Interviews By Larry Abbott
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Melanie Printup Hope
Tuscarora

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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 reads:

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 Hope made

based on an Iroquois design; branching out from the pot are four plexiglass

sculptures representing the four directions. Each of the four plexi

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." 2

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 in Albany.

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, Canada.

We talked in her kitchen in Schenectady, New York in 1994.

LA: Could you talk about how My spirit speaks (1994) developed?

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 of that.

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 own style.

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 the other.

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 affecting everybody.

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 on that?

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.

NOTES

1 Melanie Printup Hope, My spirit speaks, thesis submitted to the

Graduate School for the degree of Master of Fine Arts, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY,1994, pp. 26, 28.

2 My spirit speaks, pp. 2-3.

3 My spirit speaks, p. 6.

 VIDEOGRAPHY

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

 I turn my head, 1993

We will give thanks and greetings to our Mother the Earth, 1992

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.

 ON-LINE

www.albany.net/~printup

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