A deep-brown buffalo stands alone on a green grass plain, against a background of anonymous hills and a setting sun. Its tail forms a kind of question mark. It's hard not to anthro pomorphize the buffalo's gaze as beseeching the viewer to save it from extinction. This interpretation isn't too far-fetched, as George Catlin painted it (and titled it Buffalo Bull, Grazing on the Prairie) in 1832 as a way to bring attention to the plight of this vanishing species.
This is the image that captivated me in June when I learned about the plans for Endangered Species: Artists on the Front Line of Biodiversity at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham. Despite its age, the painting by Catlin had a contemporary feel to it. It suggested a compelling curation of works that spanned a couple centuries. Seeing that Andy Warhol's silk screen Endangered Species and a handful of other recognizable names were also included, I was looking forward to an expansive view of global climate change. And I was excited for the exhibition's potential to include oft-neglected voices.
Curator Dr. Barbara Matilsky spent five years researching this show, a period that saw the emergence of Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, and the #MeToo movements. So it was curious to get to the show and see such an uneven representation of female artists (15 out of 57) and scant appearance of artists of color and LGBTQIA artists. When present, such artists seem to be included specimen-like (i.e., there is one Asian artist, one Black artist, and one queer artist) and their works don't investigate identity or historical oppression as it relates to the land.
How interesting would it have been to follow the threads of the multiplicity of land-rights legislation enacted to divest indigenous peoples of their land, the promise of 40 acres and a mule for freed slaves that was reneged on, and the fact that white pioneers settling the West were given 320 acres (and, if wived, twice that)? Women of any kind weren't allowed to own land, of course.
In other words, a show about biodiversity lacks diversity.
This exhibition takes place on the ancestral homelands of the indigenous people of the Salish Sea, and in particular the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe. The Lummi Nation (along with the Suquamish, Tulalip, and Swinomish tribal lands) was established through the Point Elliott Treaty in 1855. Follow the trail of the Point Elliott Treaty on through today, and the cause of dwindling salmon populations and disappearing orcas is evident. The story of environmental degradation and resulting species loss is really the history of European colonization and the ongoing project of white colonialism. Basically, white people are terrible for the environment.
While there are indigenous artists participating in this exhibition, including two Tlingit artists (Nicholas Galanin and Preston Singletary) and a Coast Salish-Okanagan artist (Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun), there are no Lummi or Nooksack or Washington State tribal artists. There are zero indigenous female artists. This is a lost opportunity to tie the show's concerns to a local context and illuminate how tribes have been at the forefront of protecting biodiversity.
I'm not suggesting artists have to address historical oppression in their work if they come from a historically marginalized group. But a show with "endangered" and "biodiversity" in the title—especially one that has been as heavily curated as this one—lends itself to digging deep into the very American fact of how so many lives came to be endangered.
So how did buffalo go extinct? In the 1870s, General Philip Sheridan (who famously said, "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead") ordered the mass extermination of the buffalo for the express purpose of denying the Cheyenne, Lakota, and Great Plains Tribes a primary form of their sustenance.
This context is left out of the wall text accompanying the George Catlin painting. Which is strange given the lengthy wall texts that accompany each piece of art and each of the five sections of the show ("Celebrating Biodiversity's Beauty and Complexity: From Landscapes to Microscopic Imagery," "Mammoths and Dinosaurs: Interpreting Natural Extinction," "Portraits of Loss: Extinction by Human Actions," "Endangered Species: Plants and Animals on the Edge of Survival," and "At the Crossroads: Destruction or Preservation of Biodiversity"). I understand that this is a county museum and has to appeal to a broader audience, but at this juncture of history, it's a disservice to everyone to soften the truth.
Granted, the curator didn't set out to create a show of diverse artists. When I e-mailed the museum to ask about the issues of representation, I was told: "Just want to make sure you don't have the idea that the exhibition is specifically about diverse artists, when it is more focused on biodiversity." But the exhibition notes also tell us: "Endangered Species has been organized with the intent of impacting public discourse about biodiversity while advancing the artist's pivotal role in building awareness."
When I visited the show the day after the opening, I was overwhelmed by the extent of the planetary problems presented. This feeling is perfectly illustrated by Nicholas Galanin's sculpture Inert Wolf, a taxidermy sculpture of a real wolf that appears to be crawling toward you while its back half is flattened into a rug. On the far wall, the title of Nick Brandt's large-format sepia-toned photograph, Line of Rangers Holding the Tusks of Elephants Killed at the Hands of Man, Amboseli, tells you everything you need to know. National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore's Captive Northern Spotted Owl, Merlin places a casualty in the midst of its own lost habitat.
Surveying the room, it's hard not to be overcome by the centuries of violence humans have enacted on the natural world. The planetary crisis we face is real, and this show, despite its flaws, undoubtedly illuminates what brought us here. In terms of next steps, I am partial to the suggestion of environmental activist Winona LaDuke of the Ojibwe Nation: "Let us be the ancestors our descendants will thank."