House/Home, A Work in Progress: Artist Statement


As I travel across the country and internationally I am struck by the pervasive presence of extreme economic inequality—a condition that seems to be worsening, especially here in America.

The seemingly eclectic image selection in this project is meant to draw attention to this pervasive inequality and reflect on what this says about the ethical choices of our society. Few situations reveal this inequality more than housing and the constructs we call home.

For almost twenty-five years I have regularly visited and worked on the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, and more recently, the Navajo Nation in Arizona. The more I learn, the more I am troubled by the injustices experienced by indigenous tribes, an outcome of historical, cultural, and economic practices converging with the dominant society surrounding them.

The non-traditional housing scattered across reservation lands has never seemed just or fair. A few years ago, the federal government reclaimed the trailers made to assist Katrina victims, deeming them too poisonous for habitation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, then decided to “generously” donate them to Native American communities for the cost of transportation. Upon learning that my friends were thrilled to be purchasing new homes for $3000—homes that were deemed uninhabitable, I was embarrassed once again by the government’s disregard. Sadly, I understood that the government and society were continuing the trail of injustice against indigenous peoples as so often happens throughout the world. When I mention this situation to others, their responses often show just how many people believe indigenous tribes live a wealthy life because of the stories they hear regarding a few tribes, namely the Shakopee Mdewakanton (Minnesota) and Pequots (Connecticut), whom have the most successful casinos. They have no idea how in reality, that the majority of reservation communities, the poorest in the country, are living in third world conditions.

When looking through the images you will also see torn flags from a Navajo Veteran’s cemetery and missiles from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. To me these raise additional skewed values, compounding our relationship to injustices. For example, during the first Gulf War I recall the contention that the American flag represented freedom and support of the war effort. It was stated that if we did not support the war, we did not care about those fighting for our country and were not patriotic. I want to believe our values stand for more than the unquestioned support of the federal government’s policies, and that it is acceptable to care about our country, its citizens, and others throughout the world without agreeing with such policies.

It is wrong to link freedom to capitalism, in which profit is considered more important than any other aspect of life. In this exhibit I strive to say that we can, and must, progress to a place where fairness and justice for all is the true definition of freedom and decency. It asks viewers to engage in a continuing dialogue about what is really of value.

John Willis

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