Jack Wolfe: Relating to the “Survivors of the American Holocaust” portraits
"It is my hope that “Survivors of the American Holocaust” will contribute to an increased awareness by non-Indians of the continuing presence of millions of Indians living among us and trying to preerve their identity and aspects of their culture, and that the work will proviide for every viewer an opportunity for a profound aesthetic experience."
“Survivors of the American Holocaust” consists of 24 portraits of Native Americans, approximately 72” x 72” each. The series was begun in 1984, and the 24 completed more than a decade later. Jack Wolfe considers this to be a single work.
Wolfe painted three portraits of Leonard Peltier. The first presents him as he was upon entering prison in 1978; the second two present him after almost thirty years of incarceration for a crime he did not commit.
Peltier is the United State’s foremost political prisoner. He is Lakota and Anishnabe, and a former high level leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who was framed for the murder of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Reservation in North Dakota in 1975. Amnesty International, Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and millions of private citizens around the world have petitioned for his release.
The American Indian Movement is a political, spiritual, and cultural organization which seeks sovereignty for Native Americans and opposes “the ruinous policies of the United States, Canada, and other colonialist governments of Central and South America.” (“A Brief History of the American Indian Movement” by Laura Waterman Wittstock and Elaine J. Salinas. See www/aimovement.org.
Wolfe’s triptych, a part of the “Survivors of the American Holocaust” series, portrays three “fictional” AIM members. In the sunglasses of the AIM figure on the right of the triptych is a reflection of casualties of the Wounded Knee 1973 battle of Native American activists and U.S. armed Federal forces.
In the background of the left panel the stripmining of Native lands (Peabody Mining Company) is depicted. The exploitation of those areas by federally subsidized companies has been environmentally and economically disastrous for Indian communities. The uranium mining on Lakota land has even been described as “genocide” by Russell Means, a Lakota spokesperson:
"Right now, today, we who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation are living in what white society has designated a “National Sacrifice Area.” What this means is that we have a lot of uranium deposits here, and white culture (not us) needs this uranium as energy production material. The cheapest, most efficient way for industry to extract and deal with the processing of this uranium is to dump the waste by-products right here at the digging sites…..This waste is radioactive and will make the entire region uninhabitable forever….The same sort of thing is happening down in the land of the Navajo and Hopi, up in the land of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow, and elsewhere….We are resisting being turned into a National Sacrifice Area. We are resisting being turned into a national sacrifice people. The costs of this industrial process are not acceptable to us. It is genocide to dig uranium here and drain the water table - no more, no less."
Peter Matthiessen, “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,” p. 511