Set in Stone: CSULB American Indian Studies director retires after 39 years

Craig Stone can still remember the intricate beading his grandfather adorned his riding gloves with, the ones he can still picture wearing as they rode horseback together when he was a child.

The gloves were passed down to him to wear and dance in at one of the first Pow Wow celebrations held at Cal State Long Beach, destined to become the largest, longest standing American Indian gathering in Southern California.

So Stone has history—personal history—with the event. Still, the American Indian Studies Program director and celebrated local artist didn’t hesitate when it came to postponing the 50th Annual Pow Wow at Puvungna earlier this month. The postponement, of course, came about because of the possible spread of coronavirus which, for Stone, posed a threat to his community’s most revered resource: its elders.

“Losing an elder, well that’s like losing a library,” Stone said. “You lose all kinds of things like language, culture and wisdom.”

The cultural gathering was moved to Nov. 7 and 8 when Stone will officially be retired. He is set to hang up his 39 years of teaching in the university’s School of Art and American Indian Studies Program this summer, but his legacy with the campus spans almost as long as the Pow Wow itself.

Although he will stay on part-time as program director and Pow Wow advisor for the next five years, Stone will no longer teach the classes that have inspired students for decades.

From activism to mentorship  

Stone, a longtime fixture at the institution, knows the campus community and its history well.

“I always say he gives the winter count when he tells you about someone,” said Professor Theresa Gregor, the program’s first tenure track hire since the 1970s. “He starts almost from the beginning of time when he meets that person and then brings your forward into the contemporary moment.”

Whether it’s verbally through his lectures or visually through his work as a public artist, Stone is a storyteller at heart, something he picked up from his grandparents. There’s a forbearing gentleness to his voice with each story he tells, whether it’s about how he met his wife on campus or a brief rundown of his favorite classes he’s taught over the years, he prescribes meticulous detail to it.

“He’s our historical memory for the program,” Gregor said. “He’s that figure that we revere in our community and to have that in our institution is really valuable.”

His office is a miniature museum of campus history and items of American Indian heritage. The space is decorated in warm hues and painted red walls, similar to the colors that make up his American Indian regalia.

“That book right there is one of the first books to discuss homosexuality in American Indian culture,” Stone said, indicating toward a large bookcase filled with American Indian art books and literature. “I did the illustration.”

Stone first set foot on campus as a teenager in the mid-1970s to perform in Pow Wow, back when the event was just a few dozen people.

“Pow Wow used to happen in that little triangle of grass right there,” Stone said, gesturing out the large window of his office, to a small area in the middle of the quad.

Shortly after, he was recruited by American Indian Studies and enrolled as an art student. He graduated three times, first in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree, second in 1980 with a master’s degree and again in 1989, earning his MFA.

He was hired by the university in 1981 as a professor, so he’s never really left.

He met his wife, Laura Imagawa Stone, on campus back then. She has contributed to the Pow Wow since she began working on the campus in 1980 as a clerical assistant in the University Library. Their daughter, who now lives in Sweden, also graduated from CSULB.

But Stone’s influence as an artist can be found in several corners of Long Beach.

From the shadowcast pieces on Belmont Shore’s sidewalks and the first block of the downtown Promenade to the experimental hilltop perspective project, “Earth Upon Water,” at the top of Signal Hill, Stone creates multi-layered imagery that connects people to nature and to each other.

“Whether it’s art, Native American studies or Pow Wow, he connects people,” said Marcel Young, a 2014 CSULB graduate, and one of Stone’s former students.

Stone has been described by many as a calming voice of diplomacy, acting as a bridge to connect differing ideals and people between the two colleges he’s tenured in, the College of Art and the College of Liberal Arts.

American Indian Studies, currently offered as a minor, has grown from the days when it was merely a certificate program and Stone has been at the forefront of that growth.

“He’s always trying to build bridges wherever possible and remind people about the history of activism and the importance of these programs,” Gregor said. “He’s withstood changes and the shrinking of a program that he has fought to restore.”

As an advisor to the Pow Wow for the last 30 years and a prolific commissioned public artist in Long Beach, Stone says he’s constantly working to bring people together.

“The philosophy between Pow Wow and the concepts I use in public art are similar,” Stone said. “You have all these people coming together around a shared idea, that we’re all related in some way.”

And while Stone is looked up to as a wise mentor, he says it took the influence of his own mentors to develop this standing in the community.

As a student in 1978, he stood in solidarity with his peers on the American Indian Student Council, among the first wave of students protesting Prospector Pete, the school’s controversial icon and statue that was officially ousted by the university just last year.

“When you’re a student, you want to take action,” Stone said. “You want to make this big change when in reality it’s been an intergenerational struggle.”

Stone described a scenario in his time as an undergraduate, when a member of the student government, Associated Students Inc., challenged the AIS Student Council on the subject of Puvungna, the native land of the Tongva tribe, where the university was built.

“Back then you just could not get any traction as an Indian student,” Stone said. “One group of [AIS] was really angry and said ‘let’s go embarrass them and protest,’ but a mentor of mine would say ‘no, let’s meet with them, we’re going to make a friend for life.’”

So, Stone and his peers did meet with them to discuss the history of Puvungna, which resulted in a sincere apology and a new partnership between the two factions of campus. While the subject of Puvungna remains a topic of debate for students and community members today, Stone works to mentor his students to handle such matters peacefully.

“People wonder why I don’t get upset about things,” Stone said. “It’s because I know our history. It doesn’t mean I don’t advocate to change things, you’re just aware of how ignorant people are of certain things and it’s not necessarily their fault.”

A Head Man’s legacy 

Stone is a flurry of moving color when he dances.

It brings him back to his roots, he says, takes him back to childhood when he first discovered a deeper connection to the North American Indian tribes of his ancestors.

Stone grew up in Rubidoux, a rural community in Riverside, where his parents gathered with many other American Indian families of differing tribes to participate in the California Pow Wow arena as dancers and singers.

“We were younger people so we were in the garage singing and dancing,” Stone said. “And the older people were more engaged in legislation and particular issues that the community was facing.”

Stone found his footing within the Native community early on, developing a love for the stories his grandparents told him about his family and the dances that connected their different tribes.

“In my family, there were always these stories of morality and these connections but it wasn’t ever named,” Stone said. “But here in LA, it was always named. It was ‘Oh that must be an Indian thing.’”

Craig Cree Stone. Photo by Sean DuFrene, Photographer
Strategic Communications
California State University, Long Beach.

Stone describes himself as a “mutt” of European heritage and several different Indian tribes across North America, which is what led him to the Fancy Dance at a young age, a nonspecific Native dance.

Stone was set to perform Fancy Dance as Head Man this year, a colorful and highly regarded role he has assumed twice before, once as a student in 1978 and again in 1989 as a faculty member. But it’s unlikely to catch Stone boasting about this role in casual conversation.

“He probably wouldn’t mention it,” said Marcel Young. “You’re not Head Man to lift yourself up, you’re honoring everyone who danced before you and for those who cannot dance anymore.”

For decades, Stone has donned an iconic ensemble, set with intricate beadwork, feathers and dramatic color contrasts of orange, red and white.

“There was so much interest all over the country to come and watch him dance,” said Patricia Lopez, a nurse practitioner at United American Indian Involvement’s Clinic in Los Angeles, who often guest lectures at CSULB.

Lopez also helps coordinate the Pow Wow in downtown Los Angeles, which was set to take place in April, but has been moved to November.

Those who follow the Pow Wow circuit would normally be making their way to the University of Redlands this Saturday. However, after the event at Puvungna was canceled, a wave of anxiety from the interconnected community was felt as the rest of the Pow Wow events in the state and across the nation canceled one after the other.

“It’s more than just dancing and listening to drums,” Lopez said. “Pow Wows are our main social activity together. It’s a moving community, so people are really feeling the loss. They keep asking ‘when is the next Pow Wow’ and we just don’t know for sure.”

But members from the community pulled on their regalia this week anyway, streaming Pow Wow song and dance from their living rooms through Facebook.

“People were singing the songs they would normally be this time of year,” Stone said. “It’s a unique way to use the livestream feature.”

Stone, known for his sanguine approach to difficult situations, added that the beloved celebration’s move to November may actually boost attendance.

“I think it will be a really wonderful date,” Stone said. “We’ll avoid the rain issue and we won’t conflict with other Pow Wows.”

A dynamic teacher

As an educator, he left lasting impressions on students for decades, mentoring them in their journey to exploring, art, American Indian heritage and culture. Today, he maintains relationships with many of them.

“He’s really a big influence in the community,” said Amanda Passi, another of Stone’s former students, who’s been texting Stone frequently these days, to make sure he and his wife are stocked up for the pandemic.

Leslie Markle was one of his early students who graduated in 1991 and worked with Stone on his first public art project “Lobby of the Floating Ceilings.” He credits him as an influence in her journey to becoming a curator for public art at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis.

“He was a dynamic teacher,” Markle said. “He has contributed significantly to creating a sense of place to many communities throughout the Southern California region.”

As the sunset of his teaching career draws to a close, Stone said he will have more time to turn his attention back to the public art arena in Long Beach.

But more important, he says, is the time he will get to spend with his family. He and his wife, who recently retired from the university after 37 years, will hop on a plane after his retirement to Sweden to visit their daughter and granddaughter.

“I’ve always felt most comfortable around Native people and oddly enough, being in places like Sweden that remind me of my grandma’s house,” Stone said. “It’s a sense of belonging and that has always come from being with my family.”

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