San Antonio-based artist Joe Harjo, who grew up in Oklahoma very much in touch with his Muscogee Creek Nation roots, uses his multidisciplinary art practice as a tool for social and political discourse, for historical revision and healing. 

Beginning Friday, Dec. 13, and running through Feb. 8, Harjo will offer up a new solo exhibition at Sala Diaz. 

Titled The Only Certain Way, the exhibition features printmaking, sculpture, photography, and video, all, Harjo said, “addressing forced assimilation [of Native Americans] in different ways, specifically the forced conversion to Christianity.”

“Christianity,” Harjo said, “is usually the very first step in this forced assimilation process.”

The title of the exhibition is a reference to the 16th-century Spanish explorer and conqueror Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who wrote in his journal that Indians “must be won by kindness, the only certain way.”

While Cabeza de Vaca is sometimes praised by historians for suggesting an alternative to more physically brutal methods of conversion, Harjo believes this is a dangerous whitewashing of history that fails to acknowledge the psychological and social damage done even via this seemingly less harmful approach.

“The show explores that narrative and how even in kindness there’s this mandate that ‘I still need you to change,’” he said.

“‘I’m not going to be mean, I’m not going to burn your village and rape your women and threaten to kill you, but you still need to change and here’s how we can change you.’”

Kindness, in Harjo’s estimation, becomes just another weapon wielded against natives and native identity.

In his artist’s statement for the exhibition, Harjo writes that this collection of work “uncovers the lack of visibility of Native American culture, identity and lived experience, due to both the absence of proper representation in mainstream culture and the undermining of Native belief systems by way of mistrust and deceit veiled in sympathy and salvation.”

“Forced colonization and assimilation to Christian-based religions,” he continues in the statement, “led to a century of whitewashing culture and customs and removing access to ancestors and their omnipresent spirits.”

More than 10 of the 18 pieces in The Only Certain Way are performance prints, pieces created by the artist standing on paper with ink on the soles of his shoes while either performing an action or contemplating a concept. This ongoing series is called Indian Holding a Weapon, a nod to historical mistrust of and violence against Native Americans.

Indian Holding a Weapon (Kindness)

Among the pieces in this collection are Indian Holding a Weapon (Promise) and Indian Holding a Weapon (Apology), wherein Harjo reflects on “the promise of Christianity versus the apology that would come later – though the U.S. doesn’t apologize.”

“I don’t know what those kinds of apologies do anyway,” he said, referring to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2017 apology, on behalf of his nation, for past mistreatment of indigenous people. 

“It is definitely more about making the oppressors feel better than anything else, the same as it was with Cabeza de Vaca’s kindness,” Harjo said.

With his feet visibly marking the paper, Harjo’s prints are reflections on presence – that of both the artist and his ancestors, whom he sees, in a very literal way, as still here with him.

Another piece in the exhibition, The Only Certain Way…EXIT, is a stark photograph depicting a thin white cross, created by light coming through a set of doors, dangling over an exit sign. It is a rumination on the fact that conversion to Christianity, whether sought in kindness or in violence, was often the only way for Native communities to preserve themselves. 

“Even at the San Antonio missions,” Harjo said, “Indians seeking safety from warring tribes were not allowed in unless they agreed to convert.”

The Only Certain Way…EXIT

Sala Diaz Curator Anjali Gupta said that Harjo deals with this “profoundly somber subject matter” in a manner that is not didactic.

“It is codified, but also inflected with humor,” she said. “This is a difficult balance to achieve, let alone sustain with such fluidity over multiple mediums.”

Harjo hopes that visitors will walk away from this multifaceted exhibition with the sense that “kindness is not enough and is sometimes used in a way that is harmful.” 

“Kindness is not, for instance, the same as love,” he said. “This is also relevant to immigrants that are turned away.”

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.