Episode 3: First You Have to See It
(A pop of funky bass with a dance rhythm. We’re in the ‘70s.)
Glenn North: Once upon a time I went to Crispus Attucks Elementary School. When I was ten, Crispus Attucks was a hero of mine, because he was a Black man, and he was one of the first people who died in the American Revolution. He was one of the five colonists that were killed when the British opened fire at the Boston Massacre. All of us students were really proud that our school was named after him. My favorite teacher back then was Ms. Veronica McDaniel. She had a short, perfectly round afro and always had on one of those bold African print dashiki-like tops. She wore rows and rows of silver and turquoise bangle bracelets on both her wrists, so she chimed whenever she moved. I felt like I was being taught by an African goddess.
That year was 1976, and there was a lot of fuss about it being America’s Bicentennial. 200 years since the Declaration of Independence was signed. Suddenly, the whole country was crazy for American history. (A group of people sing “Happy birthday, America, happy birthday to you!”)
Everything was red, white, and blue. Basketballs and lunchboxes and Converse high tops. Even the comics wrapped around your Bazooka Bubble Gum seemed to be about the big idea of freedom. In music class, we learned a whole bunch of songs about America being beautiful and having a grand ole flag. My memories of that time are fuzzy. I remember getting really excited about finally getting my hands on one of those Bicentennial quarters. But for the most part, I couldn’t really relate to it all. I remember feeling like America was having a big party that I wasn’t invited to. I do have a clear memory of Ms. McDaniel telling us that our ancestors were still enslaved in 1776. Maybe that’s why the whole thing puzzled me.
(Music fades out.)
Somewhere right around that time, the miniseries Roots came on TV. I remember watching it every night for eight nights in a row with my family.
TV announcer: (dramatic music) …present a landmark in television entertainment. Roots. The true story Alex Haley uncovered in his twelve-year search… (Continues under narration.)
That was the first time the ugly truth of slavery was shown as a fundamental part of the American story on television, at least as far as I knew. And that meant a lot. But there were other stories that didn’t get any airtime. I mean, for example, 1976 was also the 100th anniversary of another major battle for freedom. The Battle of Little Bighorn. But nobody seemed to be telling that story. It took me some time, but I see that now.
(Theme music by The Black Creatures comes in with high vocals at a strict and even rhythm, and a piano and sax swing dancing over the top.)
Glenn North: Welcome back to A Frame of Mind. This is episode three, “First You Have to See It.” I’m Glenn North.
So, in our last episode, we went on a drive through some of the fanciest neighborhoods in Kansas City. And we looked at how the city got laid out and how that affects who feels welcome and where. And that got me to thinking about the bigger picture of where the Nelson-Atkins Museum sits. The land itself. How we got here, and how that gives us a sense of who we are. My friend Jake Wagner, the urban planning professor you met in episode two, put it this way.
Jake Wagner: People say, you know, the East Coast ends in St. Louis and the West Coast starts in Kansas City. Right? And so, you know, let’s be clear here. You know, they put the arch in the wrong city. The West starts in Kansas City.
Museum Visitor: I am sitting here with my friends on the lawn at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.
Museum Visitor: The landscaping is beautiful. It’s just beautiful.
Museum Visitor: Yeah, all the trees, the greenery, the grass is so green. (Continues under narration.)
Glenn North: You know, when the weather’s nice in Kansas City, there just isn’t a better place to hang out than the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins. My friends from New York say it reminds them a little of Central Park. (Theme music ends.) There are people pushing baby strollers and having picnics and first dates and birthday celebrations and there are outdoor movies and putt putt golf and concerts and weddings—I could go on and on. Basically, you can plop down anywhere, anytime, and make that patch of grass your own. It reminds me of that song I learned back in those Bicentennial days, “This Land is Your Land.”
(Music weaves in with little bleeps of rising and falling notes.)
Mona Cliff: My name is Mona Cliff and I am an enrolled member of the A’aninin tribe from Fort Belknap, Montana. And I am standing here on a nice sunny day in front of the museum. You know, different tribal people have different relationships to the grounds that they’re on and they’ve developed those relationships throughout thousands and thousands of years. This is traditional Osage territory. And so their understanding of who they are is directly tied to the landscape that they’re surrounded by. (Continues under narration.)
Glenn North: Have you ever had the experience of looking at a painting with a friend, and you notice two entirely different things? Mona and I had that same thing happen when we looked out over the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins.
Mona Cliff: The landscaping is very Westernized, because it’s like, we’re going to put nature in its place and we’re going to have everything in order and we’re the masters of nature, as opposed to like, just being congruent with nature. And I don’t think that we think about it. It’s ingrained in, like, how we understand the spaces that we move through. And so, we don’t question it. Like, we just walk through these pillars, and we go to see the art and, you know, everything’s in a little section and there’s always a neat little space for everything. It’s very colonial. (Music ends.)
Glenn North: That really made me stop and think. I mean, I never knew that mowing my front lawn could be seen as an act of colonialism. But we all have unconscious bias. There are messages coming at us all the time that shape our worldview without us even realizing it. And we see—or don’t see—certain things as a result. Like right over the front door of the main Nelson-Atkins building, there are these elaborate stone carvings. You know what I mean, you’ve seen them on buildings like libraries and courthouses, where there’s important people and messages carved in the stone. They’re called architectural reliefs. The ones they have at the Nelson-Atkins play out like movie scenes wrapping around the building.
Mona Cliff: The relief has these Native people on horses, galloping and shooting their arrows. One of the Natives has a war club in his hand and it looks like they’re trying to attack. And right in the middle of the relief there is a person who looks like they’re coming out of this portal. And, and they’re like, “I’m here to save us all.”
Glenn North: We’ve all seen images like this thousands of times in books and movies and on TV shows. Native Americans coming out of nowhere on horses to attack gentle pioneers in covered wagons. There are also images of hard-working men building log cabins and, you know, a kind-faced woman in a bonnet teaching kids how to read, just like Little House on the Prairie.
(Sample of the Little House on the Prairie theme music.)
Glenn North: So I’m gonna be honest with you. I had been coming to the Nelson-Atkins for years without ever noticing those reliefs. (Slow, introspective music comes in.) I’m embarrassed to say that. I mean, they are right there over the front doors—you walk under them to enter the museum. But every day, people walk right by. Like Mona said, it’s like we’re so used to that story of the American West, we don’t even see it anymore. That’s what I mean by unconscious bias. Those reliefs are saying the same thing as that song I learned in elementary school, “this land was made for you and me.” Just not for the people who were already here.
Tara Laver: Most of our materials are paper-based, so a lot of correspondence, because of course this was before email… (Continues under narration.)
Glenn North: I wanted to know more about how those reliefs got on the building in the first place, so I went to visit Tara Laver, the Nelson’s archivist.
Tara Laver: We’re down here in the basement, under the museum, where so many archives often are found.
(Bright plucks of string music builds.)
Glenn North: Tara works at a giant desk that is covered with historical documents and scrapbooks. It sits in the corner of a room stacked to the ceiling with boxes and maps and photographs and files and I don’t even know what-all a museum might accumulate over a hundred years. It’s a little bit intimidating. But not for Tara. She dug right into one of those boxes and found the original contract the architects drew up for the building. It turns out that those reliefs were designed by a guy named Charles Keck. He was a pretty famous sculptor back then. He worked on monuments from Chicago to Pittsburgh to Tuskegee all through the 1930s and 40s. The guy had skills. So when the architects of the Nelson wanted world-class reliefs on their building, they contacted him.
Tara Laver: One of the ways that we know a little bit about what they intended for those to be is through the specifications that they issued and the way that they describe what they want for the panels (paper rustling), it says, “Bas relief panels on west, south, and east elevation shall be executed by a sculptor of national reputation who has executed successful architectural sculptural embellishment and who shall be satisfactory to the architects.” So as far as what the subject matter should be (page turns), they say, “It is the intention to depict historical events pertaining to this vicinity in these panels, and they must be correct in every way.”
Glenn North: Depict historical events. And they must be correct in every way. It says that right there in the contract.
Mona Cliff: It seems that we’re always depicted that way. As, like, you know, these savages, basically. We have these pieces of stone that are just capturing this narrative about us that is completely untrue. It’s frustrating. It is frustrating. (Music fades out.)
Glenn North: You know, there’s a lot of debate these days about what we should do with problematic monuments like the Keck reliefs. I’m on some of those committees, and I can tell you, people get very passionate. What I’ve learned is that it’s important to listen. So I reached out to a few Native American artists to ask them what they think about all this.
Alex Ponca Stock: My name’s Alex Ponca Stock and I’m a painter from the Gray Horse district of the Osage nation in Oklahoma. My clan is Ponca Washtage or the Gentle Leaders. That’s on my mother’s side. And on my father’s side, his people were some of the first white folks to have homesteads in what is now, like, downtown Kansas City.
Lucky Garcia: I am Lucky Garcia. I’ve lived in Kansas City for about fifteen years. I’m a writer and spoken word artist. I’m an Indigenous person from the Southwest. I’m Pueblo and Apache.
Alex Kimball Williams: My name is Alex Kimball Williams. I’m Black Portuguese and Aleut Alaskan native. So that’s like from the islands off of Alaska.
Glenn North (in conversation): One of the things that struck me, when I was visiting the Nelson with a group of students I was working with, were the Keck reliefs on the outside of the building. (Continues under narration)
Glenn North (as narrator): The four of us had to meet over Zoom because, you know, COVID.
Glenn North (in conversation): All these years I’ve been entering the Nelson and I never noticed this depiction of Native Americans as violent savages against these colonizers who were portrayed in kind of a heroic way… (Continues under.)
Alex Kimball Williams: When I think about sculpture and art like that, I think about how it permeates the rest of what we do and what we think about, you know, what’s in our history books, what kinds of toys are children playing with, what kinds of music do we listen to? It’s all interconnected.
Lucky Garcia: What that does when we see it all around us, when we see it at the museum with the Keck reliefs, it creates a narrative as truth. And people just accept that.
Alex Ponca Stock: I mean, that’s propaganda, you know, that’s all it is. I was raised, my mom, over and over, said it is a privilege to be Osage, you know, and you are not a victim. Because we could not survive if we were raised to walk through the world believing all these images that are said about us. I can’t afford to be triggered by everything that comes up about American Indians. It happens all the time. I would be sitting in my room crying all day, you know what I mean? And sometimes I am. But in order to survive, we have to have a callus. I think people of color across America understand this sentiment.
Lucky Garcia: Most people don’t truly know the history of the land that they stand on. They don’t know the suffering, they don’t know the slavery, they don’t know the genocide. They don’t know the positive things, the art, the education, the politics of Indigenous people, the culture, and they don’t know the current struggle.
Alex Ponca Stock: There’s been so much erasure in this country and not only is that harmful to Indigenous populations, but it’s harmful to American, just general population. We should know our history on this continent. It’s a crime to all of us that that’s stripped from us.
Glenn North (in conversation): It seems like you’ve thought about it very deeply, and I appreciate just the vulnerability you express… (Continues under narration.)
Glenn North (as narrator): I can’t pretend to know what it feels like to be a Native American person looking at those reliefs. But I do know what it feels like to be stripped of my own history. I don’t know the stories of my people. There are generations and generations of them whose names I don’t know, I won’t ever know. And there are monuments and reliefs all around the country documenting someone else’s version of events. Not theirs. And that is frustrating. So now that we’re in this moment of reckoning with all this stuff, what are we supposed to do?
Alex Ponca Stock: I want honesty. And I personally think, you know, I don’t want these monuments, especially this piece that’s on the Nelson, I don’t want that destroyed. We’ve already had enough erasure. And this is another piece of that, that where we need to be able to say, and with, you know, goodness gracious, wouldn’t it be awesome, and you know, this is pie in the sky, in fifty years, we could say to our kids when we’re free of some of this oppression, say, “Hey, look how crazy this was, that they were saying, this was the truth!”
Glenn North: Mona put it this way when we were out in front of the museum.
Mona Cliff: Sometimes you need to have things like this to remind you what you shouldn’t be doing anymore. (Short laugh.) You could have a native artist come and build their own relief. That’s a great idea. Like having them to counter that narrative. Because that’s really the only way that we’re going to be able to go forward is to find balance, rather than kind of destroying it all. It’s like let’s build on top of that and create something new.
Alex Ponca Stock: There’s a concept in Osage culture called Howiga. And that translates to “the snare that catches the breath of life.” And that represents the space that we as humans hold between the earth and the sky, you know the physical or ephemeral, the visible or invisible. I think art is Howiga. It’s sacred, the whole purpose of art, which is to change and to investigate and to experiment with our perspective on life, you know? Art will move right along with us. It’ll facilitate our survival.
(Slow, stepping tones of music come in.)
Rachel Nicholson: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art stands on the homelands of Native American peoples, at the juncture of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers. In recent years, these nations have included the Missouria, Oto, Kansa, Osage, Shawnee, and Delaware. We pay respects to all Indigenous peoples—past, present, and future—for their continuing presence in the homeland and throughout the Native American diaspora.
Glenn North: So, in case you haven’t heard one of these before, that’s called a land acknowledgment. I’ve noticed more and more places doing them at public events.
Alex Kimball Williams: It can feel very validating to be Indigenous in a space where other people are doing a land acknowledgment. And the fact that it’s called a land acknowledgment—it’s not just, you know, we’re talking about a people, we’re talking about this land and everything that colonizers have done.
Glenn North: Now, land acknowledgments aren’t the only solution. But they’re a step in the right direction. They connect us to the people who were here before, across space and time. And they keep Native American people in full view.
Alex Kimball Williams: When you’re walking around as an Indigenous person and you may see one other Indigenous person all day, and nobody looks like you. Nobody’s even a hundred percent, really, anymore. (Quiet laugh.) And so, and so it’s, you don’t feel that walking around just normally, that you belong or that you are normal. And so being able to walk into a whole room that makes me feel that way, it’s not necessarily directly healing, but I think it creates that space for healing for a lot of people.
Alex Ponca Stock: I mean, think about all the different rooms and beautiful collections that the Nelson has. In the North American Indian collection, I think there’s 1800 pieces. So, you know, there, I’m sure there’s more, but I saw maybe three pieces that were distinctly Osage. Does it not make sense that the real land acknowledgment would be to have a room dedicated to the people of that land. I mean, the Osage Nation is full of phenomenal artists. If I were to walk into a space like that, that’s where I know like the true power of the healing of it, because that acknowledgment breaks down those barriers that we have to create in order to survive in this country. (Alex’s voice carries deep emotion. Music fades out.)
Glenn North: Healing. Tearing down barriers. That is one long, complicated process. I do think museums have a role to play, that’s why I’m making this podcast. Those Keck images make us face something really ugly. And I like to always say, you can’t fix what you won’t face. If the Nelson can use those reliefs to spark conversations like the one I had with Alex and Lucky and Alex and Mona, maybe we’ll begin to piece together a more complete picture of what it means to be American. ‘Cause this land wasn’t just made for some of us. It connects all of us.
(Theme music rolls up.)
Thanks for listening to A Frame of Mind, the podcast of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Next time we’re gonna talk about all kinds of museum walls, and how stories get forgotten and saved and constructed. Representation! We’re gonna talk about representation.
This episode was co-written and produced by me and Christine Murray, with help from Duaa Mohamed. Editing and sound design by Brandi Howell. The voices you heard today were Mona Cliff, Alex Kimball Williams, Lucky Garcia, Alex Ponka Stock, Tara Laver, Jake Wagner, and Rachel Nicholson. Interview recording by Tim Harte and studio engineering by Simpson Sound Lab. Our theme music is by The Black Creatures. Our cover art is by Two Tone Press. Special thanks in this episode to Jimmy Beason II and José Faus.
If you like this episode, please leave us a review. It’ll help other people find us.
This podcast is produced with generous support from Bank of America, N.A., Trustee of the John W. and Effie E. Speas Memorial Trust.
See you next time.
(Theme music fades out.)