Nocona Burgess: teaching history and making history

It would be conventional to profile Nocona Burgess (Comanche; b. 1969, Oklahoma City) by focusing on his family tree.

His great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side is Chief Quanah Parker.

His father was a National Merit Scholar at the University of Oklahoma who would go on to found the Comanche Nation College, the first tribal college in Oklahoma. He was tribal chairman of the Comanche Tribe in 1985 at 35-years-old. His mother recently served as acting chairman of the Comanche Nation.

His grandfather on his mother’s side was a Comanche code talker for the Allied forces who saw action on the beaches of Normandy.

Separate of that, his friendship with Johnny Depp would surely generate attention.

Burgess met Depp while the actor was being hosted by the artist’s aunt at her Albuquerque home during the filming of 2013’s “The Lone Ranger,” in which Depp starred as Tonto. Depp owns a handful of Burgess’ artworks and refers to him in correspondence as “wizard of the paintbrush.”

This profile of Nocona Burgess, however, focuses on the artist as historian, both within and outside his studio. In addition to painting full time, Burgess serves as a Cultural Resource Specialist for the Santa Fe, NM Public Schools’ Indian Education Department where he monitors the accuracy of lessons being taught about Native Americans.

This work places him directly on the front lines of the contemporary culture wars in America and the contentious debate regarding “Critical Race Theory,” a struggle over whether the nation’s history should continue being taught from a white nationalist perspective as it always has been, or if the uncomfortable truth about America’s founding on stolen land and prosperity through slave labor – and how race has been at the center of America’s development – should finally be told in public schools.

“I observe everything coming in and out of the classroom as far as literature, teaching tools, teaching materials, doing teacher professional development to make sure they’re doing the right things – not watching ‘Pocahontas’ in Native American Heritage Month,” Burgess told me about his responsibilities.

What does Burgess think of the national controversy which has erupted out of the nation’s social studies textbooks?

“It’s fear from the far right that they’re losing everything; they want to keep (history) whitewashed,” he said. “The numbers are moving. The ‘us’ people, the ‘others,’ we are able to tell our story. There’s so much contribution from the ‘others,’ it’s not all what I call the John Wayne version (of American history). We’re having opportunities to be educated and write books and novels and do research tell our truths.”

Backlash to attempts at making American history education more inclusive and painfully accurate hasn’t surprised the artist.

“The further we move forward into (teaching history while centering equality and structural racism in America), they feel like they’re backed into the corner, someone’s let them play the victim or be victimized like they’re losing something,” Burgess said.

What white nationalist parents, school board officials and politicians are losing is their chokehold on the truth, their ability to continue keeping successive generations of Americans ignorant to how racism, bigotry, racial violence, and a nation which stacks its deck in favor of one race to the detriment of all others does not support the belief in “American exceptionalism” which allows those entrenched systems to persist despite their outrageous inequities. Once America is viewed and recognized as deeply flawed from its onset through today, the status quo can be challenged. That reaches into policing, the justice system, voting rights, the Electoral College, the constitution, private property, land rights, health care, capitalism – the bedrock upon which white nationalism was built and endures.

“I told teachers there shouldn’t be one kid that goes from kindergarten through (grade) 12 in Santa Fe Public Schools that doesn’t have an understanding of the architecture, the food, the culture and everything that goes on here and how native influenced it is,” Burgess said. “Long before this place was New Mexico, people were eating chilies, people were eating turkey, people cultivated corn, they were building these Adobe looking houses, everything that goes on here was started by Indigenous people.”

For parents with children stuck in public schools opposed to presenting an accurate telling of American History, Burgess recommends finding a copy of “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States for Young People.”

Artist-Historian

Nocona Burgess' Santa Fe studio.
Nocona Burgess’ Santa Fe studio.

A voracious reader of all kinds of history, Burgess considers himself a historian in his art practice as well. His paintings are largely based upon historical photographs of Native people. He intentionally uses each individual’s name when titling paintings and often lectures on the subjects of his artwork.

“These are real people, real stories. It’s not the romanticized noble savage, it’s not a stylized image,” Burgess said. “These are human beings. They experienced not so great times in our history, but they are also brave, strong and loving people.”

And not so different from Native people today.

“We’re still fighting some of those issues,” Burgess said. “We’re still dealing with water rights and land rights and education for our children.”

Burgess’ interest in history was apparent at a young age. He repeatedly poured through the Time-Life Books “Old West” series which his grandfather gave him. The same grandfather who served at Normandy and would babysit Burgess as a child, watching “Gunsmoke” and signing Indian songs together.

The first two volumes of the 26-volume “Old West” series were “The Cowboys” and “The Indians,” with subsequent provocative titles including “The Gunfighters,” “The Great Chiefs,” “The Gamblers.”

Burgess’ interest in art was similarly sparked from a young age when the same grandfather also gave him a book about contemporary art. His art practice continues merging these formative influences 50 years later. Remarkably, the artist keeps copies of these books handy in his studio to this day.

Finding himself in Santa Fe

Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.
Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.

A career as an artist was not in Burgess’ mind until a trip to Santa Fe in 1990. Prior to that he had been studying to become an architect with a full fellowship from the University of Oklahoma to pursue that profession.

“I came out to Santa Fe and I saw people that were just a hair older than me who were actually doing it – making careers as artists – it was something that was happening,” Burgess explains. “I found out about T.C. Canon, learned about contemporary Native American art – it was a thing (in Santa Fe) – there was a whole scene, there were galleries. It piqued my interest, it tapped into something I had never really thought about before.”

Surprising considering artmaking runs deep in Burgess’ family. His grandmothers made quilts and beadwork. His father went to art school to study drawing and painting and once served as dean of academics at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

From all of these influences, Burgess has landed on an instantly recognizable style all his own.

“I really feel like one day – this probably happened 25, 30 years ago – I’m working and painting and then it just becomes mine. It’s less my influences and more of mine,” he said.

Burgess has become a fixture on the contemporary Native American art scene, an essential of the genre, his work regularly featured in magazines, museums and galleries, including WYLD Gallery in Austin, TX and online where his paintings can be purchased.

For this artist who doubles as historian, his artwork is increasingly become history itself, with future generations– Native and non-Native alike – studying his work to inform theirs.

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