June 15, 2009

Review of Unconquered: Allan Houser

Unconquered: Allan Houser and the Legacy of One Apache FamilySpanning from the 1860s through today, the Houser/Haozous story is a journey exploring the incarceration of a people, growth brought on by freedom, and a family's personal expression of these experiences through art. Recently released as Prisoners of War, Sam and Blossom Haozous passed down oral traditions of the Apache people to their son Allan Houser. These shared memories molded his artwork, and in turn helped him become one of the 20th Century's most important artists. Allan then passed these same family experiences down to his own sons who are fulfilling their destinies as the next generation of Native American artists. In the end, the American Dream is alive in the strength of this one Apache family's legacy.Inspired Art, Unconquered Allan Houser

By Bryan Beasley
(from the 2009 Newport Beach Film Festival)
When I was first asked by the Oklahoma History Center to direct a documentary film about the Native American artist Allan Houser, I was incredibly flattered. I grew up in Oklahoma, and Houser's talent had been brought to my attention in high school, but his fame was over shadowed by the legends of other favorite sons of Oklahoma, such as Will Rogers and Mickey Mantle. After a quick Google search, I learned just how important Houser's art was to the state. He had created a thirty-foot statue that stood in front of the State Capital and his painting "Sacred Rain Arrow" graced Oklahoma license plates. I soon realize that this little film would become an educational exploration of my home state's history.

Unconquered: Allan Houser and the Legacy of One Apache Family was my first venture into the world of documentary film, and it didn't take me long before I understood why this story had to be told. Allan Houser's father, Sam Haozous, was a so called "wild" Apache and nephew of Geronimo. For his first fifteen years, young Sam was free to roam the lands now known as New Mexico and Arizona with his tribe, the Warm Springs Chiricahua Apache. This all came to an end September 4th, 1886, when Geronimo surrendered to the U.S. Army. The brutality of the "Indian Wars" forced the U.S. Government to take extreme measures, and they quickly imprisoned the Apache people. Sent away to Florida and then Alabama, the tribe finally landed in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. These men, women and children were incarcerated for 27 years until an entire generation had died. Sam and his young wife, Blossom, were among the few to survive. Once freed, they changed their name from "Haozous" to the non-Indian "Houser" and immediately started a family. Allan Houser would be the first of his tribe to be born into freedom.

I was completely unaware that such a horrible event had taken place in my own home state. Every high school in the state has one classroom devoted to Oklahoma History, but this past stain is rarely discussed. That reason alone merited the making of a film, but then I found the true humanity in this story. Incredibly, Sam and Blossom did not hold animosity toward their captors; instead, they used storytelling and song to resurrect the glory of the Apache past. A young Allan Houser soaked up these stories of hunting buffalo and the historic battles fought by the great Chief Mangas Coloradas. He would translate these tales into rough drawings on lined school paper or, much to his mother's dismay, carve them into a good bar of soap.

As Allan grew, his talent became quite evident, and he soon left for the Santa Fe Indian School to study art. It was here that he first tasted the racism that fell on many Native Americans. His non-Indian teacher, Dorothy Dunn, taught him to focus solely on "Indian Art" that could be sold at craft fairs. There wasn't any true art history education, so Allan took advantage of the school's resources to work in all artistic media. After graduation, Allan moved to Los Angeles and took in the city's many museums, soaking up all the art and culture he hadn't been taught in school.

Allan got his big break when he learned about a design competition for a war memorial that was to be built at the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, to honor all fallen Indian soldiers. Allan submitted his ideas and won the competition. He assured the jury that he was, indeed, well versed in sculpting large marble, but the truth was that he had no formal training as a sculptor. Despite his lack of experience and the absence of proper tools, he transformed a massive block of Cararra marble into the captivating seven-foot-tall statue entitled "Comrade in Mourning." It was his first true sculpture, and it captured the grace and pride of the Native American people.

"Comrade in Mourning" was a true representation of his Apache heritage, which was known to Allan only from the oral traditions passed to him from his parents. He quickly realized this would be the soul of his work. Allan would stay true to himself and over his lifetime create a menagerie of masterpieces, becoming the most important Native American artist of his time. His art has gone on to inspire generation after generation of artists. I found that spending time with Allan's work brought me an unparalleled amount of inspiration. I hope, in this film, I can bring that same inspiration to my audience.
Comment:  Beasley's article and the trailer give a good idea of what Unconquered is about. Part of the film covers Houser's people and parents and part covers his children and legacy. The rest is about him.

Since the film come from the Houser Foundation and features his family members, it indulges in a bit of puffery. I would've liked to hear more of a critical evaluation of Houser's work. But it's a fine documentary--definitely worth watching if you're interested in Indian history and art.

For more on the subject, see Native Documentaries and News.

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