Joyce Nevaquaya Harris (Comanche, b. 1964) recognized “Peace of Mind” as a special painting the moment it left her easel. Little could she image where the painting’s destiny would carry it.
Peace of Mind (22 x 36 inches, 2019) is a self-portrait as seen from the back. Harris painted herself seated, the wind blowing through her hair, a single flower to her left, a hummingbird has appeared just to the right of her head. A deep, sapphire blue foreground gives way to a blue-green background sky.
“I was sitting there, meditating, (it’s) how I was picturing myself and thinking of all the things in the world and just taking time out for myself,” Harris told me about her inspiration for the image. “A lot of women, they have careers, jobs and people to take care of – their families – and so that, to me, was the time that you sit down and for myself, sit, meditate and just be at peace; that’s what I painted.”
A toasty red-orange sun blazes above Harris in the painting giving it the roasted feel of a late summer day in Stroud, Oklahoma where the artist lives. That’s the influence of her father, “Doc” Tate Nevaquaya.
“Whenever you paint, always use the color red,” Harris remembers her father telling her. “He said (red) represents who we are as the Comanche people.”
She was proud of the work. That’s why she posted a picture of Peace of Mind to Facebook. She soon removed the picture, not wanting anyone to contact her seeking to buy it and trying to haggle her down on price.
Maybe that’s where someone from the United States Department of Interior saw the painting?
Maybe an Interior employee saw her work at the small show held for her in 2017 at the Southern Plains Indian Museum? That museum in Anadarko, Oklahoma is operated by the Department of Interior. Did an official see the show and remember her?
It was the curator of that show in Anadarko who contacted Harris in 2020, inquiring if she had any paintings in the $1200 to $1400 price range. Harris sent the curator a handful of images, including Peace of Mind, and was told to expect a call.
In the fall of that same year, a young woman from the Department of Interior did call Harris. The woman said an official inside the department was interested in buying a painting of hers and described Peace of Mind. Harris said it was still available, explained the story of the painting, and offered to sell it. The offer was accepted and Harris released her special painting.
“I didn’t hear from her for a while and I just kind of forgot about it,” Harris said.
The only details the young woman offered about the painting’s destination were that it was headed to Washington, D.C. where it would hang in the office of a high ranking official.
In the spring of 2021, the same woman emailed Harris to tell her Peace of Mind now hangs in the office of Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior. Deb Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna), the first Native person in U.S. history to hold a cabinet secretary position. Deb Haaland, indigenous woman, Native American activist, former congresswoman from New Mexico, hero, inspiration.
“Oh my god!” Harris remembers thinking when she read the email. “Wow. I was so excited.”
As Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland leads an organization responsible for the management of over 500 million acres of public land. DOI has 70,000 employees. DOI oversees the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and, critically, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education.
Interior works on the front lines of climate change, environmental justice, biodiversity collapse, oil and gas extraction, the debate over public lands and the relationship between the country’s native people and its federal government.
If ever a job called for a Native person to hold it, Secretary of the Department of the Interior is that job.
As an indigenous woman holding that position, as a fierce supporter of indigenous issues, as a woman who cooked for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe water protectors in opposition to the Dakota Access oil pipeline in the face of armed mercenaries working in conjunction with local police to menace activists on the ground there, Haaland stands as a beacon of hope for Native and non-Native people alike that the DOI will finally and firmly stand up for citizens in the face of corporations, stand up for public lands in the face of those who would take them from us, stand up for wildlife and cultural heritage and the country’s remaining natural resources to be protected.
Her confirmation was world news.
Her supporters hope she has just begun making history.
In her office, providing support in fights which will have her squaring off with the most powerful, wealthy, vicious corporations and private interests in America, hangs Joyce Nevaquaya Harris’ Peace of Mind.
Peace of Mind
A painting of a Native woman, by a Native woman, ultimately for a Native woman. The potentially most influential Native woman in American history. A meditative painting reminding all women to take time for themselves.
Fate, it seems, commissioned Harris to paint the picture for the future Interior secretary.
Peace of mind.
Haaland will need it.
Before she even held the job, her confirmation was sidetracked and delayed by senators in the pockets of fossil fuel companies and anti-public land individuals who sought to portray her as a dangerous radical. Haaland was unflappable against their galling scrutiny, the rich and powerful white men, descendants of colonizers, white nationalists lecturing an indigenous woman about natural resources and land rights.
Peace of mind.
Joyce Nevaquaya Harris and Deb Haaland have never met – Harris sure hopes to one day and hopes the feeling is mutual – but they are connected by the painting. Perhaps it provides solace to Haaland at the end of a particularly tough day. Maybe it slows her one-half step and reminds her to not forget about her own self care as she tries to care for the tens of thousands of people, hundreds of millions of acres of land, and wildlife – uncountable in number – under her protection.
Peace of mind.
Peace of mind.
From Joyce Nevaquaya Harris to Deb Haaland.
Joyce Nevaquaya Harris is represented by WYLD Gallery in Austin, TX which is dedicated to sharing the work of contemporary Native American artists. You can view her paintings for sale here.