News From Native California Volume 31, Issue 3 - Page 57

With Respect James Luna February 9, 1950–March 4, 2018 thank you for seeing the Native narrative as a sunrise For you have brightened the pathway for so many to see Thank you for the stories upon that path we walk For you have made us remember who we are —Raymond Lafferty years ago, the living room of his La Jolla Indian Res- ervation home sported a lounge chair that was a woman’s high-heeled shoe. I never sat in the damn thing. It looked subversive, ungainly, ready to topple. What Indian guy uses a woman’s shoe for furniture? But James Luna, performance artist, was bigger than categories, larger than convention, impossible to typecast. The shoe was a joke, like the universe was divine laughter. His whole life was performance art intended to open your eyes, provoke thought, encourage enthusiasm, incite won- der, make you laugh. We first met in the late 1970s at a Rincon fiesta. Back then people called him Peepers. I’d heard of him, but didn’t know him. It was late, the peon games done for, the fire in embers, but we stood against a pickup bed, drank beer, and talked art. We discovered like-mindedness. We’d both been to college, rare for Natives in those days. Back then, most Rez conversations involved fast Fords, fighting, or fornication. A conversation about Impressionism was unexpected. I mean it was fiesta, there might have been a drunk couple making a fiesta baby four cars over. But James didn’t put on airs; he wasn’t an aesthete. Some- times he was misunderstood by locals; not everyone got him, but that didn’t dissuade him. He remained artful, but down to earth. He mingled in all worlds. He became great friends with the Nelson brothers of La Jolla Reservation, especially Willie Nelson, maybe the most well-known Indian in Southern California. Not because Wil- lie was a Rez celebrity, but because, as James said, “He was a ‘Real Guy.’” A blue-collar Native with a thousand Rez stories. An international traveller, James appreciated the good things in life. He’d sip a glass of vintage wine, or make fast work of a dive-bar frosty. A foodie, he’d look for the hidden Basque restaurant when on the road, or Santa Maria barbecue, or the chili-hot Mexican/Native food he grew up with. He liked saucy Italian cuisine; he liked a Spam sandwich with a yellow chili. He liked people. At his house high in the La Jolla hills (from his front porch you could see the Pacific some thirty miles away) he enjoyed throwing impromptu feasts. Maybe he would pit-barbecue some beef and some pork butt. Melvin “Johnny Pine” Nelson would bring a big pot of fresh- boiled beans. A few dozen homemade tortillas might be purchased from the neighbor lady down the road. And there would be salads and side dishes galore. People got stuffed, myself included. At these functions you met folks: Gary Farmer of acting fame might be having a beer in the kitchen; Sheila Skinner, the fetching young artist who was performing in his “Ishi” piece, graced his table; Sherwin Bitsui, the Navajo poet, might be reading his stuff on the deck; painters from Can- ada, L.A. artists, professors, lawyers, musicians, carpenters, professional drinkers. As long as you behaved yourself, you were welcome. Quiet nights, James listened to a cool Catalina radio station that played laid-back jazz and new indie stuff. When he heard something he liked, he wrote down the name and bought the CD. He preferred CDs to iPods; he preferred music he could lay his hands on, music with liner notes. So he often introduced us to new music, memorable music—his tastes ran to all genres. He gave me my first Mavericks CD. When in our cups, we’d talk of women we’d loved and lost, of mistakes made. We’d talk of women we hoped for in the future, and how this time we’s do things differently, and things would be better. There were always good intentions. James weren’t no angel. He had an ego. He could be a bit of a rake. Plus he had a cantankerous streak. He didn’t suffer fools. He was demanding about his art venues. He wanted conditions right for his performances. He insisted on good lighting, clear acoustics, sensible staging. If things were off, people would hear about it. But he was generous as hell in spirit. Not just once, but twice he gifted me with Stetson cowboy hats. I still wear them. He wasn’t stingy with knowledge or his influence in art circles either. He worked with younger artists to give them a leg up, to get them a gallery show or into an art residency. If he believed in your willingness to work, he did what he could to help. SPR IN G 2 018 ▼ 55