Bobby C. Martin has drawn artistic inspiration from family photographs for going on 30 years. His mother and her sisters – the Muscogee side of his family – were all shutterbugs. Hundreds of pictures of Martin’s relatives have passed through his hands and onto the prints he creates from his remote studio near West Siloam Springs, Oklahoma on the Arkansas border.
Martin’s (b. 1957) mother and grandmother figure prominently in his work. Knowing the person both in front of and behind the camera creates a unique relationship between the artist and his subjects.
“I really feel like I’m a collaborator with my ancestors because they provided all this great source material I’m using whether they knew it or not,” Martin explains.
As Martin began working more closely with the pictures, he began to recognize them as more than simple family archive.
“They’re well taken – they’re good photos – the subject matter’s good, the way they framed it; I know they weren’t thinking about composition and all that, but I don’t see them as purely historical documents – although they are that – for me they make great art, a well of great resource material I go back to over and over again,” he said.
Martin, an enrolled member of the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma, has no explanation for why his mother’s side of the family took so many pictures or why they valued them enough to protect them through the decades. His father’s side of the family – the white side – didn’t do so. When his dad’s parents died, he was tasked with helping clear out their house. The only photos he found were one tiny packet wrapped in a handkerchief. That’s it. To this day, on family gatherings for his mother’s side, he’ll still have cousins show up with more old photos he’s never seen.
“I couldn’t tell you tell you if that’s because we were Native or not, maybe it’s just because they really value these old photos and the memories they wanted to keep,” Martin suggests.
Whatever the case, Martin is continually reminded of how special the extensive photographic record his mother’s side of the family kept, not only by the work he produces, but through the countless people who’ve approached him over the years to tell him how his images remind them of their families and how they wished similar records of their ancestors had survived.
The Dawes Act
A valuable side effect of Native American artwork is the Native American history it teaches. Martin’s family offers many lessons.
Martin’s maternal grandmother was a full-blooded Muskogee-Creek. Her name was on the infamous Dawes Rolls. The Dawes Act (1887) was another successful attempt by the United States government to weaken the power, landholding and economic potential of Indigenous people, busting up their homelands and parceling them back at a fraction of the acreage and value.
Native Americans controlled about 150 million acres of land in America before the Dawes Act. By comparison, Yellowstone National Park is 2.2 million acres. Indigenous people lost the majority of that land during “allotment,” a process which required Indigenous people to enroll with the Office of Indian Affairs. Individuals registered themselves with the office and their name went on the “Dawes rolls” which assisted government agencies in determining whether or not that person was eligible to receive their land allotment.
A communal way of living for Indigenous people which they’d known for thousands of years was being destroyed by the U.S. government forcing them into the whites’ systems of private property and capitalism.
Martin’s maternal great grandfather didn’t speak any English. He was a circuit-riding Baptist preacher whose passed-down Indian Christianity Martin continues practicing today. Martin considers this a continuation of the earliest settler contact with missionaries in pre-colonial days.
While southwestern nations suffered disastrous outcomes from contact with Spanish conquistadors and the Catholic missionaries they had in tow, later contact in the southeast, the homelands for the Muscogee (modern day Alabama and Georgia), with Moravian and Presbyterian missionaries wasn’t as violent. As a result, the message found a more receptive audience.
“For whatever reason, to me as a Christian, it speaks to the transcendent power of the gospel, the power of Jesus Christ’s teaching that Native people that were going through a genocide – also African slaves that adopted a strong belief in Christianity – despite the ‘religion’ that was being forced on them, they still saw through the hypocritical actions of the people that were bringing it to see the power of the actual teaching – I don’t want to use the word ‘religion’ because I think of religion more as a man-made thing where as Christianity is a world view, a way of life,” Martin said.
Native Christianity and the “tension” – as Martin’s friend, Chickasaw-Choctaw artist and fellow Christian Erin Shaw describes it – between the positivity of Christian doctrine and the all-to-often horrific actions undertaken by Christians against non-Christians in the name of Christianity is a topic he continues wrestling with and investigating. Martin and Shaw spoke in the fall of 2021 at a conference hosted by Christians in the Visual Arts where the two discussed the subject and their recent project, “Altars of Reconciliation,” which addresses it.
Why was the missionary experience for southeastern tribes – Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, Seminole – so vastly different from what was experienced in the southwest or among First Nations people of Canada?
“I don’t know why that is except that some of the missionaries that came (to the southeast) were a lot more sensitive to tribal peoples’ beliefs that were already there, and language especially,” Martin suggests.
Martin credits the American Bible Society and other missionary agencies with helping save the Cherokee and Muscogee languages by translating the Bible into tribal tongues, putting the language into a usable written form and widely distributing copies.
In his family, the “religion” was secondary to the ideas, the hope presented in Christianity. In a way, he also views his ancestors adopting Christianity as a survival strategy. Many Muscogee and southeastern Native people adopted Christianity. The Muscogee Nation and those other tribes survive.
Even the Deep Fork Hillabee church near Checotah, OK where Martin’s great grandfather preached remains active. So named for the nearby Deep Fork branch of the Canadian River, Hillabee was a tribal town from the Creek Confederacy. Some of the buildings from the church grounds appear in the backgrounds of Martin’s artwork.
Martin’s family histories, the family photos, his Christianity, all of this becomes realized artistically via printmaking. His prints are available for purchase via the Wyld Gallery online store.
“Printmaking is the perfect mix of the left and right brain activities – it’s a whole brain activity,” Martin explains of his long interest in the medium. “You have to use your creative side to come up with good designs, good art, good ideas, (but) that’s not the end of it, then you’ve got to be really careful and ‘craftsmanly’ and very left brain to get through the steps and methods to get a good print at the end.”