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Transferring Native Artwork into Modernity: Bunky Echo-Hawk

Bunky Echo-Hawk is an Indian fine artist that promotes the invisible side of Indians within his arts. His artworks handle the social issues that Natives constantly face in American society. He advocates raising awareness in order to boost and spread equality and empathy. He mentions that the Indians no longer had any possessions after the Whites took over their land. They lost their land, and their customs due to expanding hunting and agriculture. It was their apocalypse. Part of the West was taken from their hands. Hence the expression of his thoughts with the help of art is a crucial part of his life. It is a tool for him to revive his background. As John R. Tuttle highlights in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism: ‘’The individual artist is at liberty to do anything or express anything that happens to come into his head’’ (Tuttle, 45). Bunky Echo-Hawk presents the imagination of his tribe's ignored history. He uses the themes of liberty, suffering, and survival in his work of art, furthermore wants to bring the original West image in his art in a modern way. Everybody has a general idea about Native people, the way they look, dress, sing, and they do not want to see more out of the picture. For Bunky, there is a vibrant Indian community that a lot of people fail to see. Thus, Indians need the proper source in order to let people see them as contemporary human beings. At this point, art begins to do its responsibility.

Indians lost their Western land because of the occupation by Europeans and, for Bunky, this is an important spark of his art. As he mentions in his interviews: ''Growing up in a non-Indian world, I was constantly faced with the responsibility of defining my identity as a Pawnee/Yakama Indian. I was always fascinated by the duality of the two worlds, and the juxtaposition of culture and identity. This is where my art has originated from: The pursuit of true identity, and the need to share this identity with the world” (Hawk, 1). That is why he has always been compelled to create art that captures our story today. The invisibility that they have been exposed to motivates his creation of fine art. Echo-Hawk evaluates himself as a modern warrior following in the tradition of Pawnee warriors. He is not a fighter in the sense of with a military weapon, he sees himself as fighting for the dignity and well-being of his people. He truly wants to give the image of Indians, and their tradition is not about the past, they are about the present and future too.

In his works of art, Bunky Echo-Hawk uses the foundational colors of the medicine wheel of their tribe. The medicine wheel consists of red, white, yellow, and black colors. For them, it represents the four directions, the four races of mankind, the four seasons, and the four stages of life. So he uses these colors, and the meanings that are associated with each color in his art. When the majority of people think of Native art, they assume that it mostly consists of buffaloes, buffalo robes, and sunset. Contrary to this presumption, Bunky Echo-Hawk creates the Indian slumped over on his horse in his painting, At The End of The Trail.

[Bunky Echo-Hawk]

In his painting At The End of The Trail, he uses the statue of liberty as a metaphor and it represents the absence of freedom. Because for him, there is no liberty for Indians. Bending Indian men symbolises how they are exploited by the United States government in the name of liberty. Since the beginning, they had been suffering from the oppression of Europeans. Unfortunately, the abuse of Indians has not ended so far. Statue of liberty has an electronic tablet in its hands, and that is integrated with the unending tyranny. The smell of the fire goes to the Indian man, it still lights and hurts him. His face hurts from the unending fire that constantly reminds his identity, and makes him more helpless. Also, a statue of liberty rides on an Indian man like he is a horse. This shows that they still see them as slaves, not humans.

[Bunky Echo-Hawk (Pawnee, Yakama), At The End of The Trail. Acrylic on canvas. 2013.]

[Repeat Offender by Bunky Echo-Hawk]

One of his famous paintings is Repeat Offender. In this painting, the prevalent message is the lack of justice. Bunky reminds everyone how his Yakama Nation was affected by the nuclear weapons development facility where they developed the bombs that were dropped in Hiroshima. Nuclear weapons were being developed so quickly that government did not know what to do with the radioactive waste. Then they decided from 1946 and 1954 to experiment on the Yakama nation effectively on his grandmother and his mother’s generation without their knowledge or consent. By releasing radioactive into the water and the land on their reservation, they wanted to study the effects of long-term low rates of exposure on the human body as a means of radioactive waste disposal. If the Indians did not get sick or die from it, it would be safe to dispose of it into the water and land. Unfortunately, people did get sick and die from that. People are still facing adverse effects. Thus, he painted a crying Indian woman who is silenced by the government. They do not have any right to speak out about how they are neglected in this society and oppressed by the government.

In his painting called Inheriting the Legacy, Bunky Echo-Hawk uses a gas mask as a symbol related to the survival of indigenous people. The gas mask has a universal image. Globally, people understand what a gas mask means, and know that it means something bad has happened or is about to happen. On the other hand, it also is a symbol of resilience. He prefers to use it as a symbol of being prepared for survival and fighting for justice for the indigenous people. The search for justice is not only for a specific generation, it is for everyone. This is pointed out with a baby painted with a mask. Bunky Echo-Hawk takes the important issues about Indians, such as their suffering from the conditions constructed in the Reservation Camp. With this criticism, he presents the idea that there is no open room for the Indians in the contemporary American world. However, this new youth will continue the struggle for justice from generation to generation.

[Inheriting the Legacy by Bunky Echo-Hawk]

His another well-known painting Freshman 15 has elements of liberty and occupation. Both of them creates juxtaposition. The 1491 date represented on the canvas is a reference to the pre-Columbian past when corn was a food source only in control of Native people. Due to European colonization, corn extends around the globe. Corn syrup, an ingredient in many industrially produced food products is the most common corn source for American Indians. Also, the term Freshman 15 references the amount of weight gained during a student's first year at college, and a picture of a fat Indian matches with this term by looking unhappy. With the Europeans, corn syrup turns into a contributor to obesity and illness among Indians.

[Freshmen 15 by Bunky Echo-Hawk]

In conclusion, he creates artwork that is counter to those stereotypes he was so used to already. These stereotypes, tropes about Indians are very much institutionalized within the culture today. Therefore, he kind of deconstructed those romanticized visual myths in his art. Towards Natives, there is a lot of ignorance, preconceived notions about who they are. By means of art, he can attack some of those issues. As Olena McLaughlin mentions in Native Pop Art: ''He considers his ties to the community in all of his work. Echo-Hawk suggests that he works to make empowering and healing art for the community'' (Mclaughlin,37). He also targets help to re-educate the public by bringing his canvas into the reality of life. He gives inspiration to the rest of the Indians. To him, everywhere in America is an Indian land that waits for his attention because of its fracture around it. For Bunky Echo-Hawk the Indian Wars have not ended. The Indian Wars take place in Washington, D.C. courtrooms, schools, art, museums in galleries. As a defender of Indian art, he has a mission for the painting to have substance and make a statement. In order to pursue this legacy from his ancestors, he endeavours to make it permanent by attending travelling art exhibitions. He is the special events coordinator for the American Indian College Fund, and a board member for NVision and the Denver Indian Center. Moreover, he makes public speeches about Indian history and writes a lot about it to create awareness.


''Bunky Echo Hawk'', BeatNation, retrieved 2 Feb. 2022.

R. Tuttle, John, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 2, No. 8 (Autumn, 1943), pp. 45-53 (9 pages)

''Bunky Echo-Hawk: The Resistance'', Youtube, retrieved 1 Feb. 2022.

McLaughlin, Olena, Native Pop: Bunky Echo-Hawk and Steven Paul Judd Subvert Star Wars, Vol 3, No 2, 2017.

Image References

Repeat Offender by Bunky Echo-Hawk. [Illustration].

Freshmen 15 by Bunky Echo-Hawk. [Illustration].

Inheriting the Legacy by Bunky Echo-Hawk. [Illustration].

At The End of The Trail by Bunky Echo-Hawk. [Illustration].


Author Photo

Aylin Usta

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