Colorful heritage creates new visions

By Gus Bode

Though his portraits of Native American chiefs decorate the Student Center, Jos’eacute; Guajardo did not know his heritage until six years ago.

Student Programming Council and the Native American Student Organization held a reception Tuesday night for student artists whose work depicts Native American culture and traditions. The students’ work is displayed in Art Alley, located on the second floor of the Student Center.

Guajardo, who graduated with a master’s of fine arts in the summer, said he was raised Latino but never asked questions about his heritage.


That changed when he moved from his hometown in Texas to Iowa six years ago.

“I honestly felt American, Caucasian, until I moved and everybody was like, ‘You don’t look white. What are you?'” Guajardo said. “Everywhere I went, everybody reminded me, ‘You’re not white.'”

Questions raised by the transition led to a revelation for Guajardo.

From his parents, Guajardo learned he was part of a culture he’d never known. His mother is full-blooded Apache and his father is half-Comanche and half-Mexican, Guajardo said. He said he was raised Latino because Native Americans received negative associations where his family lived.

He has been working to learn more about his culture through research, Guajardo said, which also provides subjects for his art.

Unlike Guajardo, Thomas Peters constructs his work through traditions learned in childhood.

Peters, a graduate student from New York studying sculpture, said he was raised on a reservation as a member of the Seneca tribe.


Most of Peters’ work depicts faceless corn husk dolls. The dolls are a tradition in his tribe, he said, and are made by children for protection.

One of his sculptures portrays a Seneca woman, which Peters said represents his mother and grandmother, as well as the strength of women in his tribe.

He said the Iroquois nation, to which the Seneca tribe belongs, is a matriarchal society. In other words, women hold more power than men, even though Iroquois chiefs are male, Peters said.

Jennifer Calvin, professor of workforce education and development, acts as faculty adviser for the Native American Student Organization, which sponsors Native American Heritage Month in November.

Calvin, who identified herself as Shawnee and Wyandott, said many people don’t realize that Native American affiliations can range from those who grew up on a reservation to those who don’t have strong connections with the culture.

“When you say ‘native,’ people tend to think of ‘Dances with Wolves’ and a guy on a horse, and that’s just not how every culture is,” Calvin said. “There is a big misconception about what it means to be native.”

However, she said the organization works to correct those misconceptions and raise awareness about native culture.

For Guajardo, knowledge of his culture has come a long way.

His grandmother was ashamed to be Native American because the culture was shunned in their community, Guajardo said.

However, he said he is proud of his nephews, who have taken an interest in their heritage.

Along with them, Guajardo said he would continue to research his background.

Guajardo plans to commit his discoveries to canvas, continuing to express a growing knowledge of his heritage through art.

Allison Petty can be reached at 536-3311 ext. 259 or [email protected]