We Were Always Here by Rick Bartow

Part One


The art by Rick Bartow was unveiled in 2012 at the national Museum of the American Indian. We were always Here is a sculpture made up of two red cedar poles that are carved by the artist from old cedar poles. The art is perfectly captured in the name given as it articulates the persecution that the Native Americans suffered at their own home. The age of the cedar tree, thought to be 500 years old is symbolic for the long duration in which the Indians have been living in America. At the top of the two cedar trees are carvings from planks thought to be well over 1000 years thus emphasizing the duration further. In the 17th Century, immigrants, largely Europeans, invaded America and started driving the Indians from their land. The initial displacement was forceful and involved violence because the Europeans wanted the fertile land on which the Indians had lived for many years. Sensing rejection, the government, largely consisting of Europeans passed laws to drive away the Indians thereby leaving the land for the whites to plough. These sufferings are well captured in the art by Rick Bartow.



The choice of the medium of a sculpture towing above the human height is well in order and represents the resilience of the Native Americans. It is meant to proclaim that the people are still there even after the persecutions. The location of the art is also perfectly chosen because the museum details the history of the Native Americans. The intentions of the artist are therefore well articulated by the sculpture as everyone can see it. In addition, the towing figures in the sculptures are symbolic to mean that people are looking up to the figure for both remembrance and hope.



The influences that led the artist to carve out the sculptures can be traced to his Native American heritage and the desire to associate with his traditions. The artist is of Native American decency and has read a lot of history on the persecution that his ancestors went through under the hands of the white Americans. In addition, the artist’s educational background is also a source of influence that is evident in the art. Rick Bartow graduated with a degree in secondary arts education from Western Oregon University in 1969 (Dobkins, 20012). In addition, the many years that he served in the Vietnam War could be an influence from the persecution that he saw. It could be that his work is to express what many people did not witness.



The art by Rick Bartow is effective in portraying the message that it was intended to. The towing nature of the artwork is a national heritage that will be remembered for many years to come. Children from future generations will have a lot of history to learn from the art. In addition, the art maintains the history of the Native Americans in the form of a sculpture that communicates a lot even without writing. The theme of Rick Bartow’s artwork is expression and independence and this is well captured in his artwork. There is a feeling of freedom of expression in communicating the evils that happened to a people so many years ago. Through these sculptures, the artist was able to communicate what was not possibly done before even in writing. Moreover, the choice of the National Museum of The Native American is an ideal one as it associates with the history of the people that were persecuted. The use of art in making political messages is quite effective because art is a peaceful and silent form of communication. The choice of the art portrays love and a lack of hatred for the oppressors. In so doing, the artist wins the hearts of Americans across all cultures and traditions. Eventually, the art is a unifying factor that brings the American people together.


Part Two


Through the art, Rick Bartow intends to articulate the suffering that these people went through including the deportation of the native Indians and their transfer to lands deemed less fertile. During the deportation, more than 4000 people lost their lives and their property was looted by the white settlers. The art therefore strives to capture these sufferings and yet show the resilience of the Native Americans. More importantly, the fact that these people still survived the hostilities is captured in the two carved animal faces at the top (Hartz et al., 2014). The positioning of the human faces serves to show that human will is stronger than power in the face of adversaries. The message is too loud for anyone to ignore it; that the Native Americans did not deserve that kind of suffering and yet they survived. The art is effective in capturing, albeit in summary, the artist’s theme of oppression and overcoming the same.



The artist identifies with the history of the Native Americans in making the sculpture. The message could not have been communicated better by anyone else than by a person who shares in the history of their people. In this sense, Rick Bartow was the ideal candidate for the job of communicating that message. Born in 1946, approximately 40 years after the end of the Native American’s deportation, it is possible that Rick Bartow grew up listening to stories about his people’s persecution. The artist might have developed interest in studying the history of his people and the eventual result is evident in the sculpture erected at the National Museum of the American Indian. The sculpture nevertheless depicts not a people that are frustrated but ones that are happy and resilient despite the suffering they endured. The sculpture is a source of hope to the many Native Indians that still continue to suffer discrimination at the mercy of white Americans.



The community in which Rick Bartow was raised is also a source of influence that can be traced in the artwork. For instance, the artist’s community built ladders, stools, canoes and even houses and this was the first contact of Rick Bartow with art. In addition, the meanings of the animals at the top of the poles are symbolic and represent the importance of earth and the environment. The bear and the raven, the two animals represented, both have a relationship with water and are seen looking down to the salmon fish in the water. Moreover, the design of the sculptures is representative of the welcoming nature of the Native American culture to which the artist is party to. The effect of the Native American culture is therefore visible in the design of the sculptures and their positioning at the entry of the national Museum for the American Indian.



Rick Bartow’s art is effective in articulating the issues in the society that the artist intends to communicate. The artist is particularly known for his use of animals in demonstrating the aspects of humankind. The relationship between animals and humans is well explored in the art that Rick Bartow presents and ‘We Were Always Here’ is no exception. The style of six legs is particularly effective in shaping the characteristics of humans in the shape of animals. Through the style, the artist communicates the issues affecting humans through the use of a wide diversity of animals. Eventually, the artist is effective in articulating issues that humans would not have otherwise articulated by themselves.

Conceptually, the artist is effective in the fact that his choice of art shapes the perceptions of society with respect to the cultural background of American Indians. Effectively, the artist defines the picture that the audience has with regard to the issues affecting society. In this art, Rick Bartow was articulating an issue that happened many years ago and which may have probably been erased in human’s minds. By revisiting the issuer in form of art, the artist is effective in striking a sense of memory among the audience. Ultimately, the artist touches the consciousness of the audiences thereby making them relate to the atrocities that happened back then. Anyone who sees the art relates to the suffering of the Native Americans and feels pity for the people. The art therefore acts as a memory for the events that happened years ago affecting the Native Americans

Politically, the art is effective in articulating the political issues affecting the Native Americans. The advantage of using art to articulate political issues is that art is a silent way of communicating. Therefore the artist manages to air grievances without pointing fingers or raising political temperatures. The political leadership of the land is touched and can relate to the atrocities that were committed against the Native Americans. The manner in which such political issues stand out through the art is evidence of the effectiveness of art in articulating political issues.

The effectiveness of the art is evidenced in the cultural articulation of the issues. Rick Bartow applies the cultural aspects of the Native Indians in articulating the issues affecting the community. Effectively, the cultural background of the Native Indians is evident in the art. More important is the fact that the artist if of the same cultures that he represents in the art. An example of the cultural effectiveness of the art is the culture of welcoming other people is evident in the art. The art is towed above the gate of the National Museum, of the American Indian thus welcoming the visitors to the museum. Instantly, one relates to the culture of the Native Americans when they see the art.



Rick Bartow’s past work with the Maori art has shaped the path that the artist has taken in relation to his work. In fact, it has been reported that Rick Bartow is inspired by Maori art and this is quite evident in his works. In the ‘We Were Always Here’, the aspects of Maori art are evident and a relationship can be drawn. The art by Rick Bartow is similar to the Maori art in that it uses Maori designs in the carvings at the top. Both the two arts have carvings of different objects. While Rick Bartow’s art has two carvings of a bear and a raven, the Maori art is a carving of a human face. There is a difference in the type of carving in that one uses animal carvings while the latter uses human face carving.

Another similarity between the two arts is the fact that they both identify with a certain culture. While ‘We Were Always Here’ identifies with the culture of the Native Americans, the Maori art is representative of the culture of the Maori people. Moreover, both arts use ancient wood in making the carvings. Another similarity is in the chisel marks made on both arts. The ‘We Were Always Here’ art has the chisel markings on the tall poles on which the carvings are placed. In contrast, the Maori art has the chisel markings on the surface behind the human face.



Hartz, J., Bartow, R., & Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. (2014). Rick Bartow: Things you know but cannot explain.

Dobkins, R. J., & Hallie Ford Museum of Art (Salem). (2002). Rick Bartow. Salem, OR: Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University

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