Jack Wolfe's interest in and affinity toward Native American communities and cultures began in childhood, when he and his sister spent summers in the Lake Tahoe area, often visiting a Washo community where they played with other children and listened to stories. Jack’s concern with the historical and contemporary oppression of Native Americans by the United States, including acts of genocide and cultural genocide (e.g., forced assimilation; proscriptions on use of languages and cultural practices; adoption of abducted or removed Native American children into white families – a practice that persisted through much of the 20th century), the breaking of federal treaties, and exploitation of Native American land, among other acts of overt and structural violence, persisted throughout his life. Through the 1970's and 1980's, he painted a series of large portraits of Native Americans. Each of them, measuring approximately 72” x 72,” presents a contemporary Native American making direct eye contact with the viewer. As with other political works, one of Jack’s primary goals was to create an emotional and aesthetic experience that would move viewers toward recognition of the oppression inflicted by their dominant culture. His hope was to promote greater compassion, connection, and respect among dominant group members for Native American individuals and communities in their defense of their human rights.
Wolfe painted three portraits of Leonard Peltier, an AIM (American Indian Movement) leader jailed after an unjust legal process, depicting him first upon entry to prison in 1978 and over the course of his over thirty years of incarceration.
Three AIM Members
This triptych portrays three AIM members: Dennis Banks (center), Russell Means (right), and Michelle Means (left). In Russell Means’ sunglasses, and above him, Jack painted a reflection of casualties of the Wounded Knee massacre of 150 Oglala Sioux by the U.S. Calvary in 1890. Above the left panel we see The Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973, which was a battle of U.S. armed Federal forces against Native American activists. The background of the center panel depicts the disastrous strip-mining of Native American lands, emphasizing the exploitation and environmental degradation perpetrated by American companies such as the Peabody Mining Co.