Friday, March 30, 2012

Street artist Jetsonorama tries a new kind of healing in Navajoland — High Country News

By Sarah Gilman
In 1991, a young doctor delivered a baby Navajo girl in his backseat. A man had pounded on his door earlier that evening, his girlfriend in labor and his truck too slow for the 50-mile trip to the Tuba City, Ariz., hospital. The doctor loaded the woman into his own car, thinking they could make it. The baby, whom we'll call Emily, had other ideas.

Sixteen years later, Emily was in treatment for meth abuse. In 2009, the doctor visited the girl in jail, where she was serving time for drunk driving. Her drinking had worsened after her mother's death, she told him. But she looked hopeful: In nine days she'd be out. Then, she promised, she'd stay clean.

The doctor was at a turning point of his own. He told the girl that he had started moonlighting as a street artist under the pseudonym Jetsonorama, which he prefers we use in print. It was a different sort of healing project.

"(Emily's) story is very typical here on the Rez," Jetsonorama says now from his home in Inscription House, in northeastern Arizona, where he's the only permanent physician at the Indian Health Service's clinic. "The recidivism rate is quite high, the teen pregnancy rate is quite high. There's an epidemic of methamphetamine use. In some ways, there's not a lot of hope. I'm trying to present especially positive images of the Navajo on the reservation -- to inject an element of beauty, an element of surprise and an element, hopefully, of pride."

He draws photos from his portfolio, enlarges them in two-by-two-foot sections at a print shop, cuts them out on his kitchen floor, and uses wheatpaste -- a mixture of Bluebird flour (favored by Navajo grandmas), sugar and water -- to attach them, piece by piece, to ruined buildings, roadside jewelry kiosks, market walls, water tanks. Any surface will do, as long as it's big enough for his subjects to stand out against the vast stretch of desert between Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon, where tourists race through at 70 miles per hour. The images are monolithic, visually arresting and biodegradable -- echoes of human life on the landscape, almost as fleeting in the wind and weather as the moments captured in the photos themselves.

A black man originally from Raleigh, N.C., Jetsonorama sports a trim, frosty beard and often a jaunty fedora and sunglasses, looking unassailably hip for his 55 years. He traces his artistic inclinations back to a seventh-grade stint at a progressive, hippie-run Quaker school. Later, during his family practice residency, he dabbled in graffiti and hip-hop.

Jetsonorama settled permanently on the Rez in 1987. There, a neighbor helped him assemble a darkroom, and he began documenting Navajo life. In the early '90s, he took to posting small prints around Flagstaff. That idea evolved into the wheatpasting project after a 2009 sabbatical to Brazil, where he spent time with a community of street artists and dug more deeply into that world -- finding particular inspiration in the pasting work of the renowned street artist JR. The doctor's own handle is a mashup of his initials, the name of a family dog, an email address, and the 1960s-era space-age cartoon.

The response to Jetsonorama's "hits" -- both sanctioned and unsanctioned -- over the last two and a half years has been largely positive. The pieces spark a sort of spontaneous community-building: Passersby stop to investigate, trade stories about the people pictured, share thoughts about the images with others later. Last fall, Jetsonorama decided to push these off-the-cuff conversations to a new level with more provocative pieces, such as an image of a baby underneath a large chunk of coal -- a metaphorical black cloud referencing the tribe's complex relationship with the fuel.

The work can be tricky. Last year, he learned to be more careful after some tribal members read a lurking coyote in one of his pieces as a skinwalker -- a Navajo witch. He tries to be respectful, saving his edgier and more magical-realist proclivities for his urban pieces. "Who am I as an outsider to use images from the culture and give them back to the people?" he observes. "But I think it's important that I'm here. I'm trying to facilitate understanding and growth and exchange."

"He's earned that right, especially in his capacity as a medical doctor," says longtime friend Shonto Begay, a Navajo artist. "What he's done with the people -- it's really special. He's like a latter-day medicine man."

It's fitting that Jetsonorama calls many of his pastings "Love Letters to the Navajo Nation," for they seem to celebrate the grace, strength, and myriad ephemeral beauties that arise even in the most difficult places. Just six hours after Emily's birth back in 1991, Jetsonorama attended a healing ceremony for another patient -- a toddler who had suffered febrile seizures. A healer and his daughter spent all night composing a meticulous, multicolored sand painting, then sang a prayer and placed the child at its center to swirl her hands and feet as she wished. "The painting ... was being erased as (she) began her journey to wholeness," Jetsonorama later recounted on his blog. Wheatpasting is like that, too, the images fading once their purpose is served. "The healing," he wrote, "is in the letting go."

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Next to Tribe With Alcohol Ban, a Hub of Beer -

Published: March 5, 2012

WHITECLAY, Neb. — Four rickety metal shacks that line the main road in this town of maybe 10 people sell an average of 13,000 cans of beer and malt liquor a day. The nearest sizable city is two hours north. But just 240 yards north — across the state line in South Dakota — is the sprawling Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol has been banned since the 1970s.

Nearly all the alcohol bought in Whiteclay winds up on Pine Ridge or is consumed by its residents, tribal officials say. Pine Ridge is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe and is one of the poorest places in the country, according to 2010 census data.

In February, the Oglala Sioux filed a federal lawsuit against the stores, and Anheuser-Busch and several other large American brewing companies, accusing them of encouraging the illegal purchase, possession, transport and consumption of alcohol on the reservation. Fetal alcohol syndrome, fatal drunken driving accidents and beer-fueled murders have cast a pall over Pine Ridge for decades.

After the lawsuit was filed, Whiteclay’s two-lane road, Highway 87, bustled with traffic driving to and from the beer stores. Dozens of people in various states of inebriation wandered along the road. Other men and women were passed out in front of abandoned buildings. A Hank Williams Jr. 45, “I’d Rather Be Gone,” was among the detritus along the road, as well as empty liquor bottles, a copy of “Tabernacle Hymns No. 3,” soiled clothing and a dead puppy.

Thomas M. White, the Omaha lawyer who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the tribe, describes Whiteclay as “Sodom and Gomorrah.” There is a lawless feeling in the town.

The Sheridan County sheriff’s office, responsible for patrolling Whiteclay, is 19 miles away and has only five deputies. The department says it lacks the resources to properly patrol the town. The tribal police department, which has 38 officers — down from 101 six years ago — lacks jurisdiction.

John Yellow Bird Steele, the tribal president, said 90 percent of criminal cases in the court system and a similar number of reservation illnesses were caused by alcohol — the vast majority of which, he said, was brought illegally from Whiteclay.

“We believe we can’t get ahead, or function, without Whiteclay being addressed,” he said.

On Pine Ridge, which is roughly the size of Connecticut but has a population of about only 45,000, the tribal police last year made 20,000 alcohol-related arrests. As an indication of the depth of the problem, Thomas Poor Bear, a tribal vice president who has been a leader in calling for change in Whiteclay, was arrested and jailed last month and charged with obstructing government function and having consumed alcohol. Mr. Poor Bear has denied the charges, saying he had taken cold medicine. But his lawyer, Tom Clifford, said that his client drank “a couple of beers” before his arrest.

The lawsuit seeks $500 million for costs incurred by the tribe for health care, law enforcement and social services related to chronic drinking, and to limit the amount of beer Whiteclay shops can sell. The legal argument is that the brewers and the stores know that they are selling alcohol to people who have no permissible place to consume it, and who are smuggling it onto the reservation for illegal use and resale. Any sign of alcohol — the smell of beer, walking funny, slurred speech — can get a person arrested in Pine Ridge.

The suit was filed in federal court because the federal authorities oversee Indian reservations and are the ultimate arbiters on alcohol issues. Anheuser-Busch and the other alcohol companies named in the lawsuit declined to comment or did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.

Excessive alcohol consumption is the leading cause of preventable death among American Indians, and they are affected at about twice the rate of the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The lawsuit comes amid a growing debate on Pine Ridge and other reservations about the wisdom of alcohol prohibition.

About a third of the nation’s 310 reservations ban alcohol, but Pine Ridge is the only remaining dry reservation in South Dakota. It abuts the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, which allows alcohol.

Proponents of repealing prohibition say legalizing alcohol would enable tribes to enact tighter controls and to use new revenue for treatment programs.

“Not to disrespect our elders and ancestors, but we’ve gone through several generations,” said Milton Bians, a tribal police captain, who was raised by grandparents because his parents drank.

Though the reservation is dry, nearly every aspect of life there is affected by alcohol. Tribal leaders say four in five families on the reservation have someone with a drinking problem, and one in four babies are born with fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Rates of diabetes, teenage suicide, crime and unemployment are in some cases exponentially higher than national averages, according to federal and tribal data and officials.

The beer store owners declined to comment, citing the lawsuit. Whiteclay’s other businesses, which include two groceries and an auto body shop, say they feel little responsibility.

Victor Clarke, who has lived in Whiteclay 19 years and owns Arrowhead Foods, a grocery that does not sell alcohol, said there would be dozens of places within an hour’s drive where alcohol could be bought if the town’s annual sale of 4.9 million cans of beer and malt liquor was halted.

He said the widespread fear that Whiteclay’s troublesome customers would then move elsewhere virtually guarantees the town’s survival.

“People don’t want Whiteclay to go away,” he said. “The state of Nebraska doesn’t want Whiteclay to go away because it allows problems to be isolated in this one little place. You hear people in the towns around here, saying, ‘We don’t want these guys in our town.’ ”

Each side blames the other for the drunken assaults, robberies and murders that are part of Whiteclay’s ebb and flow.

“A lot of times, there’s a problem that boils up in South Dakota and ends up in Whiteclay,” said Sheriff Terry Robbins of Sheridan County. About the prospect of more patrols, he said, “With the economy the way it is, I don’t see us doing anything that we’re not trying now.” Deputies patrol the town two to three times a day.

The Arrowhead Inn, one of Whiteclay’s four beer stores, has a sign posted saying, “Cash your income tax check here.” The store takes a 3 percent commission. Pine Ridge has no banks, so the liquor stores serve that purpose.

The shop sells a 30-pack of Budweiser cans for $27.25 — a price higher than in New York City, and nearly twice as high as elsewhere in the country. But the drink of choice in Whiteclay is Hurricane High Gravity Lager, a malt liquor brewed by Anheuser-Busch. A 16-ounce can costs $1.50 at the Arrowhead Inn. Its alcohol content is 8.1 percent; regular beer has an alcohol content of about 5 percent.

Daryl Walking, 46, a former Marine who said he has been drinking since he was a boy, said he spends three nights a week in jail for public intoxication and the other four in the cold.

“I’ll curl up against the wall and I’ll wake up half frozen, but I’ll still be O.K.,” he said.

His friend James Whiteface, 43, was recently released from the tribal jail. It was his birthday, and he showed the date of birth on his arrest form to prove it.

“I came here right after I got out,” he said, referring to Whiteclay. “This is where everybody meets.” he said. Mr. Whiteface, a slight man, said he could drink six 16-ounce cans of Hurricane in one sitting.

A Nebraska State Patrol officer drove past. Someone shouted an obscenity. The trooper slammed on the brakes and shouted obscenities back, threatening to call in the sheriff to “clear this town.”

An hour later, there was no sheriff, and the crowds of drinkers had grown thicker

Published with photographs in the New York Times 3/06/12