Richard Zane Smith (OK)
My Wyandot family and ancestors have a sad and destructive history with alcohol. For THE LAST DROP Project with Chipstone Ceramics, I chose the bear baiting Jug, 1730-1760, Staffordshire England, as the companion, or the instigator's vessel, to inspire me to come up with a vessel of my own—an expression about what the use of alcohol meant to our indigenous people in those 1700s, especially in the Ohio homelands of which we have many written accounts...some of which are tragic, some embarrassing and echo problems which continue to plague our people today.
As a Wyandot Nation of Kansas tribal member, I'm involved in language revitalization, ceremony revival, and cultural arts recovery so naturally, artwork that's grounded in ancient tradition inspires me the most. The most successful art, it seems, has one foot planted in ancient roots and the other reaching boldly into the present. I've been working as a fulltime ceramic artist since the early 1980s hand building using ancient and ancestral techniques of indigenous peoples of this continent. Social commentary is not something I do often unless an idea keeps pestering me. The ideals expressed for this show intrigued me.
The notion of "bear baiting" seemed like a good place to start. From the old European sport of capturing a bear, keeping it chained, to use as bait for attack dogs, forcing it to fight for its life in terror for the pleasure of its captors... the Idea for my own vessel jelled. Trapping and capturing an "Indian" in intoxication, converting him to a foreign-based religion of submission, getting him to sign away his lands, and having Uncle Sam ready to make use of him as a pawn in an ever-growing army of conquest and he's reduced to a US soldier, a sports mascot, or even an Indian artist fighting other Indian artists for blue ribbons, a kind of upgraded arena sport for the wealthy class....and so the vessel "Bear Baiting an Indian" came to be.
The first image that came to mind was the barrel or the keg in which whiskey was brought to our communities. Wyandot and many of the nations that surrounded us had no history with alcohol. There were no warnings, no alerts even from our elders who had no understanding of it. When men began to drink, they fought each other and taking it home, domestic violence came out of nowhere. A matriarchal society that valued women was trampled by inebriated young men whose emotions, once held in check, flowed like water. Our societies and cultural ways began to crumble.
Dressed in 1700s attire, a young Wyandot is reaching his full arm into the hole in the keg, scooping any liquor he could reach with a traditional wood spoon. Waiting just out of sight at the keg is the circuit rider preacher. Itinerant preachers who came to our Ohio villages noticed drunkenness and spoke against it. Women who suffered abuse at home were often the first converts. Men who converted swore off drink and recovered and often led the way for many of our customs and ceremonies to became rejected and left behind along with the demon alcohol.
Behind the preacher is an angry landowner tired of "Indians." He's bringing up the chain and shackles. He just wants Indians eradicated. On the other side of the vessel is the trader/banker, pen-ready to have the drunken Indian sign away allotment lands. This was a common practice after Wyandot were removed to Kansas. Our people did not understand debt. What they thought were gifts of a generous shopkeeper were often bills stacking up for unpaid goods. Eventually, lands were sold to pay off their debts and families lost everything.
The man on the top of the vessel with the rope is a guide for European American immigrants who took the Santa Fe Trail. He's a horse thief. We have documents that show many who took the trails out west would frequently steal horses and cattle from our Wyandot people that had been removed to Kansas.
Uncle Sam (the vessel’s handle) represents all attempts to deal with "the Indian problem", whether it was by the forced assimilation techniques used by boarding schools, recruitment into the armed forces, or doling out flour and lard as food rations. I wanted the entire piece to have an old rusty cast iron look...
Materials: clay, clay slips, teakwood oil, bamboo, wood, turkey feather, metal. The clay was dug here in Oklahoma.
Bear Baiting An Indian
Richard Zane Smith, 2017. Wyandotte, OK. H. 9¼"
This is the piece Richard created for THE LAST DROP: INTOXICATING POTTERY, PAST AND PRESENT.
Bear Baiting Jug
Staffordshire, England, ca. 1740-1760. White salt-glazed stoneware. Chipstone Foundation. 1970.1. H. 3 1/8”
This is the historical piece from which Richard chose to draw inspiration.