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Friday Feature: Fires of the Heart, and for the People

Winters Seven Horses

Today’s Friday Feature is a work I’ve highlighted here before during this season of romance, a work that symbolizes fires of many sorts: of love and the heart, yes, and also of geopolitical politics and prophecy.

That’s a lot of weight for such a small piece to carry, but it handles it effortlessly. Such motifs are, after all, part and parcel of its very identity.

It’s a work that falls into the category now known in the art market of the outside world as “small paintings” — and painting, canvas, matting, and frame all the same as any other, merely writ small. In this case, as the description indicates, the totality of the piece, frame included, is seven inches high and fewer than ten inches across.

But it tells a big story.

It’s a story as old as time itself, and in some respects, as universal. It’s also one that exists squarely within its own cultural context, one that cannot be superimposed over or overlaid by the dominant culture’s standards. From its description in the Other Artists:  Wall Art gallery here on the site:

She Cost Me Seven Horses Acrylic Painting

Carl Winters (Standing Rock) specializes in imagery from his Lakota reservation, particularly the horse motif that represents such an integral part of his people’s culture. Here, with acrylics and canvas, he evokes an older time, when weddings were also business deals and geopolitical strategies. Bride and groom wear their finest traditional dress before a border of “quillwork” symbols. The “bride price” is shown galloping in the background. Including the metal matting and frame, it is 9.75″ wide by 7″ high (dimensions approximate).

Acrylic; canvas, matting; metal frame
$145 + shipping, handling, and insurance

To most of this country, the description no doubt sounds frankly horrifying. In that worldview, it seems to treat women as property, as something to bought and sold and traded for personal gain.

There is an aspect of such trading to every marriage, even when the currency is, at least putatively, merely “love.” Even in such idealized cases, two people have decided that, in one or more respects, their lives will be better together than apart, and not merely together in the sense of elective companionship, but in a formal, societally- and politically-recognized context.

That last element is crucial: It has ramifications far beyond an exchange of rings or change of name. It’s why marriage equality is so important, and why it must be protected, codified, enshrined as a basic human right. But even today some marriages occur for reasons in addition to (or sometimes even other than) romantic love, although the popular culture doesn’t speak of it in such terms. But whole schools, fraternal and other societies, religious institutions, and segments of the corporate world exist, at least in part, to match up “the right people” — and, of course, to perpetuate wealth, status, and power.

So why should one be seen as the natural order of things, and the other as a backward attempt to limit women’s chances?

Perhaps because the dominant culture could never see outside its own antifeminist, anti-woman framework to understand that, in many of cultures, it was the women who held much, even most, of the power in such arrangements.

I’ve written about them here before:

Traditional cultures often had — and have, today — sharply delineated gender roles, at least with regard to certain aspects of daily life. The existence of such roles, and the associations and powers attached thereto, are not by definition “sexist,” even as the dominant culture defines that label. They’re simply different. And in fact, in many Native societies, women actually had far greater equality of and diversity of opportunity than their counterparts of European ancestry.

In the same vein, gender roles have carried differing responsibilities, but not automatically loss of status. In cultures whose interactions were based largely upon concepts of trade rather than purchase, of seeking coexistence before pursuing colonialism or capitalism, exchanges today dismissed as “dowries” or “bride prices” were far less a transaction in which a woman was bought like a piece of property than complex geopolitical negotiations that often occurred with the woman’s free and informed consent. To outsiders, it perhaps seems as though two families (or two peoples) were purchasing “prosperity” or “peace” on the back of a woman’s body, but the dynamics were far less crude than were the corresponding transactional underpinnings of European marriages.

Here, it’s a manifestation of the bride’s power and status that she can, by her willingness to join another family or people, command a gift of seven horses for her own family. And knowing as I do the artist’s culture, I have no doubt that she made sure to exercise that power in a way that maximized its effect. After all, the artist comes from a culture in which it is the women who can relieve a chief of his status and power and the accompanying symbols.

And so, to me, the salient element of the piece is not the proud expression of the husband; it is the secret little smile, barely expressed but visible nonetheless, of the wife, satisfaction touching her face ever so slightly as the seven horses gallop across the background to their new home with her family.

As I said subsequently (in a post entitled, very deliberately, Love In the Time of Colonialism):

Ironically, this was, of course, one of the aspects of our cultures that led invading Europeans to label our peoples “savage” and “uncivilized.” Women didn’t know their place. They had rights — rights that existed independently of their husbands and fathers. Indeed, in the tradition from which this painting comes, women had (and have) significant power over the status of the male chiefs, with the singular ability to take that status away.

. . .

Again, there’s that pesky European connotation of proprietary (and property) rights. But in cultures where women were assumed to have sexual agency and the ability to decide for themselves whether a man was worth an investment of time (and body), what people would today politely call “arranged marriages” often required the woman’s full consent. Mutual attraction, even love, was likely present far more often than in the marriages of colonial counterparts, even when the colonial nuptials were between people with no leadership status in their communities and thence no political ramifications beyond their respective family units.

In many indigenous cultures, too, women inherently possessed a right of divorce, a concept utterly unthinkable among the settler population. Native peoples tend to be, at bottom, eminently practical, and in many societies, this extended to family arrangements. In some cultures, including that of this artist, there exists a tradition of “making relatives” that has nothing to do with marriage, but everything to do with brotherhood, friendship, community, and geopolitical strategy. Beyond that, in many Native traditions, marriage relationships involved far more inherent autonomy and personal sovereignty that their European counterparts, for women and men alike: Marriage was an important institution, of course, but people were practical enough to understand that what works for everyone at one stage of life perhaps does not work so well (or not at all) down the road. In some cultures, subject to certain requirements, one or either party could end the relationship and remain a full-fledged citizen in good standing, without the stigma attached to divorce (especially for women) found in European cultures.

. . .

In a time when we all walk in two worlds, and when the outer world bombards us with commercial artifice that wraps itself in the blanket of something it calls “love,” it’s useful to remember that there is no one way of doing things, and that our own lives and loves need adhere to no external ideal. Love manifests itself in highly individual ways, and the outside world holds no veto power over how members of traditional cultures choose to express it. After all, our own cultures have withstood the test of thousands of years of existence, and in the last half-millennium, a concerted campaign to exterminate them entirely. The fact that love survives, and thrives, in the face of such history is testament to its power, however it finds expression.

In a season of romance, this cold and icy time of year when the body and soul alike seek warmth, it’s worth noting that love — even romantic love — takes many forms. In our way, a season of romance is a time of fires: fires of the heart, and for the people.

~ Aji











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