Chelsea Kaiah

White Mountain Apache & White River Ute

GRANTEE:  Chelsea Kaiah
NATIVE HERITAGE:  White Mountain Apache & White River Ute
LOCATION:  Denver, Colorado
AWARD:  2022 LIFT – Early Career Support for Native Artists

Born on the northern Ute reservation, Chelsea Kaiah is a passionate activist for Native rights, awareness, and sustainability. She earned her BFA at Watkins College of Art and Design in Nashville, Tennessee. Today she learns traditional practices of pine needle weaving, beading, porcupine quilling, buffalo hunting, and hide work, incorporating her interdisciplinary skills to meld a perspective of culture and artistic practice. For Kaiah, storytelling has always been an integral part of her up-bringing, connecting her to her relations, community, past, and hopes for the future. In her work, even utilitarian objects can become cultural carriers that bring knowledge by creation, and carriers of visual storytelling.

Kaiah’s practice involves adapting traditional materials and techniques that address resilience, mental health, system reformation, and means of healing. In this way, her traditional work becomes more than tradition, it becomes cultural experience. Kaiah presents human forms, often masked, conveying an ambiguity between the self-representation and the viewer. She believes reflecting the human condition is an important connection to reignite nature-based relationships between cultural and physical environments.

Relationality is an important motive all across indigenous folk- the way we sing, dance, mourn, hunt, and laugh. We honor our ancestors through those relations by adapting, perpetuating, evolving, and stepping into the places that they were.

—Chelsea Kaiah (White Mountain Apache & White River Ute)


Kaiah’s LIFT project, Buffalo Hides, will photograph and video document the journey from her family’s annual buffalo hunt; de-hairing, softening, and smoking the hide; and creating two fully beaded hide bags incorporating vintage, new beads, and trade beads, sewn with sinew from the buffalo. This is a laborious skill that requires energy spent over many weeks to be able to skin, de-hair, soften, and repeat. This project captures a glimpse into a resilient tradition and the bond that develops through learning this practice as a family on their reservation.

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