Samye Sampsel Burrus is an internationally recognized artist. She was an award-winning painter, sculptor, muralist, designer and an illustrator and author of many children's books. Her work has been exhibited and collected worldwide. Above all, she was a Cherokee woman and a citizen of the
Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Her life ended in May of this year after many years of troubling health problems.
Samye, called Sam Sam by friends and intimates, found unabated inspiration for her art in her Cherokee culture and
heritage. Though she struggled with the traces of European in her geneaology, she considered herself 100% Cherokee.
She disparaged the term "American Indian". She accepted " Native American" but she preferred "First People". One of the most relentless torments throughout her life was her suffering over the history of her people─from the first contact with the Taino through the horror of being
uprooted from their ancient home in North Carolina and death-marched to a reservation in Oklahoma. She once said:
"I can't bleed for my people like they bled for me. I only have endless tears."
The First People... there were an estimated 50 million living within the requirements and tributes of their environment in the Americas. When they first met European invaders, they were astonished. They never met other people who smelled so
bad, were so paranoid, and had no idea where they were. It took too long for The First People to realize that the invaders were brutal, humorless, and rapacious beyond understanding. And by then it was too late: the Europeans had brought three weapons that the First People were unable to defend against:
brutal, humorless, rapacious religion.
It is true that the scourge of African slavery terribly distorted the founding of the United States and that distortion continues to this day. However, it is the horrific genocide of the First People that is the culture-warping... "Original Sin."
I knew Sam Sam for over 30 years, as a dear friend and secret-sharer. I met her at the American Indian Center in San Francisco (now long gone) and later at the Red Earth Arts
Festival and Pow-Wow in Oklahoma. It was an amazing delight to watch her laughing and flitting through the crowds, exhibiting her work, hand-holding new and old aquaintances. And it was there that the "Black Elk Sings" incident occurred in which she played an important role and which I wrote about in this magazine Here.
In her later years, she added the Cherokee word "nannihe" to her signature. She wrote:
"So I'm getting into my old woman warrior warpath again. I realize that most Native white towns have a 'nannihe' or witch woman or trouble maker or medicine woman ha... and more white people come to them than the Natives. I wonder why that is. Maybe the Natives figure it out before
they need an elder. Hmmmmm."
She didn't die well, and sometimes she didn't live well, but as
SS. Burrus, Sam Sam expressed a talent and artistry that brought her rewards and honors and great pleasure. The same great pleasure she brought to her followers and collectors.
The troubles and pain are gone now, yet she lives on—in the memories of people who knew her, who loved her
and in her art.
This issue of Scene4 has the beginning of a retrospective of
The Art of SS. Burrus.
View the entire series Here