Below find the fifth in a series of guest posts offered in celebration on the occasion of our colleague and friend Daniel C. Swan’s retirement from the University of Oklahoma, where he has served with distinction as a Professor of Anthropology, Curator of Ethnology, and Interim Director of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Reflecting here on an aspect of Dan’s work and his personal impact is John Lukavic, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Native Arts at the Denver Art Museum. This series of guest posts has been organized in partnership with Michael Paul Jordan. –Jason Baird Jackson
By John Lukavic
Each year in mid-June I send two Father’s Day messages: one to my own father and one to Dan Swan. Even before Dan and I met professionally, he and I shared a bond through common friends and relations back in New York where we both were raised. While I was a graduate student just a few years into my doctoral program in the mid-2000s, Dan arrived at (or rather, returned to) the University of Oklahoma as curator of ethnology and professor of anthropology and immediately agreed to serve as chair of my graduate committee. It seemed that fate finally brought us together.
Dan loves to tell stories like any father does (ask him about his old friend, a machine gun, and a bar somewhere in Mexico). I cannot count how many times he told Mike Jordan and me about the tasks his own advisor, John Moore, assigned to him while in graduate school: he had to babysit Moore’s kids while Moore was duck hunting; he had to help carry loads of wood so Moore could calculate how much labor was required to do certain tasks—as anthropologists do. But these were just great stories to me—myths and legends of adversity and triumph. My experiences as a graduate student were very different from Dan’s experience because Dan was there to support ME. He babysat MY kids. He read them books and took the time to be part of their lives. He was there through challenging times always to lend support and compassion.
“Doing” is central to Dan’s way of teaching. He understands that experience comes from opportunities and he is always generous with sharing his own opportunities with others. During our time together at OU Dan invited me to co-curate an exhibition of pottery and baskets at the Sam Nobel Museum. He guided me through the entire process from beginning to end. He helped me learn by doing. Way too often new curators are thrown into the fire and asked to navigate such a process without help or mentorship. I cannot express how valuable this was as a young professional. He shared his experiences and opportunities with me which provided a foundation on which I have built my career.
In terms of exhibitions and museum work, I learned from Dan the importance of relationships, responsibility, and respect. He instilled in me a strong belief that my first responsibility is to the artists and communities with whom I work, and the work I do in communities requires building strong relationships and trust. As a non-Indigenous curator who works with Indigenous arts, artists, and communities I embrace this responsibility—the feeling of “walking on egg shells” in everything I do—because I want individuals and communities to hold me responsible. Trust is earned by actions taken and must be renewed and maintained constantly. There is no taking a day off or doing what is easy because no one is looking. Dan instilled in me integrity in both my professional and personal life and, like any good son, I don’t want to let dad down.
All students love a pop quiz, do they not? Well as one of Dan’s students, I can tell you quizzes are frequent and not ever when you expect them. Years ago Dan invited Mike Jordan and me to accompany him to the Ilonska dance in Hominy, OK. We were going to see Osage people he has spent a lifetime getting to know and working with. A lot was on the line for him because he was bringing two students into a part of his life, and his reputation was on the line. Mike and I showed up to Dan’s house, grabbed our chairs out of the car and Dan just smiled. “You two pass,” he said. Bringing your own chair to a dance is like wearing pants and shoes. It is just something you do. Dan was testing us on such a basic thing before he let us get in his car to head up to Hominy. We had to earn his trust by our actions—something that I remind myself of constantly. Once he trusted us we learned so much—important things, such as where to get the best cream pie in Oklahoma and the Okie ritual of standing outside to watch a tornado approach. Typical things a dad teaches his sons.
In 2018 Dan flew to Denver, Colorado to attend an exhibition opening of a show I curated. Hundreds of people came to that opening and dozens of journalists came from all over to cover it. But, it was Dan’s words “I’m so proud of you” that will stay with me always. Professors teach, mentors guide, and fathers care. I mean really care. Fathers also give their kids a hard time every now and then—but it’s done with love. They teach life lessons as much as anything else because, at the end of the day, we are all just humans trying to navigate this path we call life.
Congratulations, Dan, on your retirement, successful career, all the scholarship you have put out into the world, all the lives you have touched, and all the relationships you have developed and maintained. You have given me so much and touched my life in so many ways. My family will always have an extra bed, hot pot of coffee, and cream pie waiting for you when you come to visit.