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Oral History Teaches How To Navigate The Present


The Southwest Oral History Conference starts this weekend – normally it’s an in-person event, but this year it’s virtual because of the pandemic.

One of the guests in the lineup is Jack Malotte, a Western Shoshone painter and illustrator whose work combines Native American traditions with contemporary themes.

“When I do stuff, I try and use local stories because every place has a different story,” he said.

As an example, one of his most well-known works is a depiction of the Cave Rock tunnel in Lake Tahoe. The rock is a sacred place for Washoe Tribe members. Ceremonies and prayers were performed there for the health of the lake. 

However, a tunnel was built through the rock, against the wishes of the tribe, to accommodate the highway. Now, members of the tribe don't pray for the lake. 

"The only reason the lake was clean because someone was up there praying for it," he said.

Malotte said he thought of the tunnel as a shot through the heart and the painting went from there. 

Malotte admits he didn't listen to his elders when he was younger, but now he is making up for lost time by listening to stories from the people that he knows.

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Currently, he's working on a series about the massacres of indigenous people in Nevada. So, he's talking to people about the stories that have been passed down to them through the years.

At the conference, he’ll be talking about how the oral history of the Great Basin has influenced his work with his mentor, Jean LaMarr.

“I knew how to do murals but I didn’t know how to do them right until I worked with her and learned different techniques,” he said.

Malotte will be joined in the conference by fellow artist Fawn Douglas.

“I think listening to the elders and listening to the oral traditions that are passed on is really important," Douglas told KNPR's State of Nevada.

She, like Malotte, didn't listen to her elders when she was younger, but now, she is making a point to listen. Douglas said there are so many stories about the land and the people's connection to it.

For instance, an elder from the Paiute tribes in Utah tells a story through song of how fiery rivers ran down the mountains and how the Paiute people saw it.

“How long ago was that? And how is that not a testament to how long our people have been on this land?” Douglas said.

Douglas believes it is important to listen to the elders because their stories can help us during this fraught time. 

She noted that tribes in California told stories of how they would burn parts of the forest to avoid large fires, but apparently those stories weren't listened to because years of fire suppression and a lack of controlled burns are partly to blame for the large fires burning in the state.



Jack Malotte, artist and enrolled member of the South Fork Band of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone; Fawn Douglas, artist and organizer, Las Vegas Paiute Tribe

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