'Cement Prairie' explores birth
The best point to start exploring Cement Prairie, a new exhibit at NUMU Los Gatos, is by watching the video testimonials in Voices of American Indian Urban Relocation in San Jose, CA. Recorded during the summer of 2016, these first person interviews, though plainly shot, provide moving oral histories by the men and women who experienced urban relocation in the 1950s.
Their stories ground the exhibit's subtitle, The History and Legacy of the 1952 American Indian Relocation Program, making it less of a school lesson and more connected to locals in the community.
Al Cross is the first person who appears on screen. He relocated to San Jose from South Dakota some 50 years ago. Cross was one of the founders of an American Indian headquarters and health center in downtown San Jose.
When they moved the Indians to these cities, they said they thought they would lose their Indianness," Cross says, summarizing the impetus behind U.S. government's urban relocation project. "And it worked just the opposite. Once they came to the cities, they became more Indian, much more aware of their Indianness. It reversed their idea of them losing their identity."
The story of urban relocation, though, is as varied as the people who experienced it. Before her family relocated, Renita Brien reminisced about playing on their Idaho ranch when she was a little girl. Hank Lebeau talked about his sense of isolation after arriving in California. But Jackie Tulee and Arvine Pilcher both found the new setting enlivening. Tulee and her family had orange juice for the first time. While Pilcher, smiling, recalled, "I could have kissed the ground. I was so happy to be here."
Cement Prairie documents—with photographs and sacred objects—a group of people adapting to and fortifying their heritage away from the land they grew up on. Similar to the video narrative is a series of small framed images by the photographer Ilka Hartmann. Included among them, the now iconic raised fists of the Alcatraz occupiers. Hartmann, though German born, photographed many of the activists and their social movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Like the photographer Milton Rogovin, she enters communities as an outsider then delivers work as if she's always been on the inside.
Thru June 25, $6-$10
NUMU, Los Gatos