Remembering James Luna (1950-2018)

“Just might throw my warbonnet in the fire!” 

That communiqué came via email from renowned artist James Luna (La Jolla) last November, 2017. It was not a statement of resignation, but rather and as usual, his wry sense of humor, letting Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF) staff know that he was thinking of submitting a proposal for a public art project. James was one of our 2015 National Artist Fellows, but our relationship ran deeper than that, and represents our mission to connect with Native artists and continue deepening relationships so that we may better serve and support artists in constructive ways. Most important, he was part of our “family” of artists and a friend.

We’ll leave it to art critics to decide James’ place in history. What we do know is that he blazed a trail that challenged commonly held perceptions about Native Americans and the way that we were depicted in society and the institutional art world. His art and performance helped expand the narrative and possibilities of “Indian” art in provocative and unconventional ways, often infusing irony and humor into his exhibitions.

NACF first officially crossed paths with James when he was involved in a college summer program for Native youth. Later, we heard about his ire over the lack of representation of indigenous voices in a Huntington exhibition celebrating Junipero Serra and the California Missions. This response compelled us, and over the course of a year we supported his and others’ work to ultimately tell the indigenous story of the missions, and push for that truth in California schools.  During that time, James graciously helped us promote the work of our (still quite new!) organization at a dinner in Los Angeles.

We stayed in touch, and any time we knew our paths would cross, we would try to find time to meet and talk story, always considering how we might further elevate our understanding of his important work and how the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation could amplify its exposure. The last time we saw James was a 2017 dinner in San Diego with our Board of Directors and our friends from the Rincon Band of Luiseno Indians. As we started to leave, James turned to face the exposed brick wall inside the restaurant. Suddenly, he spread-eagled himself against it, yelling at the top of his lungs: “Up against the wall!” His art and humor was always with him, to the very end. We will miss James… he was one of a kind.

Slack-key master Cyril Pahinui (Native Hawaiian) was awarded a 2013 NACF Artist Fellowship in Music.