So the mural starts with the

mammoth and the hunters and the

spears.

They obviously were trying to

recreate Clovis points and the

beliefs about what the Clovis

points were used for.

When they were first discovered

with mammoth bones,

the belief is that they were

used for big game hunting. What

we're understanding now is that

communities were thriving on

more than just big game meat.

There is lots of understanding

of the vegetation surrounding

and small game and birds and

fishing.

So it's very, you know, very

diverse.

They're just a part of the

toolkit, and I think the

assumption per mural is that

they were only used to spear a

mammoth to death and kill it.

I also pulled what is not

reflected in the mural are the

crescent points. I think what's

nice about these in particular,

it pushes on an idea of

discovery.

There's a study by Erlandson

who talked about these crescents

being found at coastal places

and wetland places and

definitely on the Channel

Islands, which these were,

and it's probably a tool

for killing and hunting birds.

Showing the mammoth and the

hunter symbolizes kind of the

early belief that communities

came over from the Bering Strait

and the land bridge, but

there's so much evidence that

supports a coastal migration.

That pushes back our

understanding as opposed to this

East to West.

So that part of the mural, it

leaves out the variety that we

nicely have in our collections

that we hope to further put out

to tell more expansive stories

of the West.

James: As you'll learn in the

Spirit of Discovery,

we talk about the Hispanic

presence from a couple

of points of view. One is that

of the conquistador, the

soldier, and the goals of the

Spanish to conquer and exploit

the West that they claim. The

priest represents the church

presence, and their goal in

proselytizing the native

peoples.

Man: What's interesting to me is

that relationship

between ancient

Native Americans, the priest,

and then the 19th-century Native

Americans.

It gives the appearance that

the priest is there to save the

native people.

And I think that the mural does

a very good job of depicting

that, which is far from reality.

It's far from the stories that

we should be hearing, and it's

our responsibility as an

institution to ensure that we

tell a full range of stories.

So as we think about

Mato-Tope, Four Bears,

who's a member of the Mandan

tribe, and we look what

Mato-Tope is wearing.

In traditional historic, Plains

Indian culture,

the way that a man would achieve

honor is through several ways.

With this particular robe, this

style of robe, the way that it

would be worn is you would put

your exploits or your friends'

exploits, because you're gonna

go out to battle to go on

a war party,

and then the entire village will

be able to see the exploits.

So you are, in a way,

broadcasting your bravery

and also your commitment

to your community.

So essentially what this is,

this is a Native-American resume

and they're talking about going

to battle.

For example, this exploit right

here with the guy on the blue

horse, he is coming out and he

is defeating this enemy right

here.

The enemy is laying over.

He has a rifle. He has a staff.

He has this long crook,

which we commonly call as

a coup stick.

The highest honor that you can

achieve in traditional Plains

warfare is not by killing your

enemy, but by touching your

enemy, because your enemy is

trying to kill you.

It's called counting coup.

So as you start looking at these

over and over and over, you

start to understand the visual

language that is almost

universal to all warrior

artists on the Plains.

In this case, the warrior

artist clearly had an agenda

here, and this is one part of

that overall story.

The mural doesn't necessarily

tell one story.

It tells multiple stories at the

same time, and often times these

stories are disconnected. These

snapshots of individual figures,

I think, really does a

disservice to telling the

complete story of Native

Americans, how their life was,

and how we, not only as

non-native people, but also

native people can be inspired by

these leaders.

James: In the Spirit of

Opportunity, the figure on

horseback up above represents

a sort of free-willed and

spirited trapper exploiting

the environment, and taking

the beaver and other furs in the

streams of the Rocky Mountain

West.

Carolyn: One of the mural's

original purposes was to

orientate visitors to galleries,

not just to the galleries, but

to specific objects in the

galleries.

And one of those objects was

this coat.

Originally, this was on display

in the gallery that explored fur

trapping in the early frontier.

You can see the meaning of the

world's embedded just in the

object itself

in this kind of long history of

clothing that was part of

exchange, part of trade,

and part of expression of a new

place and a new identity.

The fringe that you see

decorating this had been one

of the earliest techniques used

by native people to use fringe

as a way to kind of save

material, to save seams, and to

decorate and adorn the object.

The leather, which is still--

even after hundreds of years--

very flexible and very tough,

was a practical choice of

material for people who

were hunting, trapping.

But if you look at the cut and

the style of the coat, think of

like early John Austen novels

or Charles Dickens' novels

and the kind of the frock coats

that men would wear.

This is taking from contemporary

fashion, merging it with hide

and with leather to create

a new material for the life and

realities in this early West.

You also have native women who

are taking kind of inspiration

from European coats and military

coats, creating very elaborate

beaded coats, jackets

that become part of

their cultural traditions.

And so you have this kind of

wonderful document of people who

were merging between worlds in

encountering each other

in these in-between spots. Over

time, though, this form

became adopted as an icon

of the early West.

That jacket would be picked up

by other performers and even

politicians like Daniel Boone

to kind of represent a

Western-ness, and so

the meaning starts to change,

and it becomes a romantic view

of the past, and performers

like William "Buffalo" Cody to

actors in the movies to

performers in rodeo almost see

the jacket as a costume that

they use it to perform a Western

identity.

Then it continues to the

counterculture of the 1960s and

1970s. Even today, you see

people wearing fringe leather

jackets as musicians as

performers.

Lil Nas X: ♪♪ Can't nobody tell

me nothin'

You can't tell me nothin' ... ♪♪

Carolyn: What's erased in that

when it becomes an icon

of the West is that long

history of multiple makers

of creativity that's exchanged,

and instead it becomes

kind of a trope.

Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus:

♪♪ Yeah, I'm gonna take my horse

to the Old Town Road

I'm gonna ride till I can't no

more ♪♪

[Cheering and applause]

James: The Spirit of Conquest in

our galleries deals with,

in part, with the Indian/White

conflict, conquest in the

sense of creating transportation

and communications lines

in the 19th century.

And of course, there were lots

of gold rushes in the West.

We've taken California as sort

of the classic example in the

mural.

Woman: As a native historian,

"conquest" is very loaded.

That term implies certain kinds

of violence, taking of

resources, and also just

this idea that you

can take something from another

person that doesn't belong to

any one person.

One of the things a lot of

native communities stress is

that the land doesn't

necessarily belong to them.

They take care of it, they're

the custodians, the caretakers.

So, how can you conquer

something that doesn't

belong to anyone?

One of the standout aspects of

the mural is the lack of

discussion about violence

against Native American people

and especially the genocide of

California Indians.

So there is a image of a gold

rush poster advertising

for people to come and partake

in the gold rush and make their

fortunes. And it even shows,

I believe, some people gold

panning as well.

Without context,

that is damaging.

We've labored under this idea of

the 49ers for so long and used

it as our mascots, et cetera,

et cetera, without addressing

the fact that it was

directly resulted in the

genocide of California Indians,

where thousands of men, women,

and children were in many cases

slaughtered, you know, not just

violence but murder, massacre,

disease, pushed out of their

homelands, resources taken, and

swindled out later.

Frank LaPena's "History of

California Indians ca. 1990"

I think is a very nice

counterpart to what's shown in

the mural.

The piece is split into two

planes.

The top 4 lithographs address

different kinds of violence,

whereas the bottom 4 address

actions by native people to

strengthen their own

communities.

So this one talks a lot about

the missions and also disease,

which was a huge factor in the

depopulation of California

Indians. And then here we have

different kinds of

environmental damage, as well as

a reference to the

state-sponsored violence of

settlers being paid for the

scalps of California Indians at

that time.

So down in the bottom 4,

we have some of these acts and

actions that native people have

taken as well as the Federal

government to change the

situation a little bit and

improve the circumstances for

California Indians.

So here we have the American

Indian Citizenship Act, the

Reorganization Act, and Civil

Rights Act, all through the

twenties and sixties, as well

as, you know, different

occupations by native people.

Here we have

the Freedom of Religion Act

and then also Denial of

Freedom of Religion.

And then here we have the

memoriam of the artist family of

Frank LaPena's family and

ancestors that have passed

in contrast to what we have

with the mural in talking

about 1849. This provides

a much more robust history.

And while it does address the

violence, it does also address

direct action by indigenous

people to improve their

circumstances.

James: As we get to this point,

we start to meld into the story

of the cowboys.

And there's a real culture of

cowboys and business of

cowboying in the West.

Man: You consider the very

fashioning of what

the American West is,

and you can see the

intersections of a lot of

thoughts and themes that deserve

teasing out and exploring.

But when you isolate and distill

it down to particular

communities' experiences,

particularly the African-

American experience

after the Emancipation

Proclamation, the West actually

showed so much promise for

formerly enslaved Africans

Who desired to finally leave the

trenches of plantation life.

I react to the mural through

comics like "Lobo," because

where you see one individual

figure like Nat Love within

the mural,

you also understand as a

historian that there were so

many more black cowboys that

helped to innovate the American

West.

And to just amplify one does a

larger disservice to not only

those cowboys but also the

black cowgirls, who existed in

the same period. "Lobo" is

fitting because he speaks to the

commonplace of how black cowboys

really had always inhabited the

American West.

The history of the cowboy is

definitely being researched by

scholars throughout the country,

because the narrative of who

and what the cowboy was is

controversial on its face after

enslavement. 1 in 4 of all

cowboys wear black.

The term itself, "cowboy," has

an etymology and a connection to

black cowhands who were formerly

enslaved and then derogatorily

named by their enslavers.

So the term "boy" is not

something that an

African-American man

traditionally wants to be

called, and cowboy or a black

cow hand is where the term

cowboy came from.

And these kind of rich nuances

and truths about the tradition

of equestrian life deserve to

be amplified.

It was only two issues that came

out between 1965 and 1966.

The reason of the short-run was

because the comic book wasn't

selling because he was a black

protagonist.

So on the cover of issue 1 of

"Lobo," which says "Collector's

Issue" it says, "Lobo--BRANDED

FOR LIFE!

An honest man blamed for a

crime HE DID NOT COMMIT!

Read The first dramatic

Adventures of Lobo,

a fugitive on the side of

the law."

And this is important because it

dovetails with the black

experience, what it means to be

a hero but still be on the run

and how there is a very

complicated relationship with

someone who might have been

enslaved but always wants to

keep their freedom.

And that's something that

African-Americans in this

country know all too well.

The larger whitewashing

that we see of American culture

happens at the expense of

communities that have existed

underneath that erasure for

decades and centuries.

When you think about the black

American experience, there are

countless examples of the ways

in which black food, black

music, black artistry sadly

gets co-opted and then

mainstreamed and then extracted,

The best way to reclaim

those narratives is to tell

them from the various

perspectives of those who

started it, and then also find

the descendants of those who

started it and how they're still

channeling and using the spirit

to infuse it for future

generations.

James: The Spirit of Romance

deals with how artists, authors,

and performers in the 19th

century affected perceptions

of the West and what we think

about the West, how they

romanticized the West.

Woman: In the mid-19th century,

artists were really important

in influencing and shaping

the way we see the West as a

place and as a collection of

natural resources ripe for

the harvesting and the taking

in the service of this larger

project of nation-building.

Josh: As you get toward the

right side of the mural,

there's a little bit

about the development of

large ranches and cattle

industry, but then it pretty

quickly goes to the Spirit of

Romance, and you have artists

and photographers

and Buffalo Bill

and Sitting Bull and the Wild

West Shows. Even way before we

have film or TV, the American

West as a story has been

created.

So I'd say that the American

West as an idea and popular

culture as a phenomenon in

general kind of grow up

together.

There were numerous different

types of Wild West Shows that

toured all around the world.

They were often part circus,

part rodeo, part drama.

Some of the firearms that we are

showing in the exhibition that

I'm working on are from

different performers who were

with different Wild West Shows

and just became synonymous with

Western-ness.

This one belonged to

Buffalo Bill himself.

Buffalo Bill is from Nebraska

and working sometimes

as a scout for the military

in the Northern Great Plains.

In 1873, he started

going back East and

performing on stage as a scout,

performing what it would be

like to do what he's actually

still doing in the summers.

In 1876, The Battle of Little

Bighorn happened,

and the 7th Cavalry Was

defeated completely. He was not

near that, but somewhere along

the line, his party of the

military ran into a group of

Cheyenne men who were

theoretically involved, and he

killed a man named Yellow Hair

and scalped him and kind of

proclaimed it as the first scalp

for Custer to avenge this for

the United States, but it was

clear he committed this murder

to perform it and saved this

man's scalp and kept

performing with it live.

And he actually killed him

wearing his stage clothes.

And so this line between fiction

and reality in which he

would do something even as

serious as killing somebody in

order to tell the story and to

re-enact it, it was horrific.

In 1914, he was still performing

this as film came out

as a medium.

And so you realize this sort of

idea that myth and reality are

really hard to disentangle and

fiction and fact are really hard

to disentangle with the West.

James: The Spirit of

Imagination jumps into

the 20th century and looks

at how other media--film,

television, radio, advertising,

et cetera continued that and how

they affected perceptions of the

West in the popular mind.

Man: Hiyah! Hiyah!

[Dramatic music playing]

[Cattle lowing]

[Horse nickers]

Stephen: I would argue Los

Angeles is where the West

was invented.

So much of what we understand

about what's West

and what's Western

is in part, at least the

creation of Hollywood and what

predates Hollywood in terms of

the myth-making machinery.

There's no question that the

West and the myth of the West

may have been created here, but

it was exported around the

globe.

There's certainly one of

America's most powerful exports

in the sense, how much it's

seeped into places far and

wide.

Man: This is the West, sir. When

the legend becomes fact, print

the legend.

Man: He's right, Gramps.

Josh: There are all sorts of

ways that people have played

with, twisted, undermined

the Western for a long time.

This poster from the Solidarnosc

movement in Poland from

their June 4, 1989 elections.

Gary Cooper from "High Noon"

is wearing a Solidarnosc badge

above his marshal badge,

and he's carrying a ballot or--

it says "Election" on it.

They called on citizens to be

heroes, right, do their part,

and stand up to

the Communist government.

That June 4, 1989 election,

that's this famous moment in

Polish history,

was 8 months after the Autry

opened over on this side of the

world and when Gary Cooper from

the same movie is painted into

the mural.

It's just interesting that that

symbol of Gary Cooper in that

costume or from that role is

popping up 30 years after the

movie in these two

radically different places. As I

understand the history, that

poster by Tomasz Sarnecki,

10,000 of them just went up on

the day of the election, and it

said, "It's High Noon."

It's fascinating that

they were looking at the U.S.

and this image of the cowboy to

give them hope in the same way

we were talking about legends.

I think he talked about needing

an image from outside of Poland

that would kind of take heart,

you know, be brave, do the right

thing.

And it's interesting because

they are kind of being brave

against the sort of Communist

government when the film when it

came out was a protest against

anti-Communism in the U.S.

in the 1950s and the Red Scare.

And 30 years later, on the other

side of the world, when a

version of Communism had become

very corrupt and repressive,

they use the same image from

that movie. It's just a

fascinating way of these things

traveling and changing.

James: Spirit of Community

really deals with different

types of community. There are

wide range of communities

in the West.

We talk about family community.

We talk about social, business,

economic community.

We talk about different types

of community, how people

interacted with one another.

It just happens that in this

image, We've included 3 people

representing a late 19th-century

Anglo family.

Kristin: Some of the trends and

movements that have now become

instrumental are the ideas

around engaging community, even

in the development of an artwork

or development of a civic art

piece or development of an

exhibition,

so that you're thinking about

integrating the community voice

in the process, and that's

become a way that artists have

been working, a way that

curators have been working, a

way that folks who commission

art have been working that I

think is really of critical

import.

Tyree: The concept of community

curation is, at its core,

the radical inclusion of

communities of color seldomly

involved in museum

decision-making processes.

Traditionally, when you consider

mainstream museums, there's

rarely transformative

interactions and partnerships

that actually yield and lend to

exhibitions that reflect not

only the communities but the

strengths of the collections of

those institutions as well.

Amanda: So, when we do

interventions like outreach

and talking about the murals

and talking about people

that might have problems with

the mural, people that like

parts of it and don't like

other parts of it,

I think that's an important part

in contextualizing these murals.

Tyree: I hope that we can

reimagine who's at the center

of murals like that, where it

isn't just a central story,

but it is one that

is a bit more of a collective

experience than it is a singular

one.

Woman: Carolyn and Tyree were

denoting the curatorial shifts

that were happening

in the institution.

There was a lot of discussion of

the mural because the curators

were genuinely sort of flummoxed

and were coming to me to ask,

you know, "How can we

re-contextualize this piece?"

and specifically referencing

these histories that are not

neutral.

As someone who works primarily

from a research-based practice

and from historical material,

all of my work sort of

references the visual language

of work such as Guy Deel's

mural.

What does it mean to insert

minoritarian affect into the

heart of majoritarian culture?

And in the case of the mural,

these 3 walls converge at

the center as a haloed, white

settler family.

And there are huge elements of

white sanctity and colonization

and Manifest Destiny.

And it was just a no-brainer for

me to repaint the settler

family as myself.

With all of my oil paintings,

they are all self-portraits,

and there is this sort of

cognitive dissonance that occurs

when you are placing the Asian

femmes face in the center of

what should be a cowboy's face

or a white cowboy's face or a

white settler colonial family's

face.

And so repainting the settler

family with 5 members all as

myself in various stages of

gender and life, that already

is a power reversal,

because that is a history that

never existed and never will.

So much of American mythology is

built upon this masculinist,

white chronotope, the cowboy.

And part of me really desired

that, desired to be that,

desired to be surrounded by

that, because that's what the

mythology of this country sells

us.

It's what Hollywood tells us.

It's what novelists tell us.

It's what car commercials tell

us, and I think that's really

what the crux of the work is--

seeing, well, why do I love it

and not trying to overcome

the fact that you love

something you shouldn't love,

but trying to understand

how it came to be and

how it can continue to be.

Stephen: It is really important

that every generation continues

to write and rewrite history,

looking at the past through the

eyes of the present.

That is to say, we always bring

new questions to our study of

the past.

Natalia: Museum-goers often

think that this is the

unalloyed truth that we're

seeing at the museum.

And so it's not really like a

monument where you think,

"Oh, that's an artifact of the

past. It may or may not reflect

our values now," whereas the

museum, those pieces are chosen.

And so if our understandings

about history change, a museum

has a responsibility to open up

those conversations and say,

"This is something that we

understand differently than when

we first put up this mural."

Theresa: I'm not one who wants

to de-monument everything.

I think it's good to hold space

together.

These kinds of murals,

this kind of history is still

very much entrenched in our

national imaginations,

our national memory.

And there is the sense that

people think if you erase it all

then what is it going to mean to

be American. The Autry has a

history of trying to right

itself when there is outcry

and there is contestation of the

way that it's representing

certain aspects of culture.

And this could be another

opportunity to say, "We want to

have a more inclusive

representation of the history

that brought people to

California, and having the

conversation that we're having

today is a really good first

step."

Kristin: I actually, personally

think it's a mistake

to think that the

entire conversation is, you

know, an up-or-down,

"Are we gonna keep the monument

up, or take it down?"

and that that's the whole

conversation.

There's actually so much more

richness around who gets to be

in the conversation about

finding ways to expand the

multiple voices and narratives,

sometimes conflicting that we

may all have.

And how do we then learn?

What is the context we're

providing or maybe before now,

not providing around the

narratives we tell?

Jessica: Contextualization is

key, and I actually don't think

erasing or eliminating artifacts

like this mural is particularly

useful.

Stephen: I would love to think

about ways to animate the mural,

so that we could both preserve

and respect the vision

that it conjures,

but at the same time show how

we were there,

but we're also where we are

now and that the vision that

animated this museum in 1988 is

not the vision that does in

2021.

Natalia: There's so many ways to

do this.

What if you bring in digital

storytelling?

What if there was a way to

understand who that figure was,

were they representative,

is there more to that story?

What if you have an app that

when you put it up to the mural,

that story pops up?

Josh: I would like

to have different voices

intervene in the mural in

certain ways, but just to have a

conversation and to acknowledge

it as an artifact because we are

never going to cure us of the

dark parts of our history.

James: Truth is, when we were

developing it, I never assumed

that it would always be there.

I think now about its potential

for teasing out other stories

and connecting with people at

different levels is greater

than I thought it would be.

I originally thought that in

time that there would be

something else there.

So, who knows what's its future?

Stephen: There's much to be

critical about the heritage

and history of the American

West, but there's also much to

celebrate about the West--its

beauty. The opportunities that

it has afforded are worthy of

celebration even as we also have

to wrestle with the demons

that come alongside it.

James: OK, that sort of rounds

out the mural.

Any questions at this point?

Announcer: The National

Endowment for the Humanities,

bringing you the stories

that define us.

This program was made possible

in part by City of Los Angeles

Department of Cultural Affairs,

Los Angeles County Department of

Arts & Culture,

National Endowment for the Arts,

and the Frieda Berlinski

Foundation.

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