Jean LaMarr’s Journey From Villain To Hero At Nevada Museum Of Art

As a teenager, Jean LaMarr played the villain in a school play. Not by choice. She is Native American, and in her Susanville, CA junior high, that meant she was typecast as the heel.

LaMarr would become the production’s hero. When the other kids forgot their lines—which she had memorized as well–LaMarr began dialoguing the various roles with herself on stage.

She further remembers being harassed for wearing her traditional buckskins and riding a horse bareback as part of a town parade. There was the assignment in fourth grade to paint a mural depicting the British colonial explorer Sir Francis Drake Christianizing Native American people after claiming their land along the Pacific coast for England.

It didn’t occur to LaMarr until years later how racist her treatment was. After all, by comparison to her mother, Jean LaMarr’s childhood was a fantasy.

LaMarr’s mother was forcibly removed from her home, taken from her parents, and in 1924, at the age of six with her sisters, sent to the federally run Stewart Indian School in Carson City, NV. Countless other kids in the region suffered similar fates, tens of thousands across the United States. More in Canada.

The bodies of hundreds of Indigenous children discovered in mass graves at the site of the former Indian Boarding Schools in Canada during the summer of 2021 brought this terror into mainstream news consciousness in Canada and America the way it had never been previously. No reason exists to think the treatment of Native children in US boarding schools was any better than that experienced in Canada where bodies continue to be found in large numbers.

The tragedy of the Indian Boarding Schools has always been a central concern of Native people. The generational trauma continuing today.

“I want people to understand how we’re hurting in our hearts for our ancestors and all these people who didn’t make it,” LaMarr told Forbes.com. “We want people to empathize with us and understand why we’re hurting so bad. They need to understand what horrific loneliness the kids went through. My mom talked about (how) all the girls cried every night–every night–every night was crying.”

Visitors to the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno can see LaMarr’s interpretation of her mother’s experience in the work, We Danced, We Sang, Until the Matron Came, which recounts her mother’s experience of being forced to scrub Stewart’s toilets with a toothbrush. The girls would sing and dance together to pass the time until a strict matron approached.

It’s among the more than 100 paintings, prints and sculptures spanning five decades of art and activism on view from January 29 through May 29, 2022, during “The Art of Jean LaMarr,” a major retrospective.

LaMarr (Northern Paiute/Pit River, b. 1945) is organizing We Danced, We Sang, Until the Matron Came As a performance piece to be featured during the exhibition with singing and dancing. LaMarr will spare audiences a song passed down from her mother recalling her time at Stewart.

Sung in the Piute way, it ends, “rabbit guts, rabbit guts, I’m so hungry I’ll eat rabbit guts.”

“They were starving all the time,” LaMarr said.

Of those who died at the boarding schools, “We want their bones to come home and be buried in their homeland,” she added.

What Jean LaMarr went through as a child, what her mother went through, inspires LaMarr’s commitment to pouring her talent and positivity into Native American children. In 1994, she relocated from San Francisco to the Susanville Indian Rancheria permanently to reconnect with her homeland and give back to her community. She established the Native American Graphics Workshop and studio space for Native artists to learn and experiment with printmaking, papermaking, painting, video and new forms of experimental art.

While serving all, LaMarr takes particular satisfaction in how the program has benefitted children.

“A lot of Indian kids are afraid to show what they can do because they’ve been criticized so much, they’re embarrassed about it, they’re kind of shy about it; I have to compliment them a lot to encourage them because it helps them in school–I tell them, ‘Ignore everything, do your best,’” LaMarr has said. “We have to keep the culture going, and traditions; I try to instill pride in these kids that work with me. Proud of who they are. Proud of being an American Indian. Proud of what they can create.”

LaMarr only had one child herself. She wishes she had more, but growing up and as a young woman she listened to the people who wondered why impoverished Native Americans had so many. Instead, she has “adopted” kids around her.

LaMarr continues playing the hero role.

Some of the kids join her Mean Jean Mural Machine project which teaches young people to paint murals. At 76 and needing the assistance of a cane to get around, LaMarr can no longer scale the scaffolding and ladders required of a muralist, so she’s passing on the skill which she considers to be of vital importance.

“We need murals all over California” sharing Indigenous stories and reminding non-Natives that Indigenous people continue to persist she says. An unwavering commitment to the “rejection of the idea of ​​the vanished American Indian” has long served as the essence of LaMarr’s art making.

Her method for spreading that message comes through what LaMarr describes as “communication art”–prints, posters, murals–artwork designed to be seen by wide audiences outside of museums and galleries. She learned this strategy from the Chicanx artists she encountered in the Bay Area. After graduating high school in 1964, LaMarr relocated to San Jose as part of the Indian Relocation Act which encouraged Native Americans to leave traditional lands and assimilate into the general population in urban areas.

At San Jose City College and then UC Berkeley in the 1970s, she befriended artists and professors engaged with Chicanx political causes and issues, learning about the Mexican mural movement, leading her into a deeper commitment and greater exposure to graphic print making and public mural techniques .

She saw Chicanx artists reinforce their presence in society through painting murals as widely as possible.

At the same time, she dove into Indigenous activism. She participated in protests during the American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz in San Francisco in 1970. She participated in protests during the Pit River Occupation in Shasta County that same year Native American Indians disputed land claims made by Pacific Gas & Electric and the federal government.

Politics fused with art in her life for good at Berley where questioning authority was encouraged. She still vividly remembers seeing a student challenge a professor in an art history class during graduate school and the impact it had on her.

“I was so used to cowering to power–if there was something over me, I would just go along with it,” LaMarr said. “Then I realized, I have a voice, and I was shocked to see that. I finally realized I had a voice and I could share my own opinion and make my own opinion.”

What she didn’t keep from Berkeley was the European abstraction and modernism championed by her professors. To pass her classes while remaining true to herself, she’d submit abstract paintings for grades and then take them home to use as backgrounds for putting in, “the real stuff”–depictions of family members, elders, friends, memories of Susanville, imagery that would have been seen as “folk art” by the instructors.

Fifty years on, Native people continue populating LaMarr’s works, her central message being their historic and ongoing treatment. That treatment has come a long way from the boarding school days, it has an equally long way to go before achieving equality with whites.

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