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Brian Jungen Makes Art Influenced by His American Indian Ancestry

Also: President Obama's meeting with leaders of tribal nations. And music by the Cherokee National Youth Choir. Transcript of radio broadcast:


Welcome to AMERICAN MOSAIC in VOA Special English.


I'm Doug Johnson. This week on our program, we report on several events marking American Indian Heritage Month.

We listen to music by the Cherokee National Youth Choir …

Talk about President Obama's recent meeting with tribal nations …

And visit a new exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian.



The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., recently opened an exhibit with sculptures by a very inventive artist. Canadian sculptor Brian Jungen turns everyday objects into strangely beautiful art. He is the first living American Indian artist to have a solo show at this museum. Barbara Klein tells us more.


The exhibit is called "Strange Comfort." The first sculpture that greets visitors looks like the skeleton of a huge whale. But if you look more closely, the sculpture "Shapeshifter" is made out of old plastic chairs that have been carefully cut and bolted together.

Brian Jungen was influenced to make the work after seeing old broken chairs that had been thrown away in the street. He says that by making them into a sculpture, he has made useless objects useful again. His sculpture also makes a statement about the harmful effects that waste and pollution have on the environment.

Brian Jungen lives in Vancouver, Canada. He was born to a Canadian father and a mother who is part of the Dunne-za tribe.

His Native background greatly influences his work. One series looks like colorful American Indian masks and head coverings. But they are made out of basketball shoes that the artist cut and changed to make his art. Another statue, "The Prince," looks like a fierce tribal chief standing straight and tall. But the human form is made up of carefully formed baseball gloves.

Mister Jungen has said that the sports industry makes free use of American Indian words and images to describe its teams. So he felt he had the right to make art from the sports industry's objects.

Brian Jungen's sculptures skillfully explore both mass culture and tribal culture in new and interesting ways.

Outside, in the museum's garden area, visitors can see a more traditional sculpture made by an American Indian artist. It is of a man wearing a buffalo head covering. He is reaching his bow and arrow up to the sky.

"Buffalo Dancer II" was recently put into place as part of the activities to celebrate American Indian Heritage Month. George Rivera made this huge bronze statue. He is from the Pueblo of Pojoaque in New Mexico. He says the statue expresses the respect that many American Indians have for the buffalo, which they honor through dance and ceremony.



Last week, President Obama met with hundreds of tribal leaders at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington. Mister Obama promised to work with them on important issues including energy development and climate change.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: "I believe Washington can't and shouldn't dictate a policy agenda for Indian country. Tribal nations do better when they make their own decisions. That is why we are here today. I want to be clear about this. Today's summit is not lip service. We are not going through the motions, and pay tribute to one another, then furl up the flags then go our separate ways."

Mister Obama recognized the federal government's long history of abuse and mistreatment of native tribes. He said the government has violated treaties and broken promises. And, he said that the first Americans would not be forgotten as long as he is president.

He also signed an agreement requiring all federal agencies to organize within ninety days a plan to improve communication with tribal groups about government policy decisions.

The tribal chiefs asked for the president's help with problems facing their people. One chief said the suicide rate for young Native American men in his state was twelve times the national average. He asked for more financial aid to help reduce suicide rates.

BILL MARTIN: "And for young men between fifteen and twenty-seven, it's twelve time the national average. And it's a serious issue. And we hope that we can be able to provide more funding to combat suicide."

Other chiefs asked for help with social issues such as improving education.

Tribal leaders also discussed ways that climate change and warmer temperatures were affecting their communities.

President Obama said working to fight climate change was a top goal of his administration. He talked about ways that tribes could more easily develop clean energy such as solar power and wind energy. And he discussed plans to make it easier to get permits and financing for clean energy.



The Cherokee National Youth Choir features Native American singers from sixth grade to twelfth grade. The group has won many music honors. It has also sung at the White House, the Kennedy Center and at Ground Zero in New York City. Mario Ritter has our report about the Choir which is celebrating its tenth year.


Cherokee Chief Chad "Corntassel" Smith started the Cherokee National Youth Choir in two thousand. He saw it as a way to keep children involved in the language and culture of their tribe.

The children sing traditional Cherokee songs in the Cherokee language. But they also perform Christian songs in Cherokee as well. Like this one, "Orphan Child," from their album "Precious Memories."


Forty children are in the Cherokee National Youth Choir. They come from communities in northeastern Oklahoma. Cherokees had lived all over the American southeast -- in Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. But in the eighteen hundreds the United States government forced them to leave their homes. The Indians walked what was later called the "Trail of Tears" to a new homeland in Oklahoma. Many Cherokees died on the way.

Here the Choir sings "Beautiful Home," also from the album, "Precious Memories."


Mary Kay Henderson is the director of the Cherokee National Youth Choir. She says Choir officials are contacting past and present members for celebrations of its tenth anniversary. She says the events will include a special CD of past and present Choir members singing together.

Perhaps the group will re-record this next song. Mizz Henderson says it is one of the children's favorites. We leave you with the Cherokee National Youth Choir performing "North Wind."



I'm Doug Johnson. Our program was written by Caty Weaver and Dana Demange who was also the producer. For transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs, go to You can also comment on our programs.

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Join us again next week for AMERICAN MOSAIC, VOA's radio magazine in Special English.