Resilience and Empowerment through Native Arts and Activism

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The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF) celebrated its first ten years of service with a series of panel events during the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) 98th Annual Santa Fe Indian Market this August 2019. Each panel was carefully curated in response to social issues affecting Native communities today. The first panel titled Environmental Collapse: Native Perspectives on the Land, Protection and Stewardship, presented by NACF in collaboration with the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) welcomed Native artists and leadership working to confront the significant environmental challenges affecting Native communities. Panelists included 2016 NACF National Artist Fellow Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota), Angelo Baca (Diné/Hopi), and Princess Daazhraii (Lucaj) Johnson (Neets’aii Gwich’in).

The panelists spoke to a sold out audience of 100 people about the challenges tribal nations face due to climate change, the extraction industry, and public policies that exclude Native peoples in decisions relative to their own lands. Luger discussed the Mirror Shield Project he created for the water protectors at Oceti Sakowin camp near Standing Rock, North Dakota in 2016 during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. At the time, he asked himself, “How do I weaponize my privilege in order to push these narratives further,” which resulted in a socially engaged art project.

Additionally, Baca discussed his work to protect the Bears Ears National Monument with Utah Diné Bikeyah – a nonprofit Native American land conservation organization that works toward healing people and the earth by supporting the Native communities of the area – while Johnson examined the role of art and cultural practices in Alaska that are shifting narratives and making changes through critical thinking.

The second panel discussion titled Native Women on Art, Culture and Resilience, presented by NACF in collaboration with SITE Santa Fe celebrated the work of three extraordinary Native women in the arts. The panelists spoke to a sold out audience of 200 people, exploring their work in connection to gender rights, and the position of women in tribal communities and the greater society. Reflecting on their roles as culture bearers and leaders in an era of the Me Too Movement, the panelists discussed how their arts practices advance Native truth and empowerment. Panelists included 2013 NACF National Artist Fellow Rose Simpson (Santa Clara), 2017 NACF Mentor Artist Fellow Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), and curator Jaclyn Roessel (Diné).

Romero gave a powerful presentation describing the intention behind her photography, and her hope to create visibility for contemporary Native peoples through traditional ways of knowledge and to decolonize self-image through her art. She also discussed her decision to create nude or figurative art to counter a narrative that sexualizes and exoticizes Native women in this country.  “I wanted to counter that narrative, and I wanted to create pieces that celebrated our super natural, that celebrated our feminine, that celebrated our bodies and our body image, and how we felt about ourselves… so that we could bring medicine back to how people view us, to bring back the humanity to our bodies and how people see us,” she said.

The panelists also discussed art making as a catalyst for healing in Native communities. Simpson examined a series of clay sculptures that embraced her identity as it relates to motherhood, femininity and her interest in automotive engines, while also making a statement about the resilience and empowerment of Native women. Roessel, who recently curated the Matriarchs exhibition at the El Segundo Museum of Art discussed decolonizing museums with the inclusion of Native artists to influence accurate truth telling. She said that there is potential for Native people to heal through art, adding that, “our worth as indigenous people isn’t just the value that’s placed on the belongings that are collected.”

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