Paul Apodaca calls his small office in a remote corner of Bowers Museum “The Eagle’s Nest.” The fanciful tag has nothing to do with his Navajo-Mexican ancestry nor with his role as the museum’s curator of folk art, but is simply a reference to the pair of stuffed bald eagles mounted over his modest desk.
Nevertheless, the majestic birds that are the national symbol seem to be keeping watch over the inauspicious headquarters from which Apodaca is waging a quiet battle for better understanding among the general population about the art, culture and the problems of native Americans.
For Apodaca, the battlefields of 1986 are museums, classrooms, television sets and movie screens.
He recently won recognition as part of the team behind “Broken Rainbow,” the independently produced film that won this year’s Academy Award for best feature-length documentary.
The project, for which Apodaca scored the music and worked as a consultant, explored the impact of a 1974 law enacted by Congress to relocate more than 10,000 Navajos who have lived on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona.
Ostensibly a solution to an alleged land dispute between Navajos and Hopis dating back to an 1882, the law in the film makers’ view is simply a convenient way to remove Indians and pave the way for development of mineral and energy reserves on the reservation.
“As corny as it sounds, it really was one from the heart,” Apodaca, 34, said during an interview earlier this week at the museum. “The end we had hoped for was not an award, but to bring people greater enlightenment on the subject. To also get such recognition is a knockout.”
The film, which will be shown today and Sunday at the Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica (1332 2nd St.), illustrates Apodaca’s philosophy of making an impact through teamwork.
“If each of us has his little effect, maybe we can rescind that law,” said Apodaca, who was born in Los Angeles and raised in Orange County. “Individually, none of us could make that happen.”
“Broken Rainbow” wasn’t Apodaca’s first experience in visual media. Since 1981, he’s also been the producer-host of “Native America,” a weekly cable television show carried by Cablevision of Orange.
Apodaca won a Media Award from the Orange County Arts Alliance for the show, which also figured prominently in his selection as the 1985 winner of the Orange County Human Relations Commission Human Rights Award, the first artist and first native American to win.
The program goes out to several thousand subscribers in Orange, but is only sporadically available to residents of other Orange County communities. Apodaca said he simply doesn’t have the time to physically deliver copies of the tape to other cable systems.
“There’s no way cable can duplicate the distribution of network television,” he said. “So for that reason, I haven’t tried. But we have sent tapes to the American Indian Resource Library in Los Angeles, schools, museums and different educational programs. We’ve tried to get the tape to people who would be most interested.” One of the longest-running public access shows in Orange County, “Native America” was created “for highly idealistic reasons--not for profit--so I foot the bill. That’s why it stays on the air. Any good commercial show would have folded a long time ago,” he said with a laugh.
In his post as Bowers curator of folk art, which he has held since September, Apodaca finds that native American artists face the added barrier of having their work labeled as “crafts” rather than “art.” That, Apodaca said, is just another example of a long history of a Euro-American cultural bias.
“One of the challenges I’ve had as an artist is defining terms like ‘art,’ ‘folk art’ and ‘fine art,’ ” Apodaca said. “All the elements that go into defining fine art are there in native arts if you are trained to see them. But because of cultural blindness, sometimes they are not recognized.
“That means that Indian artists can’t get grants as artists or bookings; they can’t sell their works in galleries and won’t get recognition as artists. The same thing happens with Chinese, Japanese and African artists. It’s a very narrow view of art. People need to broaden their perspective enough to realize that all human art is art.”
Before he was appointed curator of folk art, Apodaca was an artist-in-residence at the museum. His mission, he said, is “to expose people to information about what is for many a first-time experience. Since Americans are deciding the fate of native Americans, they should have that information.”
Such information, in the form of statistics that Apodaca reels off automatically, can be startling. For example, he said that California--not Arizona--has the largest Indian population and most reservations in the country, while Orange County’s estimated Indian population of 12,000 is greater than that of 25 states.
“There’s a tremendous gap between reality and the perceived reality, just in terms of population numbers. So how many people are really aware of the problems of Indians in the Mojave desert? The answer is very few,” he said. “That’s why I’m working in the museum, in education and in the media.”
Apodaca is making his presence felt in education as one of the editors of elementary school textbooks on American history, which he said are “getting better” but still have room for improvement in their depictions of American Indians.
“I’d like to rewrite the state textbooks,” he said, “but at least editing them I can expunge some prejudicial information.”
A sand painter and musician trained in numerous other art forms through apprenticeships with master Indian artists, Apodaca is helping Bowers chief curator Armand Labbe prepare a fall exhibit of South American ceramics predating the arrival of Columbus. He is also collecting traditional music of Southern California Indian tribes, which he said has never been catalogued, for an exhibit titled “Bird Songs of California” scheduled for 1987.
Apodaca’s only complaint about the numerous activities and positions he’s assumed is that he doesn’t have as much time to devote to his own artistic endeavors.
“It does take time away,” he said. “But if my ability to interpret the art form helps further the art form, I don’t mind.”