His tribe, the once wealthy and sovereign Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin Band of Snake Indian Tribes was decimated. The remaining 860,000 acres of their reservation had been stripped away by the United States government and turned into the Winema National Forest and a portion of the Fremont National Forest.
Tribal members were divided into two camps, the “withdrawing members” and the “remaining members.” Those who chose withdrawal were no longer tribal members. Each withdrawing person was paid $43,000 for reservation rights.
But arbitrary government rules created havoc. Within the families, some members were paid and others weren’t. The “remaining members” retained rights in a “trust” over which they had no control.
They had no land base. No status. No name. No recognition. No home. No help.
A people who had risen from the ashes of their past, settled the animosities between their three bands and worked for a future together, suddenly had no future. Twenty-eight percent of the tribe died by age 25. Fifty-two percent died by age 40. Of those deaths, 40 percent were alcohol related. Infant mortality was two and one-half times the statewide average.
It was 1963.
Jim Jackson remembers a lot of “bad things” about those days of termination. He doesn’t really talk much about it. But as you listen, you hear about shootings and alcohol. You hear that most of his friends “passed-on young.”
And you hear that it was nature and art that gave the young man a chance to have a life worth living.
By age 5, Jackson was modeling his toys out of clay. His dad, also something of an artist, encouraged him. Working with clay and wood, sometimes sculpting in stone, gave him a chance to “get away from things.” The soaring rock formations around his home in Klamath Falls spoke to him. Grandmother Rock, which the legends say deer and other animals gathered near for healing, helped the young boy heal as well.
Art wasn’t real big in rural Oregon in the 1970s. Logging, trucking and millwork – jobs he had been working all through high school, were about the only careers available. But after he graduated from Henley High, Jackson took a chance and left for the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.
“Just being in the area and seeing people making money off of artwork … where I came from I never really seen that,” Jackson says. “But after going to Santa Fe, with all of the galleries and artwork and the diversity of artists … it was a real eye-opener for me.”
He stayed a year, studying at the institute for six months. Convinced he had enough talent to make a career out of doing what he loved best, he moved back to Klamath Falls, and to Portland in 1984. Two more years in community college in Portland and Jackson was through with formal education. His self-taught skills were more than enough to carry him through.
At 22, he struck out as a full-time, self-employed sculptor. Working in clay, ceramic and bronze, he focused on bringing the spirits of the rocks he so loved to life. Emerging images of faces he once knew, friends long gone, leaped from the clay under his fingers as if they’d been locked away too long. The tragedy and hope and dignity of his own people were revealed in his art.
It was at this point Jackson realized part of his mission as an artist was to bring understanding of the travails of his people to the public eye.
“In my work I get to tell who the Klamath people were. … In my travels I get to teach people about my tribe and where they’re from and kind of give them the idea of the spirituality of rock and the things that are around them that they never really noticed.”
By 1986 Jackson had won the Portland Metropolitan Arts Commission One Man Show Award and won first-place in sculpture at the Dallas, Texas, American Indian Art Invitational.
Over the ensuing years, his bas relief masks and three dimensional sculptures continued to garner awards, including first place in clay and third place in bronze categories at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Smithsonian Institution Aspen (Colo.) Celebration.
Employing the lost wax method for his bronzes, Jackson has created pieces more than 8 feet tall. And each is an original, for he sculpts the wax cast from the original mold a little differently every time. His hand-painted clay and ceramic pieces are much smaller, but still notable for their powerful presence, elegant lines and sweeping message.
With the larger pieces taking almost two years to create, gallery openings, shows to attend and commissions from individuals and corporations all over the country to research and complete, Jackson is constantly on the go. As a board member of Indian Art Northwest, he helps promote American Indian artwork and encourages Native artists in the region.
He also takes more and more time to teach at places like the Crow Shadow Institute and the Oregon Historical Society in Portland. Nothing brings him more pleasure, he says, than presenting knowledge of art and history to the young people, Native and non-native alike.
Nothing gives him more pride than making the world a different place than it was when he grew up.
When he has time, he always goes home to the land of his people for nurturing and reconnecting – riding horseback, hunting and fishing and visiting with family members.
And, as he gets older, Jackson’s dreams just keep getting bigger. Currently he is building his own house and art studio in Chiloquin.. His new studio will allow him the space to create monumental sculptures more than 20 feet tall; big enough to match the spirits he perceives in the world around him, big enough to capture the heart of his own people and scatter the message of their hard journey far and wide.