An Interview with Dean Tonto Cox by Ashley Minner

Happy American Indian Heritage Month from two real live Indian artists working in your city, myself and Dean Tonto Cox Sr.

Tonto recently spent three weeks reimagining and retouching the historic mural on the wall of the Baltimore American Indian Center at the heart of Baltimore’s Indian community in Upper Fells Point. The original mural was painted through a Summer Arts Program at the Center in 1980 by some of Baltimore’s second generation Lumbees, the children of Lumbees who migrated from North Carolina in droves after WWII, seeking a better quality of life. Tonto and I are, ourselves, part of that legacy. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about his work.

Tont, you just finished your first mural. How do you feel?

I’m very proud. I really got into it. I’ve never done a painting on that type of level, so I just started rolling with it and got really into it… caught myself thinking about it at night. When I would get almost complete, I’d decide to add more things to it. So yeah, I’m very proud. I’m honored that I was selected to do it and I thank God that I had the ability to be able to do it.

Work got slow for me and the need for the mural to be retouched was brought to my attention. First I felt a little overwhelmed like “Man, am I gonna be able to do this? Winter is coming and you can’t paint in the cold weather. Would I be able to get started before 2015 was over?”

Tonto checking his work bw

But you got it done! So many people enjoyed watching you work on it over those three weeks. It appeared to be a very physical job, too… one that would probably overwhelm your average person. How come you were so at ease?

Well I climb at work. I’m an ironworker so I’m always climbing up and down something. Most of the time I’m up in the air, so it’s like second nature that goes back to climbing roofs in peoples back alleys and stuff when I was 8 years old. I’m just a master climber.

What does it mean to you to have done this for the Indian Center?

I’ve been a part of this Center basically my whole life. I mean, it was there before I was born. But I’ve been a part of the Center ever since I started dancing as a kid, all the way down to the pow wows, even on up to having Summer jobs when I was a teenager and they started teaching us entrepreneur skills, good work habits, how to be good with your money. I’ve been through mentor programs at the Center. They help so many people in so many ways. Right now, the Center isn’t in the best situation and I just feel like I’m able to give back something. That makes me feel even more better because it’s our only place and once it’s gone, it’s gone.

How long have you been an artist?

I started drawing in elementary school… and um… I remember my friend James drew a cool picture. It wasn’t nothing major, just the way that he drew got my attention. I wound up drawing a couple of things and I seen that I could look at something and draw it myself. I didn’t really take it serious or get any type of art classes. You really don’t know how good you are at things until other people bring it to your attention.

So once I realized I do have that skill, I started practicing more and more. It’s like uh.. most artists are born artists, it just takes time and opportunity to pick up a pencil and a piece of paper. And if you’ve never doodled or anything, you would never know that you can draw. You almost think that anyone can draw simple things, but deep down, it’s a special person to be an artist.

How do you use your art to help your community?

I’ve done face painting for the last 20 years or so at most of the pow wow events we have, our Native American festivals. I wind up doing the kids’ face painting, which I really enjoy. The kids enjoy it too. I have a few that come to the pow wow looking for me, wanting me to be the one to paint their face. I love kids. Kids is honest. They let you know if something ain’t right. To half of them, I’m a stranger.

So once I go ahead and put that picture on their face and they get to see it in the mirror, it’s like I’m their friend for that two minutes and that’s where I get my enjoyment. So that’s one of the main things that I use my talent for with the community, is doing the face painting any chance I get.

You come from a long line of leaders in the Indian community. Can you tell me about that? As we often ask, “whose your people?”

My grandmother is Elizabeth Locklear, she’s one of the founders of the Baltimore American Indian Center and she’s another one that helped get the Indian church going once a lot of the Natives started coming to work in Baltimore back in the 60’s. My grandma migrated up here for work and then went back to North Carolina about 20 years ago. But while she was up here, she left her foundation.

My mom, Linda Cox, took up behind her. She’s very involved in the Indian Center and with our church, South Broadway Baptist. She’s a leader there, choir director and very active in the community. She’s always trying to get people to come out to our events. She puts in a lot of her time at the Center following after her mom, trying to keep that legacy going… which I could do more. I hope to be able to do a little bit more.

Your mom is a hard act to follow.

Very hard. All I can do is try to do a piece of what she’s done in the years she’s been here. Maybe I can do something to get my generation interested in participating more and wanting to do more things. That’s my goal. I do have the ability to be a leader and have people follow me. I try to set an example for people to be culturally involved.

My dad was Tracie Cox. He wasn’t involved with the Center as much as my mom, but he was one of the first Native Americans who came to Baltimore and started his own construction business. He actually opened the door for people even ‘til now so that some of the Natives here that’s here working- doing sheetrock and roofing and different types of jobs, and the ones that own their business. He kind of paved the way for them to be able to start their business, get the jobs, which would be the main problem- anybody can have a business but if you don’t have work, what is your business?

He had connections through the Indian Center and he employed many, many Native Americans. He taught them trades that they still use today to feed their families, trades that they passed on to their families. He came up in the ‘50’s when he was like 15. He lied about his age to come to Baltimore because there was more work here for him to better himself. Until he passed in 2007, he still had connections through the city that were still helping other Native American people be able to bid on jobs and to keep up with these big companies that was running everybody out. He made a way for a lot of people to be able to prosper here and to call something their own, to not have to kill theirself working for hardly no money.

He let people see, “Look man, we can really come here and get our own thing going. We have enough people, we have the knowledge. Things ain’t how they used to be. Now we have the opportunity to want more and be able to have your own business and start your own thing where you can help other people.” That’s basically what it’s all about. I mean, you’re supposed to help your people. And that’s just what it boils down to. He would be able to get along with the guy at the bar or the preacher at the church. He was just a good people person. I picked up a lot of his characteristics, but one thing that I’m glad I did get from my dad is investing in people. Just to be able to talk to people or feel like people can talk to you.

Admiring his work 2

Tell me about the people who painted the first mural.

You had about maybe 16 kids and one lead adult artist that were involved at the time in 1980 that participated in painting the mural. I was able to get in contact with most of them and let them know what I was doing before I started. I heard a lot of them say that that Summer that they done that mural was one of the best Summers that they ever had… um… how their parents was proud of them. So I didn’t want to change it up too much. I wanted to let them know some of my ideas, see what their opinions was, let them know that their names were definitely going back up there.

Everyone was very supportive, just worried about their names going back up. I took pictures of the old mural and I took pictures of the names that were up there. I wrote them down. I just have to determine if I’m going to hand paint them or use a stencil. The names will be added and the date that it was repainted and my name too. All the names will be right there where they were before.

What happened to the people who worked on the original mural? Where are they now?

Well, you have some that still lives in Maryland. Maybe 3 or 4 of them have passed away. Most of them have moved back to North Carolina.

I noticed you changed one of the figures in the mural. Now there is a very iconic character that seems to appear around town wherever you go. Can you tell me about that? 

I remember riding to North Carolina with my mom as a kid. It’s a 6 hour trip. She had a sticker of an Indian chief that was on the glove compartment. I guess after two or three hours of that ride, I started trying to draw it, and draw it, and by the time I made it back to Baltimore, after 6 hours both ways, I mastered it. And ever since then, that’s been my signature. So I made it my own way and that’s pretty much my signature piece. If someone sees that chief, they know that I drew it just because of the way that I put it. They know that it’s mine.

What’s next?

Painting my sister Paula’s house is my next move, but hopefully another painting like this one. Hopefully someone might want me to do another painting similar to this one in the future. That would be great.

What do you see yourself doing in 5 years? Where are you going to be?

I’d say in 5 years… hopefully something to do with art.

Would you like to do art full-time?

I believe I would.

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of my children. I’m proud of my heritage. I’m just proud to be a Lumbee, period. One cool thing is that now, my kids are starting to pick up on art. My oldest son–he’s been drawing since he was 3–and my other son  is starting to get into drawing as well. So that makes me feel good.

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The Baltimore American Indian Center (BAIC), located at 113 S. Broadway, is a community based non-profit organization dedicated to serving the needs of American Indians living in the State of Maryland by providing social, economic, and training assistance, access to health-related services, arts, cultural awareness, and education. It aims to provide a central voice and focus for expressing concerns and resolving problems affecting American Indians in the State of Maryland.

Feel free to stop by any Thursday (except this Thursday) or Saturday to see the mural and tour our museum. Call and let us know that you’re coming (410-675-3535) or email us at [email protected].

Everyone reading this probably knows that Thanksgiving in these United States is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. But do you know what we celebrate on the fourth Friday of November in Maryland? Not just capitalism! In 2008, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill making the fourth Friday of November a legal holiday to acknowledge the proud history of American Indians in the state. That’s right, it’s American Indian Heritage Day.

Also, if you’re curious about an Indian perspective on Thanksgiving, I don’t think anyone will ever top this article written several years ago by our friend, Mr. Dennis Zotigh. Check it out and discuss with your loved ones over turkey sandwiches, if that’s your thing. Just check it out.

Photo by Colby Ware for OSI Baltimore

Author Ashley Minner is a community based visual artist and scholar from Baltimore, Maryland. She holds a BFA in General Fine Art, an MA and an MFA in Community Art, which she earned at Maryland Institute College of Art. A member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, she has been active in the Baltimore Lumbee community for many years. She is the founder of the Native American After School Art Program (NAASAP) and the Liaison for the Title VII Indian Education Program of Baltimore City Public Schools. She serves as the Vice Chair of the Maryland Commission of Indian Affairs under the Governor’s Office of Community Initiatives representing the Baltimore District. Her involvement in her own community informs and inspires her studio practice. She works with several local and regional arts for social justice organizations including Alternate ROOTS. Ashley is currently a PhD in American Studies student at University of Maryland College Park where she is studying vernacular art as resistance in related communities of the U.S. South and Global South.

All photos by Ashley Minner except the header image and her portrait, both by Colby Ware.

Dean Tonto Cox Sr. is a visual artist from Baltimore, Maryland. He is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and the grandson of a founder of the Baltimore American Indian Center, Ms. Elizabeth Locklear. Tonto is a graduate of Patterson High School and is currently employed as an ironworker. He is the proud father of two sons, Dean Tonto Cox Jr. and Darian Cox. In his spare time, he enjoys drawing and spending time by the water.