The Wa-Pai-Shone Gallery opened on Jan. 20 at the new Stewart Indian School Cultural Center in Carson City, featuring artworks by the Great Basin Native Artists, a collective that researches, archives and exhibits works by Native artists from Nevada and neighboring states. The group, which includes approximately 150 artists and counting, has been showing artwork together since 2014 at venues including powwows, cultural centers and museums. This marks the first time GBNA has had its own dedicated gallery space. But this is not the first time artwork has been showcased at Stewart.
The Stewart Indian School opened in 1890 as part of a national effort to assimilate Native Americans into Anglo culture. Facilities like this were called “Indian boarding schools.” An 1891 law mandating “compulsory attendance” led to children being routinely kidnapped and taken to the school. Once they arrived, they were forbidden their native languages, customs and dress.
By 1934, the kidnappings had subsided. The U.S. Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (a.k.a. the “Indian New Deal,”) which eased up assimilation efforts and allowed for a woman named Alida Bowler to be appointed superintendent. A civil rights go-getter who also played a role in desegregating schools in Elko, Yerington and a handful of other Nevada towns, she ushered in an era of progressivism, encouraging students to embrace their own tribes’ traditions.
In 1936, a group of 12th graders started the Wa-Pai-Shone Craftsmen Co-op, named after three Nevada tribes—Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone. Paiute girls made crafts from buckskin and beads. Washoe and Shoshone girls made baskets. A few years later, a new program taught wood and stone carving to boys.
The new Wa-Pai-Shone Gallery is named in tribute to the co-op. It’s a small, sunny room inside Stewart’s 1923 administration building, newly converted—using $4.6 million in state funding—into a small museum.
The gallery is overseen by Melissa Melero-Moose, a contemporary painter, Northern Paiute, and Great Basin Native Artists co-founder. The current exhibition is a sampler that includes paintings, drawings and small 3-D works by GBNA members, some of whom are Stewart graduates. (The school remained open through 1980.) Melero-Moose plans to rotate in some additional work that’s been on display recently at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport.
Subject matter includes several styles of portraits, beadwork that runs from traditional to contemporary, and some of Melero-Moose’s abstract acrylic work. Artists include GBNA co-founder Ben Aleck; Burton Pete, a well known beadworker who passed away last year; and Linda Eben Jones, a beadworker who is also Melero-Moose’s mother. There are also two photorealistic, black-and-white drawings of young women in traditional Native dress by Paiute/Navajo artist Dorothy Nez—a student at Stewart from 1964-68. According to Museum Director Bobbi Rahder, Nez designed a Stewart yearbook cover in high school and later worked as an artist for Hallmark. A quote from Nez is printed on the wall of the museum: “Art helped make boarding school better.”