The Nespelem Art Colony

Followers of the Nez Perce story and of the Colville Confederated Tribes, and students of 20th century Indian affairs in general, will have to have this book on your shelves—or at least close at hand. The book is Indian Summers: Washington State College and the Nespelem Art Colony, 1937-41. The author is Jeff Creighton, and it was published by WSU Press in 2000.
Instructors and students from Washington State College came to the Colville Reservation for five summers, mimicking art colonies and the “American Scene Movement” that was going on across the country.  They painted landscapes, and they painted portraits. Indians—mostly elders—sat for hours as models. The Indian models received small stipends, and some of the students boarded with Indian families. A brief search on the internet related the colony to other American art colonies—the most famous being Taos—and eventually to Indians producing art. But for now, without further research, I want to encourage you to look at the portraits and the photos that are captured in this book!
As far as I can tell, there were no Indian students, but the colony must certainly have had an effect on later Indian artists. And even if they only participated as models, it was white people—artists—valuing “Indianness.”  And this was another difficult time in Indian country. The whole nation was creeping out of the Depression, which hit Indian country especially hard. Turn of the century attempts at assimilation—Dawes Act and boarding schools—had placed huge pressures on Indian people, and the well-intentioned Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which reversed Dawes Act allotment policy and promised religious and cultural freedoms, was a complicated affair with new policies and procedures that tribes and Indian people had to come to terms with. And, of course, World War II is just around the corner.
I am reminded of Edward Sheriff Curtis’s valiant, driven attempt to capture Indians as they were before white intervention forty years before the Nespelem colony. In the Nespelem Colony, the artists capture Indians who had come through so much—and retained so much. In spite of the drive to assimilate, the outlawing of language and culture at boarding schools and all attempts at stamping out Indian religion and culture, sketches, photos, and paintings from Nespelem show Indians dancing, Indians in traditional regalia, Indians still being Indians.
Thanks to Mike Rosenbaum from La Grande for the gift of this book—and several other art books, featuring the work of Catlin, Bodmer, and others—to the Josephy Library. They are not cataloged yet, but our student intern will be on it this week, and in any case they are here for the viewing.
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