The Legacy of Mary Sully: Early Indigenous Feminism, and the “American Indian Abstract”

Mary Sully, "Three Stages of Indian History: Pre-Columbian Freedom, Reservation Fetters, the Bewildering Present," middle panel (after 1938). Image courtesy of University of Washington Press.
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Few people have seen the work of 20th-century Indigenous artist Mary Sully. Despite her belonging to a prominent Indigenous family (one of her drawings illustrates the cover of Speaking of Indians, 1944, an ethnography by her sister Ella Deloria), Sully’s life’s work sat in storage for at least 40 years, traveling from one family member to the next.

The Sully family is one that embodies cultural assimilation even while many of its members worked to expose the myriad physical and representational violence underwriting Indigenous-settler relations. Born Susan Deloria, Sully used her mother’s name as a pseudonym likely to connect herself to her grandfather, the 19th-century frontier soldier and painter Alfred Sully. Her sister, Ella, was an “informant” to anthropologist Franz Boas, as well as an anthropologist, lecturer, and writer herself. Her nephew is the radical Indigenous historian and activist, Vine Deloria Jr., and her grand-nephew is Philip Deloria, a Harvard University history professor who has written two influential books on Indigenous people in popular culture. The less famous members of Sully’s extended genealogy are Indigenous women with names like Blackfoot Woman, Red Crane Woman, and Soldier Woman (the artist’s mother, also called Mary Sully). Philip’s white mother, Barbara Deloria (née Nystrom), is the largely uncredited first editor and organizer of Vine’s most famous works. She was also the last custodian of the Sully archive, storing it in a suitcase under a basement stairwell until 2006, when she gave it to her son.

A new monograph, Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract, by the aforementioned Philip Deloria, is often explicitly a tribute to his family, particularly the women who influenced, created, and protected the ad hoc Mary Sully archive. Deloria closely reads the formal and contextual threads of Sully’s work. What emerges is a significant contribution to a growing body of literature recognizing the roles of women in creating an Indigenous futurity rooted in self-representation and self-determination. The cultural work of women like Mary Sully challenges narratives that place Indigenous people outside of, and in opposition to, the modern world.

Mary Sully, “Three Stages of Indian History: Pre-Columbian Freedom, Reservation Fetters, the Bewildering Present,” top panel (after 1938). Image courtesy of University of Washington Press.

A key to interpreting Sully’s works – the majority of which are abstract and symbolic portraits of celebrities, in the tradition of Charles Demuth or Alfred Stieglitz – is one piece in particular, Three Stages of Indian History: Pre-Columbian Freedom, Reservation Fetters, the Bewildering Present (after 1938). It consists of three panels stacked on top of each other, with the top panel describing four scenes: a view of legs and feet wearing an assortment of military and modern accessories like blue jeans; dark outlines of Indian people suffering; a dilapidated and fenced-in Indian reservation; and an idyllic pre-conquest camp scene. The middle panel follows the pattern-design conventions of the time, abstracting the representations in the first image to glyph-like geometric characters in repetition. The third section reduces the central images to their bare shapes and colors resembling Dakota textiles. Deloria reads the panels thematically as past, present, and future; he interprets them stylistically as a “signifying abstract,” a “geometric abstract,” and an “Indian abstract” – and he traces the color red to Dakota cosmology, signifying mothers and children. In his analysis, the Indian abstract occupies the space of the Indian future, and is symbolically connected to Indigenous women’s labor, which, he writes, “staked a claim on Indian people living forward through history to the present.”

Themes of survival and futurity have characterized Indigenous literature over the last decade or more, emphasizing that Native people never conceded to settler rule. Wounded Knee (1890), Wounded Knee (1973), Idle No More, and the occupation of Alcatraz are sometimes portrayed as isolated or spontaneous uprisings, but should be seen as contiguous with broader strategies for resistance and survival. Such strategies include not just protest and opposition, but also intermarriage, treaties, and urban migration. Recently, historian Nick Estes, in Our History is the Future, and journalist Dina Gilio-Whitaker, in As Long As Grass Grows, have recognized the possibility of an Indigenous future built on continuities of resistance. These surface in highly-visible moments like the #NoDAPL protests at Standing Rock but also include family oral histories and social networks. Estes’s book sold out the day it was released, signaling to many of his followers that the story he tells of Lakota persistence and refusal has arrived at a key historical moment for Indigenous people.

Today, more Indigenous people live in urban areas than reservations. They depend on intertribal solidarities cohering in spaces like living rooms, community centers, and, in rare cases, suitcases stuffed under stairwells. From these sites, all but invisible to the public sphere, Indigenous feminists challenge stereotypes, create new archives, and write from oral traditions. They disrupt the patriarchal structure of the American family (and its corollary in US citizenship), argue that kinship is a relation beyond lineage, and call for forms of solidarity that don’t require individual tribes to give up their identities. Much of this work relies on Indigenous knowledge and customs that history often inscribes as subsumed and appropriated by American culture. Sully’s work, presented by Deloria, stands against this assumption by complicating modernist primitivism and its roots in social evolution theory.

An overreaching misappropriation of both art and science, social evolution theory implied that Indigenous and African people are “primitive” priors to the self-realized white European or American man. Artists were complicit in providing sketches and illustrations, beginning with Petrus Camper’s chart of contrasted faces (1770s), Charles White’s human chart (1799), and The Family Group of the Katarrhinen (artist unknown, 1902). These images coalesced into consensus social knowledge by 1914, so that a white American painter like Marsden Hartley could long for the simplicity of pre-modern life in the midst of an expanding industrial nation. He once wrote, “I find myself wanting to be an Indian … to go to the West and face the sun forever – that would seem the true expression of human dignity.” His appropriation of Indigeneity depends on the familiar ideological construction of Indigenous people as attractively inferior, outside the space and time of the modern world.

Sully, who began her work on the tail of Hartley, reversed social evolution theory at the height of American Modernist Abstraction. It was a time when the US had firmly established itself as a settler nation and had set its sights on imperial expansion. However, it was also a time when, Deloria writes, “many American Indian people crafted new and different lives for themselves.” In other words, the Indigenous didn’t live in opposition to modernity: they co-created it. Sully developed an original aesthetic that drew on modernist tropes – grids, lines, repetition, abstraction – and Indigenous aesthetic traditions, especially textiles. This “American Indian Abstract” suggests a transfer of Indigenous knowledge in the face of erasure and uncertainty – a modernist “antiprimitivism,” which she gives us the tools to decode.

Mary Sully, “Three Stages of Indian History: Pre-Columbian Freedom, Reservation Fetters, the Bewildering Present,” bottom panel (after 1938). Image courtesy of University of Washington Press.

By refiguring Indigenous engagements with modernity, Deloria provides a point of reference for contemporary Indigenous artists working outside their historically assigned positions. Artists in the collective Postcommodity, for instance, see Indigeneity as a critique of modern capitalist institutions like the border fence (Repellent Fence, 2015), while artists like Frank Buffalo Hyde refuse to accept the “Native” label even when their subjects include Indigenous people or images. Debra Yepa-Pappan sees Indigenous people represented in Spock, the half-human, half-Vulcan Star Trek character. For many younger artists, self-representation also means selling their work outside the formal networks of the artworld. They have a forebear in Sully, who lived and worked outside the modernisms that developed in New Mexico and Oklahoma (though without the benefit of the internet’s virtual space).

Becoming Mary Sully is a first book on an obscure artist by a scholar who has not previously written art history. Much of Deloria’s writing is painfully formalistic, full of descriptions about where the eye goes and what the viewer experiences. Deloria also provides sweeping summaries of Modernism, sometimes little more than lists of divergent movements. And while the book potentially changes our understanding of its period, it also risks duplicating the reductive and pathologizing approaches of academic history. When faced with work by women and people of color, art historians tend to search for themes of race, gender, and sexuality. Art historian David Lubin, for instance, insists that Robert Duncanson’s landscapes reveal the artist’s racial longing and confusion. Duncanson went mad, he writes, because he felt psychologically torn between his African and European heritages; forget that Duncanson was also a house-painter who had likely inhaled toxic levels of lead. Deloria similarly essentializes Sully as a Native woman, claiming that her work “revealed something of the complicated cultural and psychological world” of the artist herself. He reads her as she reads the subjects of her “personality prints,” through popular contemporary discourses on psychology and personality. In Sully’s use of motion and color, Deloria sees synesthesia. In other moments, he speculates that her inner world may have included reactive depression or bipolar disorder. He splits her personality by linking it to the “Double Woman” of Dakota cosmology; her artist name describes a shy and private person, her birth name suggests a public and outgoing figure. Where Lubin’s reading fails to see the ideological labor that Duncanson did on behalf of Indian removal, Deloria’s reading misses Sully’s potential as an early Indigenous feminist.

Sully and her sister, Ella, certainly experienced the intergenerational trauma of colonization and trying to adapt to a world that saw them as living fossils. As academic and artist, they were custodians of Dakota tradition, language, and customs, though neither was adequately recognized in her lifetime. At the same time, they were lifelong companions and savvy survivors; in Deloria’s own account, they emphasized Sully’s mental health to ask relatives and associates for money. Sully played up her Indian identity as a “Sioux girl” for exhibitions of her work. Ella was known to sell manufactured trinkets as authentic Indian goods at her lectures. Neither sister had children and Deloria hints that neither was straight. While these conditions may have placed them – especially Sully – on the edges of society, the sisters also crafted an Indian futurity beyond genealogy or tradition, not as tokens of Indigenous women, but as early Indigenous feminists. Their lives and work presage the queer, trans, and femme Indigenous radicals who have led recent resistance movements like Idle No More and #NoDAPL.

Mary Sully. Photo from Philip Deloria’s collection.

Deloria’s book is a beginning. It exists, per its own title, toward an American Indian Abstract: inviting further investigation into Sully’s work while opening the possibility for an alternative American Indian art history. Rather than living prior to, or on the edge of, civilization, Deloria, via Sully, reminds us that Indigenous people have always been active co-producers of American culture. Indigenous feminists who lead organizations like the Red Nation or Indigenous Goddess Gang likely don’t crave this recognition from a nation that has been manifestly hostile to their life’s work. And, yet, they might also share the radical premise of the American Indian Abstract. It is an aesthetic of survival that provides instructions for the future – not to revitalize an overdetermined Indigeneity of tradition, but to act on the knowledge that American culture depends on Native land and life. Indigenous people can take whatever they want.

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