By Erin Shaw
As long as I can remember, I’ve had one foot in two worlds: I am both a citizen of the Chickasaw nation and a seventh-generation follower of Jesus. It’s been the work of my life to live in that tension and as best I can, understand and reconcile it.
Altars of Reconciliation is an exhibition that was created to explore the tension of being Native American and a practicing Christian. This exhibit was born out of years of conversation and friendship between three collaborating artists: Bobby Martin, Muscogee (Creek), and Tony Tiger, Sac and Fox with Seminole and Muscogee (Creek) lineage, and me, Chickasaw with Choctaw lineage.
Historically in this country, Christianity has been an oppressive force seeking to strip Native American culture of its identity. History is full of stories of Conquistadors, explorers, and missionaries who systematically sought to erase Indigenous ceremonial beliefs and practices. One such cruelty was the boarding school system that removed Native children from their families with the promise of education. Instead, the children were rid of their language and indoctrinated to Christianity. None of these abuses can be forgotten or re-written.
So, why, with this history would any Native American believe in the religion of the invaders? This is the question we, as artists, have been confronted with many times and hope to engage with through this exhibit.
Creating art that lives with this tension is deeply personal and inescapable. For me, exploring why do I believe? has been the central question that guides me and my work. Why would I believe in a religion that has perpetuated such violence and systems of power?
I find most of my insight in the stories found in scripture. I love stories. All of my work as an artist and researcher centers around investigating the ways that stories serve humanity. Stories vary based on geography, culture, and time in history; All these things greatly affect how we approach and read them. Which is why I am so fascinated with the fact that Jesus was not a western man. He did not live and breathe in a western context. When we encounter Jesus through our western lens, it is possible that we only receive half of the Christ.
When Jesus arrived on the scene, he said things that confounded the religious leaders of the day. He did things that were forbidden and shook the establishment. Those who had studied the Torah their whole lives, awaiting the Messiah, did not recognize him when he showed up in flesh and blood. Jesus toppled every system of power in his day and this is what ultimately got him killed. I’m not sure why the best parts of Jesus’ story have been altered through history. Or why much of the 21st century expression of Christianity seems so far removed from Jesus’ own teachings and life. Or why such violence has been carried out under the banner of Christianity. But I know all these things have happened.
When I get bogged down in the mire of this twisted reality, I just go back to the original story. The story of Jesus, the Jewish man, the son of God, who changed the world with his radical life.
This is the conversation I hope to engage in with Altars of Reconciliation.
Erin Shaw is a painter of borderlands, the spaces between worlds. As a visual storyteller, the child of an Oklahoma farm, Shaw tills the rich soil of dichotomy through her masterful uses of color, iconography, and story. As a Chickasaw-Choctaw artist, she creates in a state of tension, suspended between two worlds where both solemnity and humor pervade her art. She finds that truths are revealed in unanticipated ways, and trickster often appears throughout her work. The artist earned her BFA in studio art from Baylor University and her MFA from the University of Oklahoma. She is Assistant Professor of Visual Arts at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, AR, an international speaker, and a featured artist in Visual Voices: Contemporary Chickasaw Art, among other exhibits in the U.S.