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Artist uses drawings to make statements of unkept promises to Native Americans

John Gritts also includes subtle images of Native mascots with a slash through them. "You hear people say I’m not a mascot, I’m a person," said Gritts.

COLORADO, USA — Art has the power to make you feel, think, and reflect. John Gritts uses his art to make statements. The first one wasn’t planned, but it quickly became apparent in 1973. 

“There was six Native figures and they had a roach and some feathers and other regalia on, and I drew the picture but I left the men out, I didn’t draw their faces or their bodies or their hands or anything so these images were suspended,” said Gritts.

Credit: John Gritts
Drawing by John Gritts, 1973

That was the first of many purposely unfinished drawings the Cherokee artist created.

“There are many promises made to Native people, but they’re not kept,” he said. “From the government, from the church, from the state, wherever it’s from, it’s not kept so why should I finish anything if they’re not gonna finish what they promised us?” 

In some of his artwork, Gritts also includes Native mascots with a slash through them to denounce their use from various institutions. 

“Sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes its very subtle,” he said. “You hear people say I’m not a mascot, I’m a person.” 

Credit: KUSA
Drawing by John Gritts with a slash through the Native Mascot

In 1978 the powerful messages in the drawings made their way to the oval office. 

Art was something he did at nights and weekends after his sons were born. His full-time job was working in the financial aid office at Black Hills State University.  

During his time at the university, the university president and Tom Todd, director of elementary and secondary education, asked Gritts if he would create a drawing to take to President Jimmy Carter. He said yes. 

“The drawing I left it undone, and I hid a picture of a peanut in there in his honor, because he’s a peanut farmer.” 

“He took it with him and President Carter wouldn’t accept it. He said ‘If I’m going to accept this, I think I should meet the artist,’” said Gritts. 

On April 19, 1978, Gritts traveled to Washington, D.C., to present his drawing to the President of the United States. He left the drawing undone and told President Carter why he didn’t finish the piece. 

“Because of broken promises, promises that aren’t kept by treaty rights, whatever it is, it’s just unkept, and then the president took a step back and said ‘well maybe you can come back and finish it someday.’ I said ‘well, just call me.’ Of course he never called but, at least I got his attention and I made a statement to him.” 

Credit: KUSA
John Gritts presenting his drawing to President Jimmy Carter in 1978 Gritts points to the peanut he subtly drew.

>> Video below: John Gritts reflects on presenting his artwork to former president Jimmy Carter

While Gritts has been drawing since he was in elementary school, he said he draws only at nights and on weekends as an adult. His full-time job was in higher education. He was the director of Financial Aid at Black Hills State University in South Dakota for 18 years. He then spent nine years at the American Indian College Fund as a Program Officer. That was followed by two years at the Institute of American Indian Arts as Director of Admissions, Recruitment Records, and Financial Aid. He then spent nine years with the United States Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid. 

He loved those jobs because education was ingrained in him, Gritts said. 

“I think education is the key to everything. In many of the treaties that were signed by tribes and the United States, education was part of that treaty,” he said. 

Gritts’ home art studio is filled with gifts, artwork, and awards recognizing his work as an artist and an educator. He’s done art shows in New York City, South Dakota, and North Dakota. 

Today, Gritts is retired and resides in Golden, CO, with his wife Page and their two dogs. When asked how much time he spends creating art in his studio, he said, “Not enough.”

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