Navajo artist Will Wilson knows about the pain of surviving cultural apocalypse, and how difficult it is to keep one's traditions relevant in a strange new world.
Native Americans have been struggling with this since Columbus dropped anchor in the Caribbean. Forcible removable from tribal lands, devastating epidemics, lost wars, reeducation programs -- Natives know all about losing everything they know and hold dear.
In his "Auto Immune Response" exhibition at the Heard Museum, Wilson uses sci-fi imagery to show what it feels like to lose one's cultural ties.
In wall-size photos, he depicts figures standing in a desert and on a cliff at the Grand Canyon. These are places where a Navajo should feel like a fish in water, but the Native Americans in Wilson's pieces wear gas masks and look like aliens on a hostile moonscape. They're sealed off and isolated; it's as if the air of the places their ancestors called home would poison them if they breathed it.
Yet Wilson's characters strive to keep their traditions alive: Their long hair is worn in traditional, base-of-the-neck knots, and turquoise beads hang from their necks. But appearances aren't enough. They can't go home again, because home no longer exists. It's been erased by Manifest Destiny.
Wilson's exhibition does offer a bit of hope. At the center of it, he's built a hogan, the traditional Navajo ceremonial structure. But instead of being made of logs, this one is made of cold, sleek steel. It's an eloquent testament to what it's like to be a Native American in the 21st century.