The first time I met James Luna was during a project that I was working on led by News from Native California (published by Heyday Books in Berkeley) as part of my portfolio as a funder. He was the special guest curator on a special issue focused on the effects of the California mission system on modern Indigenous people. I had heard of James previously but wasn’t tremendously familiar with his work and so, oddly, I met and got to know him before I truly understood how important he was. Later on, he became my friend and client. I regret that I didn’t get to know him better but in the short time I did now him.
When we first met, he had recently been invited to speak at the commemoration of Junipero Serra, a missionary who simultaneously brought the conversion of Native tribes in what is now California and the genocide of these same people. He was horrified by the invitation, to speak at an event ostensibly to honor this man but was able to turn the disgust into humor. He then turned to action and aided in mobilizing a special issue of News from Native California ‘Saying our Share: Surviving the Missions’ which he curated content for. This is the James Luna that I got to know, he used art, stories and words to cast light on and shift perceptions of modern Native people.
James had a salty demeanor, he didn’t shy away from the occasional ‘f’ bomb or throw up his hands and jokingly say ‘Guess we better start drinking now!’ (he didn’t drink – to be clear). He was a trickster. He pushed boundaries. He was an instigator. In the vein of the stories that I was brought up with I was left to interpret the depth of his meaning from his stories and artwork and find guidance from it. He didn’t tell me what to think, he wanted me to come to it on my own. He was also a tireless dreamer. He was a believer in the capacity of the arts to envision a future for Native people and for art to inspire us to get to that future.
He saw that things were starting to change for Indigenous people and he wanted to do his part to help. He changed the lives of dozens of people that I care deeply about. He changed my life as well. For this I am honored to have known him.
May he rest in power.