Melanie Printup Hope's work is about journeys, both into society
and into the self, and the collisions which emerge when those
journeys intersect. Her work is both cultural and personal documentation.
In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue
. . . In nineteen hundred ninety-two . . . (1993) is a documentary
of the Indigenous Day March in Albany, New York, while They've
seen the land, the way it was (1993) is a multi-media installation
which combines documentation of a speech by Chief Matthew Coon-Come,
Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Cree Nation, with shots
of flooded rivers and a miniature depiction of destroyed lands
and villages. The monitor was installed inside a box shaped like
a dollar sign.
Other works are more self-exploratory. I turn my head
(1993) shows the artist in close-up, narrating aspects of her
life as she literally turns her head from side to side, suggesting
the tension between Native and non-Native experience. Her most
ambitious piece, My spirit speaks (1994), integrates a
concern for the environment with the poles of her own experience.
In one audio channel Hope quotes the Iroquois Great Law of
Peace while on the second channel she reads poetry she "wrote
about the struggles of racism, environmental destruction and being
a woman in our contemporary society." Part of this channel
Assimilated in my three bedroom home
connecting to the suburbs of the U.S. of A.
The irises lined in my plastic flower bed
She goes on to describe a life alienated from the message of
The Great Law but which, by the close of the narration,
becomes re-integrated with Mother Earth:
I must form a small chain in my community
It will begin across my backyard
It will grow longer in this town . . .
a great circle of keepers will form around our Mother,
this Earth. 1
The video monitor for this piece is placed inside a pot that
based on an Iroquois design; branching out from the pot are
sculptures representing the four directions. Each of the
sculptures portrays a gradual change from landscape to cityscape.
About her work Hope has said that "through installation,
sound and video,
I create work which translates my own personal discoveries.
. . . I produce
my work so that I will better understand the person I am."
Hope grew up on the
Tuscarora Indian Reservation, where her father is an enrolled
member of the tribe. She received an AAS and BFA in graphic design
from the Rochester Institute of Technology and an MFA from Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute in electronic arts. She has spent the past
twelve years working as a graphic designer and is currently proprietor
of Printup Graphic Design. She also teaches at the Sage Colleges
Her work has been shown at The College of New Rochelle, Skidmore
College, The Studycentre for American Indians, Antwerp, Belgium,
The State University of New York, Albany, The National Museum
of the American Indian, and the Science Museum of Minnesota in
St. Paul. In 1998 she received an award from the Lyn Blumenthal
Memorial Fund for Independent and has shown her work at the Native
Americas International Film Festival in Santa Fe. She has also
been a guest lecturer at the Banff Center for the Arts in Alberta,
We talked in her kitchen in Schenectady, New York in 1994.
LA: Could you talk about how My spirit speaks (1994)
MPH: For that piece, I wanted to create something that
summed up my studies at graduate school, but I took a roundabout
way to finally get there. When I started graduate school, I really
didn't identify with being Native American even though I grew
up on the reservation and I lived there for eighteen years. When
I moved away, I really left that part of me behind because I felt
that in order to make it in the mainstream I had to rid myself
of that identity. I was applying for grad school grants and one
of the grants asked me what I could do for my community. It was
a Native American grant and I really didn't know how to answer
the question, first of all because I had been so removed from
my community, and secondly because I was working with technology.
My people believe that you live from the land, that's really the
basic part of the culture, and technology is going against that.
But I just picked up the video camera and started to shoot. I
would go to whatever function was going on in the area and begin
videotaping and watching the tapes, understanding what the culture
was about. Growing up on a reservation, it's kind of hard to explain,
you're labeled before you even walk out your front door. Then,
to leave the reservation and go to school being already labeled
as an Indian was really hard for me. When I started video-taping,
I would record some of the pow wows, and some of the elders speaking,
and I realized that that's what it was all about. For the first
video piece I worked on, We will give thanks and greetings
to our Mother the Earth (1992), I included Ernest Benedict
reciting a prayer of thanksgiving, and finally I understood what
the backbone of the culture is, and now I could share it with
my children, so that they wouldn't have to go through what I went
through. They could identify with who they were and be able to
share it. I guess that piece actually brought a lot of those ideas
together, being a Native woman living in contemporary society.
That video was based on The Family Tree of Peace.
I started The Family Tree of Peace as a beadwork drawing
when I began graduate school because I felt that if I'm going
to present myself as a Native person I have to understand my roots.
It represents three years of research in newspapers, tribal records,
and two books on the Printup family, which is my father's name.
He is the Native person in the family. My mother is not Native.
I began to trace as far back as I could, and my research ended
with seven generations of the family, because when the Iroquois
are making decisions within the Confederacy they always bear in
mind how their decision is going to affect seven generations.
They don't just think of themselves. My great-great-great-grandfather
was thinking of my children when he was making decisions. That
work was really about making peace with myself because I felt
like I'd finally been able to say, "OK, I'm Native American.
I can say it and I'm proud of it." That was the first time
in my life that I was able to do that. I decided to combine my
own family tree with the Iroquois Tree of Peace.
Anyway, for My spirit speaks, I wrote different things.
The video is actually documenting the creative process. The quotes
that came from one audio speaker, next to the one plexiglass sculpture
of the landscape, was from the Iroquois Great Law of Peace.
Out of the other speaker were different things that I wrote dealing
with technology, being a mother, trying to serve many roles in
society, and how at times it can be overwhelming, trying to make
a balance among everything. One plexisculpture is a landscape
and the other is a cityscape, showing the contradiction between
the two. The whole piece is about how developers strip the land
of all its trees and shrubbery, displace the animals that are
there, build the structure, and then and replant what they've
torn up. It changes the whole landscape. I tried to explore the
idea of nature versus technology and the way development takes
away the natural part of our environment. I showed a slow metamorphosis
from one environment to another. The design was actually computer-generated.
The Tree of Peace has four white roots that stretch in the four
directions, and the idea is that if you stray from The Tree of
Peace you can find your way back by following the roots. That's
what the plexisculptures represent. I reinforce that idea by curving
the ends of the plexiglass to resemble roots as they go into the
ground. I used plexi because I wanted both manmade and natural
objects. The plexi is a man-made object that is in the environment
forever. It's nothing like nature. I filled the plexi landscapes
with natural elements and the plexi cityscapes with things that
are manmade, like plastic toys and Styrofoam, and I had a slow
transition from one shape to the other with those same elements.
In the videotape I was documenting myself as I made the piece
because my creative process begins with an idea, but slowly changes
and metamorphoses from the time I have the idea until I finish
it. The creative process is actually my research process, learning
about whatever the piece is about and trying to understand it.
The ideas come spontaneously. They're not planned. Well, it's
kind of planned in the beginning but it does change throughout,
so I was documenting that process and some of those things did
change from beginning. That's what the video is about.
LA: The narration on one channel is one of your poems.
MPH: It was really difficult trying to get together the
sound in this piece. I've just never been comfortable writing.
I've never been comfortable working with language. I don't know
why. I guess that's why I'm an artist. I can speak with visuals
rather than words. Whenever I'd be beading, I'd pick up a notebook
and write a little bit of what I was feeling. I was hesitant to
use my poetry. I find it so personal sometimes that it's hard
to share with other people that I don't even know, but I felt
like it was important that these ideas be presented because that
was the basis of the piece.
LA: It struck me that there were a couple of anchors to the
piece. There is a visual anchor with shots of corn and some of
the books from your family research. The verbal anchor was the
interplay of your poetry, the hymn, and the excerpts from the
Great Law of Peace.
MPH: Actually, the video was the last part that I did,
but I always had it in mind. I was shooting things all along thinking
I would use the images somehow, but I wasn't sure until I had
finished composing the piece. It was all laid out on the computer;
then I taped my voice and used a Christian hymn, He Lives,
that I sang when I was growing up. I wanted to make it sound like
the familiar old piano I heard every Sunday at the Tuscarora Baptist
Church. The hymn symbolizes my religious upbringing. I knew that
I wanted a group of things from childhood leading to the present.
After I finished that I thought, "OK, how can I incorporate
video into this?" I started grabbing the different elements
of my creative process. I wanted to push it more, but of course,
you always have a time limit for something like that. I felt like
I wanted to incorporate some of the modern creative tools that
I use, and some older, like the clay that my ancestors had.
LA: How did you decide to use the hymn?
MPH: I grew up Christian but my father never took us to
the church; he didn't really believe that the people in the church
were true Christians. So my aunts, his sister and sister-in-law,
would take us. My aunt played the piano and that was the song
I remember singing. I always had to sing the alto, even though
I wanted to be a soprano. After I decided that I was going to
use the hymn, I had to find the music because it had been so long.
My father actually found a hymn book that was his father's. It
had his name on it and had that score inside, and it was funny
because that was the one part of the book that was crumpled and
kind of pulled out and torn, and when I heard it, when I finished
inputting it and playing it, it was like, "Wow!" The
memories came flowing back, and I think that also happened to
my sisters when they walked into the museum and heard it. They
said, "Where's that sound coming from?"
LA: You create a contrast in the narration. You speed up the
pacing, for example, when you say, "The floors need to be
cleaned, the wash needs to be caught up . . . ," which is
juxtaposed with the measured reading of the Great Law of Peace.
MPH: I didn't think about it until I started taping myself
doing the narration. It made me very frantic because that is how
I feel. My life is frantic at many times, trying to be a mother,
trying to be a breadwinner in the family, trying to be . . . whatever,
a teacher, a student. There's always another tool to learn, and
I feel like I'm trying too hard to catch up to get everything
done, like working the jog wheel of the video editor in the studio
and looking at my watch and saying, "I have half an hour
more to finish this." Working with equipment always makes
me feel rushed or left behind somehow. I wanted to contrast all
LA: You placed the video monitor inside a pot.
MPH: The pot I made was part of the creative process.
In my research and reading I found a book that talked about how
the pottery was designed. The rounded bottoms and square tops
are very symbolic of Iroquois pottery. I had the idea of putting
a pot in the center of the piece because, in the long houses,
when the storytellers were telling stories, there would be something
cooking for them to eat after they were done. For me this video
was a storytelling piece. I took that idea and placed the story
inside of the pot. By putting it there, I also wanted to deconstruct
the way that we view the TV monitor. We view this rectangular
box in our living room, our bedroom, or wherever, and it feeds
us information, usually information that the media or the government
controls. Somebody is controlling what we're seeing. I wanted
to challenge the way information and imagery are presented to
us in society, and putting the monitor in the pot and viewing
it from different angles did that. I also reinforce that with
the circular wipe and the dissolves that I use. I find them a
smooth way of going from one idea to another, making a transition.
Most of my pieces use the dissolve. I also found that in working
with so much technology I had to grab something and keep working
with it. Generally I have to move slowly into new ways of using
equipment, but I felt with the time limitation in graduate school,
it was hard to move into different areas, so I stuck with a few
techniques. At the same time, I had to develop and preserve my
LA: My spirit speaks uses personal elements. I turn
my head is also a reflective piece, giving the feeling of
being pulled in two directions. Your narration had to do with
the conflict between white and Indian culture. How did I turn
my head come about?
MPH: Actually, we had an assignment in a class on history
and criticism to read a book on art theory. I chose Lucy Lippard's
Mixed Blessings. Joe Bruchac's words really stood out in
that book. I felt connected to what he said, having grown up on
the reservation, my father being Native, my mother not, and experiencing
a lack of belonging in the community because I wasn't all of one
culture. I guess that as I went into the mainstream I chose to
be white and chose things of that culture. I think in society
there are things that are emphasized in order to be successful
-- there's money, there's possessions. It doesn't matter how you
get to that point, but if you have money you're successful. The
video is the realization of that. I started to question a lot
of things when my brother died. It was when I started graduate
school that I started to see another side to life and to see that
split. I starting pulling different things from the different
parts of my life, being in a white culture, being a Native person,
and seeing that contrast, not really understanding if I'm supposed
to believe in the Creator, for example, when I'm supposed to believe
in God. I felt like I was split down the center. In fact, people
ask me what part Native American I am, and I always say, "The
top half!" I'm split, you know! So, I decided that I was
going to write something for this grad school project. I was just
going to sit down and write something, but as I was writing, I
thought it would be a lot easier to videotape myself and show
the videotape in class rather than trying to read an assignment
in class because I'm not a performer. I get very nervous about
performing, so I thought, well, I can video this in my bedroom
and nobody has to be there and I can just whip through it. I felt
that I needed to bring out the contrast of being half Native and
half non-Native, and by braiding my hair on one side, that's how
I used to wear my hair a lot growing up, I felt that showed the
contrast of trying to understand which world I'm supposed to belong
in. I realize I belong in both and I can help one to understand
LA: You've mentioned that at base you're a political artist.
They've seen the land focuses on a specific issue. Could
you talk about that piece?
MPH: Well, to talk about the political part of it . .
. When I started graduate school, I was determined not to become
political. I mean, just being a Native artist is political, but
I wanted to stay out of the things that were overtly activist.
One of my professors is an activist and she has been very influential
in guiding me. When that piece started I didn't know a lot about
James Bay. I didn't know if I wasn't informed or if the media
wasn't informing us about it. There are certain things that we
just don't hear about and this was something that's been going
on since the '70's. I had been videotaping different events, and
I videotaped Chief Matthew Coon-Come of the Cree Nation giving
a speech. I remember feeling numb his speech and thinking to myself,
I have to do something. I can't sit here and watch James Bay happen.
I held on to that documentation, and when I started listening
to it I realized that it had terrible audio. I could understand
him, but it wasn't something that I could use. But I transcribed
his speech and read it over and over. Then, these ideas started
coming to me, and I started doing some research to find out about
what was happening there. There really weren't a lot of resources
available. I felt that the video was going to inform other people
and reach a broader audience. I started the video like a miniature,
with Monopoly hotels for different cities and Monopoly houses
for smaller towns. By using my foot with tasseled shoes to create
a dam in the dirt, and wearing wool pants, I tried to make a statement
about corporate America and how it is crushing the culture. It's
all about money. It's always about money. It's nothing else but
money. It was just really sad to see, this culture that has survived
for so many years and now the people are losing their traditional
way of life so development can happen in Quebec. It was a difficult
piece to do. I remember sitting in the editing studio and crying
at times, understanding that this injustice is still going on
today. How do we stop it? How do we say to people, "Listen,
this is what's happening. Let's stop it." I feel like Matthew
had a stronger voice through me, and hopefully his message will
reach a lot more people, and pressure can be brought against the
people who are making these corporate business decisions. It's
only a few people that are making these decisions but they are
LA: You superimposed text over the imagery and used some stills.
MPH: The superimposed type was actually different phrases
that Matthew said through his speech. He couldn't be heard because
the audio was so bad, and I presented his words as superimpositions.
I've always worked with typography, so that was my chance to incorporate
typography with video. The still photos were from a book, Strangers
Devour the Land, written by a journalist who was in the beginning
stages of the court battle between the Cree and the Quebec government.
That's really the only book I found on the subject.
LA: In the installation the video monitor was encased in a
map shaped like a dollar sign dotted with little pin lights to
dramatize the flow of electricity from James Bay. How did that
design come about?
MPH: I had the documentation to begin with for that piece
and had to find how to present it. I found that I liked working
with the installation format because it gives me the chance to
get away from the studio. The technology is just too overwhelming.
I felt like I had to work with my hands and do something other
than push buttons. I was playing one idea off the other in the
installation, but I remember thinking that I wanted that monitor
to have Matthew's voice. I wanted to emphasize the fact that different
states in the U.S. had the electricity contracts so it made sense
to have some sort of map. As I looked at the map and noticed the
latitude and longitude, and as someone who works with type, I
started seeing a dollar sign in there. That's how that came about.
I wanted to use the lights to indicate the movement of energy
from the Cree Nation down into the U.S. and to emphasize the idea
that this hydroelectric project is all for the sake of profit.
LA: How important is sound and music in your work?
MPH: I think sound is probably the most important thing
to me as an artist. The visual has always been strong, but having
that voice, having something be heard, I think, is even more important.
I think that stays with you sometimes more than visuals. As I
was putting together seen the land the way it was, I knew
I wanted to have the sound of water through it. I happened to
have some music by Dan Hill and I played it at the same time,
and I thought it was perfect. It just made you flow through the
whole piece. The other, My spirit speaks is . . . well,
I'm not a composer; in fact, I couldn't read music before I started
the program at RPI and one-third of their program is computer
music. So I had to learn how to read music, learn how to play
music, how to put it down key by key, and finally put together
a composition. A lot of what I did there was experimenting with
sampling sounds and laying them out on a track and playing with
them. For that piece, the most time-consuming part was putting
together the sound because I'm just not a sound person in the
technical sense. I wanted to work again with natural sounds and
sounds that are important to the Iroquois, and the drum is the
one thing they use for their songs and for their dancing. And
I chose the wind because I like the way it takes you places. It
just flows. Having ambient sound through the space was important
because it carried you through. The hymn took me a long time to
input and play around with. I wanted to make it sound like an
old piano I heard when I was much younger.
LA: You wrote in My spirit speaks that you want to
be a voice for those in need. 3
This seems to be one idea that connects your work. Can you expand
MPH: I think that I finally understand how important a
culture is to people and that it's important that people understand
different cultures and respect them. That's an important part
of changing our society because too often we look at different
cultures and focus on the negative aspects of them. It's crucial
that we start to see the positive things that different cultures
have. For many Native cultures we haven't been able to see the
positives. We always see the negative, or a tainted part. I want
people to understand what Native cultures are all about, and I
can help to do that by giving my people a voice. In this day and
age, we have the technology and we're learning to use it. Similarly,
more Native lawyers and doctors are coming along, and that all
helps people understand where we're coming from as distinct cultures.
LA: How does your work show that?
MPH: I'm trying to learn something about my culture, something
that's very traditional, while trying to use the tools that are
available. I really had no idea how powerful video is, to be able
to capture and send a message so it reaches a broad audience.
In this society that's really important because my culture has
been so misrepresented throughout history that it's only now that
Native people have control of these things. There's more Native
artists being shown in different galleries. There's more Native
film and video being shown and it's important that people see
what it really means to be a Native person and to understand the
philosophy of respecting nature and all living things. The stereotypes
of the violent savage in the Hollywood films were the way they
wanted Native people to be seen because there had to be a justification
for taking the land, taking the culture, taking the language.
I felt like that was something that needs to be changed. When
I started doing this, I was alone; at least I felt like I was
alone. I was approaching these issues on my own and nobody else
was around working with this tool and I thought my voice wasn't
going to matter. "Why am I doing this to myself?" I
asked. It was a struggle dealing with these issues. I had the
opportunity to go to Belgium and meet Phil Lucas and other Native
filmakers and felt for the first time that I wasn't alone. We
are all dealing with these same issues and our voice is stronger
because we are together. As that momentum picks up other Native
people will get involved and continue to represent our culture
as it should be represented.
1 Melanie Printup Hope, My spirit speaks, thesis submitted
Graduate School for the degree of Master of Fine Arts, Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY,1994, pp. 26, 28.
spirit speaks, pp. 2-3.
3 My spirit speaks, p. 6.
My spirit speaks, 1994
In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean
blue . . . In nineteen hundred ninety-two . . . , 1993
They've seen the land, the way it was, 1993
Out of one, we are many, 1993
turn my head, 1993
We will give thanks and greetings to our Mother the Earth,
Joanna Osburn-Bigfeather, "Melanie Printup Hope," Legacies:
Contemporary Art by Native American Women, Castle Gallery,
College of New Rochelle, New Rochelle, NY, 1995, pp. 14-16.