Episcopal church seeks 'spiritual harmony' between cultures in upcoming exhibit

Mar. 18—There's perhaps no better way to bridge the gap between two communities than through art.

St. Mark's Episcopal Church understands the impact art can have, and that's why Cheyenne's oldest religious congregation partnered with CARAVAN and the Wyoming State Museum to host GROUNDED, a global traveling exhibition of High Plains Native American Art.

While bringing more art to the city — especially Indigenous art — is always welcome, the real goal of GROUNDED is to strengthen the relationship between St. Mark's and the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe tribes.

"This exhibition itself, of course, is focused on Native American culture, and is really very much one where, in a sense, it's about embracing Indigenous wisdom so that we can live well into the future," said Paul-Gordon Chandler, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming. "We're especially focused on our connectedness to the Earth and everything that lives upon the Earth.

"What our native sisters and brothers would call a 'sacred harmony.'"

Chandler is also the founder of CARAVAN, a program seeking to achieve "transformation through the arts." In this case, "transformation" refers to increasing connectivity between different cultures.

Sharing the art of different cultures has the ability to circumnavigate the differences between two groups to facilitate a better understanding of one another. Art, as Chandler sees it, can address sensitive topics in an effective, non-aggressive way.

In the American West, this is particularly poignant in regard to the troublesome history between Indigenous peoples and religious American settlers. Chandler is proud of the fact that the art included in GROUNDED is particularly uncompromising on this history.

"Some focus more on their traditions and cultural heritage, but there is a profound spirituality throughout it all, since they actually don't separate the material from the physical and spiritual," Chandler said. "It's all kind of one harmonious existence together.

"In that sense, they're enabling us a window into their culture and heritage and sacred traditions toward fostering wholeness and health in our world."

There are 15 Indigenous artists featured in the show, each contributing two pieces of art to hang in the State Museum. The artists hail from Ho-Chunk, Blackfoot, Northern Arapaho, Oglala Sioux, Crow, Cheyenne and Lakota Tribes.

GROUNDED has already made stops in several locations throughout Wyoming, including Casper and Lander. These events were met with resounding enthusiasm and interest from the local communities, and the hope is that Cheyenne will offer a similar reception.

But holding the show in Cheyenne offers a special tie to local history.

On March 31, a Capitol Avenue Bronze Project statue of one of the most respected Native American leaders in history, Chief Washakie of the Shoshone people, will be officially unveiled and receive a blessing.

Descendants of Chief Washakie will be in attendance to speak about the importance of the event, as he was also an important member of St. Mark's in his time.

To elevate the experience, residents of the Wind River Reservation will be performing in a drum circle during the opening event at the State Museum.

A "cedaring" — a traditional Native American blessing ceremony — will also be held to bless the artwork and those in attendance.

"It's not Rick Veit painting a picture of Native American things, it's really lifting up Native Americans, celebrating who they are and bringing that message throughout the entire world," the Rev. Rick Veit of St. Mark's said about GROUNDED. "(Attendees) will hear from from the artists themselves.

"It's not something that we're imposing on (the artists). But we're trying to give a platform to really lift up their culture even more in this new relationship."

The church isn't looking to pay lip service to the cause — GROUNDED comes as a piece of a larger puzzle to connect with Wyoming's Indigenous tribes. A portion of the church's $100 million national endowment is put toward improving infrastructure on East Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe reservations in Wyoming.

Viet acknowledges the church's history of imposing religion upon Indigenous peoples. The hope is that GROUNDED serves to address the similarities between the two groups today, rather than the differences of the past.

"What it means to me is trying to expand that way of love with different cultures, and especially cultures that have had a difficult history," said Veit. "We continue to try and celebrate that relationship now so that it becomes more a part of who we are, rather than, 'Hey, let's just evangelize all the Native Americans and force them into our religion.'"

Will Carpenter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's Arts and Entertainment/Features Reporter. He can be reached by email at wcarpenter@wyomingnews.com or by phone at 307-633-3135. Follow him on Twitter @will_carp_.