Nearly 15 percent of Americans live in poverty. On a Native American reservation, that figure climbs to 28 percent. For Gail Bruce, an artist who has worked as an activist for Native American educational causes, it’s almost inconceivable, until you see it. “If you haven’t been to a reservation, you cannot believe it,” she says. “The poverty, the devastation—it is so horrible.”
And it’s not just income. Drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse are widespread, and children are twice as likely as any other race to die before turning 24 years old. “People are doing great work abroad,” Bruce says, “but they forget there is a community at home that needs help.”
In June 2014, President Obama visited the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, making him only the fourth sitting president to visit a Native American reservation. That same week, four high school students on the reservation committed suicide. “He was devastated by what he saw,” says Bruce, who was invited by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama to a conference last April for the Generation Indigenous initiative, which focuses on improving the lives of Native youth. “Michelle gave this wonderful speech and the first thing she said was, ‘As long as I’ve known Barack, I’ve never seen him cry in public until we went to Standing Rock.’ Obama saw it. We’ve fucked these people over so badly.”
Generations of governmental betrayal and social oppression have led to a full-blown humanitarian crisis that Bruce says is dissolving not only their humanity but also their heritage. “When I first got involved over 30 years ago, you would ask an Indian kid, ‘Do you know who Sitting Bull is? Do you know Geronimo?’ and they didn’t know about them,” she says. “They were heroes! One of my favorite t-shirts has a photo of Geronimo and his band of Indians and underneath it says ‘Protecting Homeland Security since 1492.’ These were courageous, heroic people who were fighting for their families, their land and their lifestyle, and we punished them severely for it. We saw them as criminal.”
Since the early 1980s, Bruce has worked toward taking their painful past into a prosperous future through education. “I think it is the only way people see things out in the world,” she says. “If you don’t have any education, you don’t know what’s happening in the rest of the world. You don’t know what kinds of opportunities are available. It gives you chances.”
Born in Chicago in 1941 and raised in California, Bruce, whose father worked in the insurance business, was blessed with opportunity. Her path to Native American education activism involves a series of serendipitous events leading to two life-changing encounters, one with a Chumash Indian elder and another with a blonde soap actress.
As a high school student in El Segundo, California, Bruce won a modeling contract after walking in her mother’s charity fashion show. Soon she had a plane ticket to New York City. “Back then agents would send everyone up to Vogue,” says Bruce, who, at 74, stands svelte at 5’8” with long grey hair. “You were simply clothes hangers, but if you caught Diana Vreeland’s eye, she would let you be photographed. One day, she looked over at me, grabbed my face, turned it both ways, and said, ‘Send her over to Penn.’ They sent me over to Irving Penn and he photographed me.” From there her modeling career took off, taking her to Europe to walk in runway shows for Chanel and others in the 1960s.
In and out of college during her modeling days, from Pepperdine University in Malibu to Hunter College in New York, Bruce ultimately earned a certificate of journalism from her final alma mater, UCLA. “I went to college for about five years but never got an official degree,” she says. “I had such an insatiable appetite for information. Every time I found a subject I was interested in, I would change my major. If it was psychology, then I was a pysch major, or if it was literature, I was a lit major. At one point I joined the tennis team and became an athletic major.”
In the early 1960s, Bruce appeared in the pages of Vogue, ELLE, Seventeen, Mademoiselle and Glamour, and caught the eye of the famed movie director, producer and screenwriter Howard Hawks. After doing one film together, the title Bruce won’t disclose (“I was terrible!”), Hawks discovered Bruce was taking acting classes. “He thought I had natural acting talent, which was totally not true,” she says. “I never had the burning desire to do acting, but I believe when you decide to do something, give it 100 percent. Then the moment you decide you don’t like it, stop immediately and do the next thing. If there is something in your life that isn’t working right for you or you’re not lit up, then you have to find something else to do.”
After stumbling into casting and styling for commercials, Bruce met her husband of over 45 years, Murray, and moved back to New York with him. At one point working with her husband became too much for Bruce, and she decided she needed to, as she says, “find myself in Paris,” but Murray convinced her to simply quit the business and pursue her own projects in New York. “I started painting because I didn’t know what else to do,” says Bruce, whose painting “White Hat” is part of MoMA’s graphics collection. Bruce paints everyday lifestyle scenes in flat, primitive shapes with strong horizon lines, which she then serigraphs into limited-edition prints. She is inspired by the work of Grandma Moses, Alex Katz, Irving Penn and Milton Avery, but a major influence came from a Chumash Indian elder she met in the early 1970s, Semu Huaute, who she calls Grandpa, and who, along with the actress Anne Sward Hansen, ignited her passion for Native American education activism.
Huaute was sheltering several activists on his compound in Los Padres in the wake of the American Indian Movement uprising in 1971 when Bruce first heard of him. “I was looking to do a photographic series of contemporary Indians and a friend of mine, who traded Indian jewelry, said I should meet Grandpa,” Bruce recalls. “She told me he was in Los Padres National Forest and gave me directions like, ‘Drive in for about five miles on this dirt trail and there is a rock and you turn right at the rock and then you drive for three miles and when you see three stones stacked on top of each other, make a left.’ Somehow I found it, and he agreed to see me.” Bruce continued to visit Huaute whenever she made it to California, which was around four times a year with Murray for his work. “I just loved the man, and I was learning about the heritage and culture, and I finally asked how I could help them. And he said, ‘Education. We need to educate our people.’”
Bruce’s painting allowed her to travel with Murray on location. “Half the paintings I did, I did in Howard Johnson motels,” jokes Bruce. On one particular job in Miami in the early 1970s, she met Hansen, later known for her work on the soap As The World Turns, and the two became instant friends. In 1979, when the energy crisis hit, hundreds of Native Americans froze to death in the plains. “Annie read about it in The New York Times, probably on page 20,” Bruce says. “So she decided to do a clothing drive.” Hansen was later welcomed back to Pine Ridge after the weather warmed and what she saw stuck with her: the tribal colleges were the center of the whole community. They provided the only daycare, the only alcohol and drug abuse program, and if there was any medicine at all on the reservation, it came through a nurse at the college. “When Anne came back to New York not knowing what to do, she called me knowing my relationship with Grandpa, and asked if I wanted to help. That was 30 years ago.”
Along with Hansen, Bruce became a founding board member of the American Indian College Fund, which provides student scholarships and support for the 34 accredited tribal colleges across the United States, and has long been recognized as one of the top charities by independent evaluators. She is a founder and creator of the Cultural Learning Centers Initiative for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, which built 29 Native American cultural centers at American Indian tribal colleges in 12 states. She is also involved with the Multicultural Audience Development Initiative of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and co-founded UNRESERVED, a nonprofit devoted to showcasing American Indian fashion and art by setting up mentorships and internships within those fields. Through UNRESERVED Bruce has put five students through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s summer intern program, hosted a Native American fashion show at Bryant Park, and curated a Native American art show at the Chelsea Art Museum.
“I still tell people, I’m trying to figure out what
I want to be when I grow up.”
— GAIL BRUCE
Currently Bruce is working with the American Indian College Fund and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium boards to assemble an alumni association for the tribal colleges; she hopes to track success stories and facilitate mentorships for next-generation graduates. This fall she is launching a media platform called Hip Silver, a lifestyle website and social network for the over-60 generation. “I still tell people, I’m trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up,” she says. “It changes all the time.”