Growing up in a large American city, I’ve not often met someone with the surname “Knows His Gun.” For urbanites and suburbanites alike—most of the country, in fact—it’s a name that would seem to belong more in Edward Curtis journals than phonebooks. A small slice of Americans, if asked between Dancing With The Stars commercial breaks, could express an understanding of contemporary Native American life or comprehend that the Knows His Gun family in Montana is but a pebble of a living, breathing cultural mountain.
So this is another of the many reasons I am grateful to live here. Despite the multicultural claims of megacities like Chicago and New York, even they really look quite typified from the street, “melting pots” in every way. Had I stayed in such a population center, I probably would have never met Allen Knows His Gun, a Crow Indian and a remarkable fine artist. For all our collective naivety, Knows His Gun is an earnest member of a genuine uprising of Native American artists, who are working to keep their cultures alive and even flourish.
“My paintings depict Crow history, but it’s also a way for me to show the Native people who struggle that there is something to be proud of.” Knows His Gun says, “I want my depictions to show how vibrant our culture is and kids can see our heritage as something cool.”
Via the public school system, most Americans receive an education about Native cultures; usually it’s enough to foster a passing awareness, painted faces hooting in the background of pioneer stories and cavalry movie clips. But to my recollection, in all our textbooks the Native American culture was presented as a figment of the past, as tin-type photographs of historic figures like Chief Sitting Bull and Geronimo provided a convenient blanket for the Pine-Ridge poverty so overlooked by today’s American society. As the general population operates with this misrepresentation, most people go on with their grocery runs and mortgage payments oblivious to a Native world existing in parallel to our own, and that the culture is at times beautiful and rich.
This reality became even more evident to me upon reading an article last January from the Helena Independent-Record. The journalist profiled a traveling Native American dance group from New Mexico who was in Helena at the time, leading workshops for local area schools.
The founder of the dance group, Rulan Tangen, talked about how the traditional art form has been received in Montana’s capitol: “For some, this may be the first time they’ve ever met a Native American,” Tangen said. “That might seem like a stretch, but 70 percent of our museum-goers believe that Native Americans are extinct.”
Extinct, he said.
Even for contemporary society, even for children, I struggled to internalize so abstract and incorrect a point-of-view. Helena, of course, is the capitol of Montana—a state with seven separate Indian reservations and a comparatively high proportion of Native people. Yet, it is even more alarming to learn that the effective educational shortcomings with regard to Native American culture are not limited to non-Native people. Just as contributory a factor in the expiration of Native life is the lack of cultural education offered to Native Americans.
“A lot of people on the reservations have no idea of who they are, where they come from or anything about their heritage,” Knows His Gun says. “We were not allowed to practice our traditions or speak our languages once the Eurpoean settlers started to ‘civilize’ us, and because of that our traditions and cultures were kept hidden and not passed on to future generations.”
Pictured at right, Allen was born and raised on the Crow Indian Reservation, a region of grasslands and canyons south of Billings, Montana. He went to school on the reservation, where he earned an undergraduate degree. Until he left for graduate school at the University of Kansas, the Crow culture was Allen’s primary reference point.
“I was really fortunate to grow up in the Crow Agency public school system.” he says. “They are pretty big on educating about our heritage. Not all reservations get that.”
While earning his Masters of Arts in Indigenous Nation Studies in Lawrence, Kansas, Allen perceived for the first time how people outside of the reservation viewed Native culture. And with that new reflection, his work became not only a way to fulfill his personal artistic passions but also a powerful tool to celebrate this vital part of American diversity.
“I realized that this is now bigger than me,” Knows His Gun says. “One of the many reasons I paint is because I’m able to hit so many areas of society through this medium. I get great reaction from people in my tribe; just as much as I do from non-Indians.”
Like Allen, many of the new generation of contemporary Native American artists are inspired to reach out and educate about their cultures, both inside and outside of the reservation borders. And the education is not limited to art or the trappings of culture. Within the communities, there is hope that from this new energy a connection will be made with the recent global movement toward environmental stewardship.
“I want to show that American Indians were not this underdeveloped primitive culture like they have been depicted in many ways.” Allen says. “Our values have always been rooted in this sense of reverence and deep respect for Aweisihke,” he said, using the Crow word for Mother Earth. “Our philosophy was to only take what you need to live.”
Allen goes on to explain how different and conflicting the Native American concepts about life were in comparison to the European migration, surreys, troops, and missionaries who were often unwitting carriers of their own culture, a mix of royalty, hierarchy, caste systems and wealth. Allen’s paintings portray the history of his tribe as an eco-centric culture who viewed themselves as equal to all of nature’s resources. Even the vibrance of Knows His Gun's canvases display the importance of bright, nature-inspired colors, long evident in the traditional art forms of Crow culture and displayed in their bead work, face-painting, and ceremonial regalia.
“Our culture has always centered around a respect and belief that everything is a part of Mother Earth and Nature or as we call it ‘The Creator,” he says, “My art is a conscious effort to carry on those beliefs and traditions.”
Art is a visceral experience, allowing artists across the centuries to communicate through paintings that employ the most vibrant palette of color, character, and culture. With this exposition of a people’s effort to survive and even grow, viewers may be compelled to reinvestigate the value and importance of culture in their own life. The bountiful history and wisdom of Native American life clearly has more to teach us—and with thanks to artists and stewards like Allen Knows His Gun—we will not have to learn through the black-and-white images of extinction. -TBM
Editor's Note: To see more of Allen's work—or the artwork of Knows His Gun family relatives and painters like Rabbit and Joe—please visit their online gallery, linked here.
Sarah Skoglund loves all things art & design. She is an art consultant (www.sksartcompany.com) based out of Bozeman, Montana, where she specializes in curating private and corporate art collections. Her most popular article for the Magpie from 2011 introduced the talents of JC as a part of "Inside an Outsider Artist."