The museum in New York and the Embassy of Canada in Washington celebrate Arctic art

Ningiukulu Teevee Sea Goddess WAG
Ningiukulu Teevee, (Canadian [Cape Dorset], b. 1963), Sea Goddess, 2010. Colored pencil, black ink on paper. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery Acquired with funds from the Estate of Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Naylor, funds administered by the Winnipeg Foundation, 2011-93

Are you looking for a unique art experience as summer turns to fall? If you can, plan to visit two wonderful exhibitions featuring works by four internationally renowned Inuit artists. The National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York currently hosts the exhibition Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait, and the Embassy of Canada in Washington is presenting Ningiukulu Teevee: Kinngait Stories.

Kinngait (Cape Dorset)—located near the southern tip of Canada’s Baffin Island, just below the Arctic Circle—means “high mountain” in Inuktitut. On the northwest quadrant of Kinngait along a rugged coast is “the community that art built.” Starting in 1950, James and Alma Houston collaborated with local Inuit to bring Inuit artwork to the world’s attention. In 1961, the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative was born from this partnership to encourage the production and distribution of Inuit art. Today the co-operative functions as the longest ongoing professional Inuit printmaking studio in Canada, as well as the oldest arts organization in the Canadian Arctic. Many generations of celebrated carvers, printmakers, and artists have made Kinngait the Inuit art capital of the world. The four artists featured in these two exhibitions—Pitseolak Ashoona (1904–1983), Napachie Pootoogook (1938–2002), Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016), and Ningiukulu Teevee (b. 1963)—have common roots in this community.

Pitseolak Family Camping in Tuniq Ruins
Pitseolak Ashoona (Inuit, 1904–1983), Family Camping in Tuniq Ruins, 1976. Stonecut and stencil. Edward J. Guarino Collection

Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait features 18 works made by a grandmother, mother, and daughter. The Inuktitut word akunnittinni loosely translates to “between us.” The three women share their generational stories through their prints and drawings. Grandmother Pitseolak Ashoona was born in 1904 on Nottingham Island in Hudson Bay. Hunting and fishing for subsistence was her family’s way of life. When she later moved to Kinngait and was encouraged to produce different art forms, she relied on memories of her experiences growing up. In 1960, she produced her first stone cuts. Several members of Pitseolak’s family have sustained the rich tradition as Kinngait artists. Compositions by her daughter Napachie include landscapes and interiors as well as narrative scenes that depict personal and ancient stories. The images created by Napachie’s daughter Annie Pootoogook reflect her upbringing within a contemporary Canadian community experiencing transition; their themes include conflict, mortality, and spirituality.

Annie Pootoogook Family Sleeping in a Tent
Annie Pootoogook (Inuit, 1969–2016), Family Sleeping in a Tent, 2003–04. Colored pencil and ink. Edward J. Guarino Collection

Continuing the Kinngait artist tradition is Ningiukulu (Ning) Teevee, whose art is currently on exhibit at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. Ning is part of a generation of Inuit artists who live in permanent communities, rather than the seasonal camps of generations before them. She takes the inspiration for her ink and colored pencil drawings from Inuit stories and from the changes she has witnessed in contemporary Cape Dorset. This exhibition features 31 drawings and prints created from 2005 to 2012. A new video documenting the artist, her work, and her community is also shown in the exhibition.

Ningiukulu Teevee Appeased
Ningiukulu Teevee (Canadian [Cape Dorset], b. 1963), Appeased, 2011. Colored pencil and ink. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Acquired with funds from the Estate of Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Naylor, funds administered by the Winnipeg Foundation, 2011-98

Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait was organized by the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico. The exhibition runs from through January 8, 2017, at the George Gustav Heye Center, National Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan. Join the conversation with the museum and fellow art-lovers using #Akunnittinni.

Ningiukulu Teevee: Kinngait Stories, curated by the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG), with art from the Government of Nunavut, Dorset Fine Arts, and the WAG Collection, runs through mid October in the Embassy’s art gallery. The art gallery of the Embassy of Canada—located at 501 Pennsylvania Avenue NW (next to the Newseum), adjacent to the National Mall and within walking distance of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington—is open to the public Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., free of charge.

—Dennis W. Zotigh

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

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August 19, 2017

American Indian beliefs about the eclipse

The National Museum of American Indian has received numerous inquiries concerning the upcoming eclipse. Part of the museum’s mission is to provide a forum for Native people’s voices, so we went to the Internet to ask, “Does your tribe have any beliefs or protocols concerning the eclipse?” Here are some of the replies, with the correspondent’s Native affiliation (and where he or she is living now).

Niuam fan detail
Niuam (Comanche) fan with sun and Morning Star designs (detail), ca. 1880. Oklahoma. 2/1617

Laguna–Acoma Pueblo (New Mexico): “My Chacoan and Mesa Verde ancestors were astronomers. They marked Halley's comet, we watched the sun, and we predicted eclipses. The Sun Dagger at Chaco Canyon is a prime example of the science of my Puebloan ancestors. I asked my elders recently of any taboos with eclipses. I was told that they are a time of transformation and not to fear them. Those in our tribe who feel fear have done something wrong. They told me to pray with cornmeal, respect the silence, and accept the transformation coming.”

Cherokee (Oklahoma): “Cherokee say it is a giant frog in the sky trying to eat the sun. Everybody is supposed to go outside and make a big noise with drums, whistles, and voices to scare the frog away.”

Shawnee (Kansas): “Our prophet Tenskwatawa, predicted a solar eclipse leading up to the War of 1812. He predicted this to William Henry Harrison, who dared Tenskwatawa to predict the future. He did, and tribes came from all over to hear our Prophet speak.”

Shoshone-Bannock (Idaho): “My gramma would close all her windows. She says that’s when bad things happen to bad people. After that, we would drink water that she prayed for. That’s my young recollection of the eclipse, both lunar and solar.”

Hopi (Arizona): “I am Hopi Sun Clan! We pray to our Dawa every morning. During the last eclipse, our nieces and nephews were given their sacred Hopi names—Red Beautiful Sun, New Colorful Sun, and Little Sunboy! It's very significant to us, a time for ceremony.”

Kiowa (Oklahoma): "The sun and the moon played an important part in our yearly cycle. I seem to recall hearing where a full eclipse happened. All of a sudden some got scared and just prayed."

Kumiai and Yaqui (Maryland): “I was raised outside my traditional community. This is what I was taught by my mother and aunties in Mexico: For pregnant women especially, during an eclipse they are to wear a red sash with a small steel pin or keys and not to go outside at all.”

Coushatta sash
Coushatta sash with scroll and sun designs, ca. 1875. Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana. 1/8587

Taos Pueblo (New Mexico): “We are told to stay inside and keep babies away from the windows, to be mindful. We have to wear something sharp.”

Nakoda (Alberta, Canada): “Our elders have said that any meteor and lunar activity are omens signifying events that will come to pass. Rings around the sun and moon may indicate significant weather change. Lunar and sun eclipses have deeper representations. This activity represents some natural occurrence to happen on earth.”

Ho-Chunk (Wisconsin): “Was told to respect both sun and moon eclipses. Time of transformation.“

Crow (Montana): “We believe it's a new beginning. The sun dies and is rejuvenated.”

Pawnee (Oklahoma): “When I was younger I asked an elder about what an eclipse meant to us. He said he didn't know much, but he heard the old people talking about how it was a troubling time when one happened. They said it meant a great leader was going to pass on.”

The Institute for Diné Culture, Philosophy and Government, in Rock Point, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, received so many inquiries that the staff prepared a detailed reply:

Our Diné people have a completely different definition and perspective on this sacred natural phenomenon. The belief is that the Jóhonaa’éí (Sun) is the male and the Tł‘éhonaa’éí (Moon) is the female. The Sun is the most powerful deity amongst all creation, here on earth and in the universe. The Sun is the epicenter of all creation. Nothing will live or function without the Sun. The Sun controls and regulates the universe, whereas the moon controls and regulates the earth.

25-8436 Sun Spirits
David Chethlahe Paladin (1926-1984, Diné [Navajo], Sun Spirits, 1971. Albuquerque, New Mexico. 25/8436

The Sun is vested with the concept of and in control of death (anoonééł), and the Moon is vested with and in control of birthing (oochííł). When a solar or lunar eclipse occurs, it is believed that a death occurs. That is the reason why an eclipse is termed daaztsą́, either Jóhonaa’éí daaztsą́ (solar eclipse) or Tł'éhonaa’éí daaztsą́ (lunar eclipse). A death is a very sacred occurrence. There are certain necessary protocols, but most important is the strict and comprehensive reverence in observing the occurrence of death (yéego dílzin dóó hodílzin). During a solar or lunar eclipse, strict and comprehensive acts of reverence must be carried out.

In addition to the concept of death during an eclipse, it is also believed that during an eclipse, the Sun and the Moon are mating. After the passing of the eclipse, when the sun or moon becomes fully bright once again, it is believed that a birthing has just taken place. It is believed that the mating is to give birth to, or renew, the universe and all creation. During this birthing/renewal process, the universe and all creation are reborn, realigned, and there is growth and development amongst all of creation as well.

Due to the very sacredness of death and birth, the reverence required to be shown during an eclipse is very strict and comprehensive (ts’ídá yéego hodílzin). There is only one way to be reverent during an eclipse. No shortcuts exist. We cannot simply smudge ashes or corn pollen upon ourselves and exit our homes and carry on as if it is just another day. The following acts of reverence must be carried out during an eclipse: We must stay inside, preferably in our home; we cannot eat or drink anything, cannot be asleep, cannot brush or comb our hair or wash ourselves, cannot be in an intimate act with our spouse or anyone of the opposite sex, cannot needlessly move around, are required to remain calm and still, cannot look outside, cannot look at the sun while the eclipse is occurring—yes, it also means the shadow of the sun, through a pinhole or other apparatuses; and we cannot be using the restroom.

During the eclipse, we must be in full prayer and reverence. Prayers must be focused on the concept of the Sun or Moon going through an ending, and we are to pray about the ending of bad or evil, or the ending of phases of life. In addition, our prayers must be focused on the birth and renewal that will arrive when the eclipse ends. Moreover, prayers must be about a better future. Most of the time, we pray for and about ourselves and loved ones. It is advocated that prayers during an eclipse must mostly be about this creation: the ending, renewal, and the future of this creation and the divine presence. If we know the songs for use during eclipses, those songs can be sung at that time.

Moreover, during the eclipse, we must always look down at the ground, cannot be looking up or outside. The animals, the insects, the birds will not be active during the eclipse. The birds will not fly; the insects will hibernate; horses and dogs will be calm and look down at the ground.

When the eclipse ends, we will end our prayer and say hózhǫ́ náhásdlį́į́ four times. At that time, we must take our corn pollen (tádídíín) out and use it as an offering to acknowledge our prayer and to acknowledge the sacred phenomenon. The corn pollen will be the first meal taken after the eclipse, just as corn pollen is the first food eaten in a new period of life. We will feel the renewal of life, the rejuvenation of life, the feeling of going on, and a positive outlook of the future.

It is tremendously amazing how our people knew when the eclipses were going to happen through their prayers, songs, and belief systems without technology. Today we have to rely on the media to inform us when these eclipses are going to take place. Our prayers and songs are very powerful.

Our traditional Diné teachings instruct us that if a person does not observe the eclipse in accordance with the cultural protocols that have been outlined here, the nonobserver will certainly develop eye problems. Unexplained sunburns or rashes will develop, digestive problems and unexplained migraine headaches will develop. If a woman is pregnant and follows the proper required protocols, there should not be any problems. However, if the protocols are not followed, prenatal problems may develop, and when the child is born, the child will certainly develop digestive and skin problems. There are ceremonies to put people back in harmony. It requires a two-day ceremony, however, with an overnight portion and sand paintings.

The Diné Institute is merely sharing our sacred and still relevant cultural teachings. An individual always has a choice to observe or not to observe the eclipse. We hope that our brief synopsis has clarified, reaffirmed, or educated our readers about the upcoming eclipse. On behalf of all of our resident Diné Institute Hataałiis and staff, we thank you for your understanding and encourage all of you to keep our cultural protocols alive and sacred by observing the upcoming eclipse in accordance with these requirements. We thank all the school districts and other agencies who concluded that it would be in the best interest of our children and our sacred cultural belief systems to close schools and offices on the day of the eclipse. May the Holy People be with you and bless you.

Reprinted with permission courtesy of the Institute for Diné Culture, Philosophy and Government


After the museum first published this post, the Comcáac Project shared the beliefs of Comcáac/Seri elders of Sonora, Mexico: 

They do a ritual: Older people in the family sit on the floor in meditation position and make noise with drums to call or communicate with the sun, and talk prayers so the sun can feel it and return brightly. . . .  For the ancestors an eclipse of the sun is zaah quij cooxi, which means "death of the sun," and when the shine returns, it is considered as a new stage, fresh new life for the sun.

Pregnant women cannot look at the sun or be in the sunlight. They use red paint (xpaahjö) to paint crosses and red spots on various parts of the body except the face. Mothers hide babies less than a year old, but they do not use paint for them. Girls from one year to until puberty they paint with dots using white paint (hantixp), because the ancestors say that if they do not do that during the eclipse, when the girls are older they might not have children or never marry. . . . To older girls who already have puberty nothing happens, because their blood is active and there is strength to protect them.

—Dennis W. Zotigh

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

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The Gwich'in Indian people of Alaska always respected, what the great creator has provided for us and this also involved cycles and things displayed in our skies and the moon is very important for it provides warmth for all animals in extreme cold weather.

Chi Miigwetch for the Teachings of Respect

August 13, 2017

Doing "what I could," Wilma Mankiller changed Native America

Review by Sequoia Carrillo

Wilma Mankiller
Wilma Mankiller. Photo by James Schnepf, courtesy of the Wilma Mankiller Foundation.

“I hope that when I leave it will just be said: I did what I could.” –Wilma Mankiller

In Mankiller, by filmmaker Valerie Red-Horse Mohl, the legacy of a true female powerhouse is explored. Born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 1945, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Wilma Mankiller was the sixth of eleven children. When she was 11 years old, her family moved to San Francisco under the Bureau of Indian Affair’s Relocation Program. The move was supposed to relieve the family of the poor living conditions in their homeland and bring them to a “modern world.”

Through archival footage and photographs, the documentary depicts the obvious flaws in the BIA’s reasoning. The Mankillers’ move to the Bay Area resulted in dangerous conditions and the striking realization that they were poor. In Oklahoma they often lacked running water and electricity, but they consistently had a community of people who lived the same way. They quickly found that what was poor in Oklahoma was destitute in California.

“It was in San Francisco during the Civil Rights Era that she found her voice and the power to make change.” —President Bill Clinton

A teenage Wilma Mankiller acclimated to an environment with elevators and societal unrest as the 1960s roared around her. Although she was a peer with many of the student activists who gave the San Francisco Protest movement its voice, by the time she was 20 years old she was married and a mother of two. Despite this, she assisted and supported the early Black Panthers in their mission to feed elders and children. In fact, her daughters emphasize in an interview clip that the political and activist side of life was always a given with their mother.


“Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival begins to play as archival footage of the occupation of Alcatraz rolls. The film does a brilliant job of depicting the spark that Alcatraz set off inside Wilma Mankiller. She and her family participated in the protests alongside such activists as John Trudell and Richard Oakes. Many Indians herald the occupation, which began in November 1969 and lasted 19 months, as the event that brought Native America into the modern era. The occupation yielded direct results in federal policies signed by President Richard Nixon.

“More than anything it was like coming home and I felt that I was where I should be.” —Wilma Mankiller on the occupation of Alcatraz

Following the occupation, Wilma Mankiller continued to volunteer frequently in the Indian community. She and her daughters eventually moved her back to Oklahoma to work for the Cherokee Nation. Much of the film’s dialogue following her return to Indian Country is from her peers. I found this particularly poignant because of the widespread reverence she received from Natives and non-Natives, Democrats and Republicans. This support is unusual for any politician, but especially for a woman more than a generation ago.

After successfully initiating and raising the funds for a clean-water project that reinvigorated unemployed tribal members in Bell, Oklahoma, Mankiller gained recognition. As a result, she was approached to run as deputy chief in Ross Swimmer’s 1983 bid to be principal chief. Despite rampant sexism, including death threats, she won alongside Swimmer.

Groundbreaking as deputy chief
Deputy Chief Mankiller (center) at the groundbreaking for a new development project. Photo courtesy of the Wilma Mankiller Foundation.

After Swimmer stepped down in 1985, Mankiller ran two successful campaigns earning her a decade as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. In her last race, she won 83 percent of the vote. The headlines flash across the screen as a victory that ten years before was scoffed at becomes a reality.

“In a just country, she would have been elected president.” —Gloria Steinem

Wilma Mankiller was the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. President Bill Clinton awarded her the Medal of Freedom in 1998. She revolutionized the largest Indian-run health care system in the country. She doubled annual tribal revenue and tripled tribal enrollment. Under her leadership the Cherokee Nation became what her parents had set out for decades earlier—a modern world.

The voices of her peers depict the life of a woman who surmounted societal pressure to make her life a living example of achievement and dedication to others. The film successfully documents this challenging rise to power by honoring her in remembrance. Mankiller is impactful and soft-spoken, just like its namesake.

 

Mankiller will open the National Museum of the American Indian’s Native Cinema Showcase in Santa Fe, New Mexico, August 15. Director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl will be in attendance. To watch for other screenings, follow the film on Facebook or Twitter.

Sequoia CarrilloSequoia Carrillo (Navajo/Ute) is an intern in the Office of Public Affairs at the National Museum of the American Indian. In the fall, she will be a junior at the University of Virginia, where she is specializing in History and Media Studies. During the school year, Sequoia works for the American History podcast and public radio program BackStory.

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August 04, 2017

Q’eswachaka, the Last Inka Suspension Bridge

By Allie Plata

Qeswachaka Bridge by Doug McMains
The Q'eswachaka Bridge has been rebuilt continuously since the time of the Inkas. Photo: National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian

The importance of the Q’eswachaka Bridge, which crosses the Apurimac River in Canas Province, Peru, is extensive. To understand the impact this bridge has had on the Inka Road and the communities it connects today, it helps first to understand the history behind the bridge.

As the Great Inka Road, or Qhapaq Ñan in Quechua, was constructed, many logistical problems arose. Spanning nearly 25,000 miles, the Inka Road network runs through many different terrains, including the Andes Mountains. To solve the problem presented by steep canyons and gorges, the Inka  pioneered suspension bridges that would allow soldiers, messengers, and officials to safely cross and further expand their civilization's reign. These suspension bridges, which connected regions that had previously been isolated from one another, were essential to the organization and administration of the state and played a crucial role in the social history of the region. After the fall of the Inka Empire, the bridges survived for centuries and continued to serve as vital links in the Andean road system until the 20th century.

Chroniclers claim that the Inka used suspension bridges to extend their rule into new regions as early as the 13th century, when the Inka Mayta Capac conquered lands west of Cusco, and spanning into the 16th century. The Inka military use of the bridges can be divided into two sections: the control of lands and peoples already within the empire and the subjugation of new peoples. Even before the Spanish arrived in the empire, it was a common practice in warfare to cut bridges down or to burn them. The goals were both offensive—to isolate opposing warriors—and defensive—to stop invaders or prevent thoughts of retreat among one’s own army. Once a bridge was destroyed it took weeks to rebuild it. Bridges contributed to the downfall of the empire as well, by allowing the Spanish to cross into Inka territory, although bridges were also burned to slow the Spanish from reaching Cusco.

Pulling the cables taut
The main cables are stretched across the river before the old bridge is cut down. Men from neighboring communities strain to pull the new cables taut.

Inka bridges have three common design characteristics: braided cables of natural fiber form the floor and handrails, stone abutments anchor the cables on either side of the bridge, and vertical ties run between the main cables and handrails. If you look at modern bridges and compare them to the structure of the Q’eswachaka, the Inka bridge differs in that the main cables used to create the bridges not only support them, but also serve as the walkway.

Weaving the bridge 1
Weaving the bridge 2
One team of master bridge-builders begins weaving from the right bank of the river while the other weaves from the left. 

The location of the Q’eswachaka Bridge—the only remaining suspension bridge of its kind—has remained the same since the reign of the Inka. The 500-year-old tradition of construction is maintained by members of four Quechua communities—Huinchiri, Chaupibanda, Choccayhua, and Ccollana Quehue—who rebuild the bridge each year. People from the communities harvest a local grass and prepare it to be woven into cables. All of the cables begin with small cords formed by twisting together the harvested grass. The small cords are then twisted together to form a larger rope, and these larger ropes are braided to create the main cables used to support the bridge.

The communities work together to pull the ropes and stretch them out. Builders leave the old bridge in place until they have hauled the new cables across the Apurimac Gorge, then cut it down and let it fall into the river. Once the main cables that will support the new  bridge and serve as its floor are taut, and the cables that will serve as handrails as well, master bridge-builders work from each end of the bridge to weave its sides. Sticks added every few feet help keep the bridge from twisting. When the master builders meet at the center of the span, all the remains is to lay matting over the bridge's floor. 

The finished bridge
The builders meet in the center of the bridge. Assistants will lay matting over the cables of the floor. Then, everyone celebrates!

The bridge-builders are so skilled, and their collaboration is so well coordinated, that it takes only three days for them to rebuild the bridge. Afterward the local communities come together for a celebration. The bridge connects the communities literally and figuratively. Rebuilding it is a tradition that has been carried on for hundreds of years and a joyous experience for people to be a part of. The Q’eswachaka Bridge acts as a link between the past and the future, and it serves as a great example of the innovation and engineering abilities of the magnificent Inka Empire.

You can see a replica of a section of the bridge, woven by the communities, in the exhibition The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire—on view at the museum in Washington, D.C., through June 1, 2020. Or visit the exhibition online in English or Spanish.

Allie Plata (Comanche Nation of Oklahoma) is a student at the University of Kentucky (class of 2018) studying Integrated Strategic Communication and a DJ for the campus radio station WRFL.

Photographs, unless otherwise credited are from the video Weaving the Bridge at Q'eswachaka, produced by Noonday Films for the National Museum of the American Indian. 

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August 01, 2017

Musician Spencer Battiest Talks Heritage, Motivation, and Standing Rock Ahead of Museum Concerts

By Sequoia Carrillo

At the 2016 Native American Music Awards, Spencer Battiest took home two things: a Nammy for Best Pop Recording for the album Stupid in Love and Taboo's phone number. Taboo, the 2016 Hall of Fame Inductee, rose to fame in the 1990s through his band, the Black Eyed Peas, to this day one of the best-selling pop groups of all time. "We heard Taboo was going to be there," Spencer explained. "So my brother, who is a hip-hop artist, made it his mission to get his phone number by the end of the night." It turned out Taboo wanted to talk to them just as much they wanted to talk to him. "He said he loved our performances and he had this idea to create a video with all the top Native artists to speak up for #NoDAPL. He said he wanted to be in touch in the next two weeks to get something together. This was late September when things were heating up so we were pressed for time.”

Battiest Brothers and Taboo
From left to right: Zack “Doc” Battiest, Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas, and Spencer Battiest in the music video "Stand Up/Stand N Rock," which has more than half a million views on YouTube. Credit: Taboo

More than half a million YouTube views later, it’s no wonder Spencer is eager to talk about "Stand Up/Stand N Rock." “Taboo is so down to earth—the nicest man I’ve ever met,” he said. “It was such a cool experience because so many of us lived far away, but we recorded in our respective studios and it came together in this great song.” Once he produced the song, Taboo invited all the featured artists to Los Angeles to shoot the video. “I was performing in San Francisco that day, so my brother and I had to miss the full shoot with the other artists,” he laughed. “I actually didn’t get to meet everyone on the video until we were invited to perform at NYU a few months later.”

Battiest’s spotlight in the "Stand Up/Stand N Rock" music video was the latest accolade in an award-winning career. This week he’ll add New York and Washington, D.C., to his list of shows when the National Museum of the American Indian hosts him in its two public venues. On Thursday, August 3, at the museum’s Heye Center in New York, he'll take part in Native Sounds Downtown, a festival nearly two decades old. On Saturday, August 5, in Washington, he'll headline the 11th Annual Native Sounds Concert.

When I sat down with Spencer I wanted to learn how his career took off, but specifically what kept bringing him back to his heritage.

“I’m actually the third or fourth generation of singers,” he laughed. Spencer Battiest was born to two musicians on the Seminole Tribe's Hollywood, Florida, reservation. His father, Henry Battiest Jr. (Choctaw), grew up a part of the Battiest Gospel Singers. The family traveled the country singing. “Somehow they ended up down in the Everglades and went to a little Seminole church,” he said. “That’s where my dad met my mom.” At the time, they were both 17. They married a few years later.

Battiest-Love-0f-My-Life
Spencer Battiest in the video of his single "Love of My Life." Credit: Hard Rock Records

It wasn’t long before the young Battiest family imparted a love of music to their seven children. “My first memory on stage was when I was about four years old at my grandfather’s church in Oklahoma. They propped me up on the piano and put a microphone in my face.” His father—“a perfectionist and a big talent himself”—saw potential and taught him the basics early on. He credits a few great teachers and his school theatre department for showing him that he wanted to pursue a career in the performing arts.

In 2013 Spencer became the first American Indian artist to sign with Hard Rock Records. The choice to sign with Hard Rock was one that “felt like going home.” The Seminole Tribe acquired Hard Rock International in 2007. Under their leadership, Spencer performed across the United States and Europe. In addition, both of his award-winning music videos—“The Storm” and “Love of My Life”—play in every Hard Rock Cafe across the globe. “When people step into the cafe to have a burger, doesn’t matter if they’re in Ibiza or Houston,” he said, “they can learn about our [tribe’s] history from my song 'The Storm.' That’s just my small contribution at this moment.”

“I’ve always had close ties with my tribe since I was young,” Spencer explained. “As I push forward in my career and see how far I can go, I always carry my tribe with me.” Battiest’s reverence for his heritage is palpable in his interview as well as his work. Both of his music videos have had a Native director, actors, tech hands, and producers. “I love doing business with other Natives. That’s always been my thing.”

Battiest Brothers Storm
Spencer and Doc Battiest in the video for their single "The Storm." Credit: UnconqueredMedia

Battiest and his brother Doc filmed the music video for "The Storm" while teaching tribal youth at a summer camp. “I’d been in contact with Steven Paul Judd to help with my first music video,” Battiest explained. “When Doc and I were approached by our tribe to teach a course at the camp, we obviously wanted to have the kids’ help.” Judd and Battiest worked together to teach the course, all the while filming the music video. “The kids helped with tech, wardrobe, makeup, and location. By the time the camp was over, we had filmed almost all of the video.”

The video went on to win awards throughout the next year including Best Music Video at the National Museum of the American Indian’s 2011 Native Cinema Showcase.

Spencer is excited to work with the museum to showcase his music, both new and old. “We’ve been working really hard on putting together a show that highlights my entire career,” he assured. “Our songs are the stories of our lives. If we’re ever able to get up in a front of any kind of audience it’s always a blessing, no matter if there’s one person listening or 100,000 people listening. I love a challenge.”

The New York concert will take place August 3 at 5 p.m. on the cobblestones in front of the museum’s George Gustav Heye Center. The concert in Washington will take place August 5 at 4 p.m. on the museum’s Welcome Plaza (the main entrance facing the Capitol). In the event of rain at either venue, the concert will take place inside.

 

Sequoia CarrilloSequoia Carrillo (Navajo/Ute) is an intern in the Office of Public Affairs at the National Museum of the American Indian. In the fall, she will be a junior at the University of Virginia specializing in History and Media Studies. During the school year, she works for the American History podcast and public radio program BackStory.

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July 03, 2017

Do American Indians celebrate the 4th of July?

Every year or two, the museum updates this short essay, originally posted on July 3, 2013, with a few more people's descriptions of how they spend the 4th of July. How do you, your family, or your community observe the day? Share your comments here, or look for the discussion on the museum's Facebook page.  

Pawnee Homecoming 07-03-2013
The Pawnee Indian Veterans Homecoming Pow Wow recognizes returning military servicemen and women. Pawnee, Oklahoma. The 71st annual Pawnee homecoming took place this year from June 29 to July 2. Photo courtesy of Pius Spottedhorsechief, vice president of the Pawnee Indian Veterans.

How do Indians observe the 4th of July? Do we celebrate? To answer, let’s turn back the pages of time. A reasonable chapter to begin in is July 1776, when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence and 13 colonies became the United States of America. With the emergence of a nation interested in expanding its territory came the issue of what to do with American Indians. History tells us that as the American non-Indian population increased, the indigenous population greatly decreased, along with their homelands and cultural freedoms.

From the beginning, U.S. government policy contributed to loss of culture and land. Keeping our focus on the 4th of July, however, let’s jump to the early 1880s, when Secretary of the Interior Henry Teller developed what has come to be called the Religious Crimes Code—regulations at the heart of the Department of Interior, Office of Indian Affairs, Code of Indian Offenses that prohibited American Indian ceremonial life.

Teller's general guidelines to all Indian agents were to end tribal dances and feasts. Enforced on reservations, the code banned Indian ceremonies, disrupted religious practices, and destroyed or confiscated sacred objects. Indian ceremonial activities were prohibited under threat of imprisonment and the withholding of treaty rations.

The Secretary of the Interior issued this Code of Regulations in 1884, 1894, and 1904 through Indian Affairs Commissioner's circulars and Indian agent directives. Indian superintendents and agents implemented the code until the mid-1930s. During this 50-year period, Indian spiritual ceremonies such as the Sun Dance and Ghost Dance were held in secret or ceased to exist. Some have since been revived or reintroduced by Indian tribes.

In response to this policy of cultural and religious suppression, some tribes saw in the 4th of July and the commemoration of American independence a chance to continue their own important ceremonies. Superintendents and agents justified allowing reservations to conduct ceremonies on the 4th of July as a way for Indians to learn patriotism to the United States and to celebrate its ideals.

Nimi'ipuu 4 July 1906
Nimi'ipuu (Nez Perce) men and women on horseback dressed for the 4th of July celebration, 1906. Idaho. Photo by Major Lee Moorhouse. P07685

That history is why a disproportionate number of American Indian tribal gatherings take place on or near the 4th of July and are often the social highlights of the year. Over time these cultural ceremonies became tribal homecomings. American Indian veterans in particular were welcomed home as modern-day warriors. The Navajo Tribe of Arizona and Pawnee of Oklahoma are two examples of tribes that use the 4th of July as an occasion to honor their tribal veterans. During these celebrations, tribal flag songs and veterans’ songs are sung. More than 12,000 American Indians served during World War I, and after the war, the American flag began to be given a prominent position at American Indian gatherings, especially those held on the 4th of July. This symbol of patriotism and national unity is carried into powwow and rodeo arenas today. It is extremely important to note that before the Reservation Era, when most Indians saw the American flag coming toward their villages and camps, it symbolized conflict, death, and destruction.

Today tribes hold ceremonies and celebrations on or near Independence Day for different reasons. The Lumbee of North Carolina and Mattaponi of Virginia use this time as a homecoming for tribal members to renew cultural and family ties. The Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma holds Gourd Clan ceremonies on the 4th of July because the holiday coincides with their Sun Dance, which once took place during the hottest part of the year. The Lakota of South Dakota and Cheyenne of Oklahoma continue to have some of their annual Sun Dances on the weekends closest to the 4th of July to coincide with the celebration of their New Year. Some American Indians do not celebrate the 4th of July because of the negative consequences to Indian people throughout history, while others simply get together with family and have cookouts, like many non-Native American citizens.

Jumping ahead to the present: To find out how individual American Indians across the country spend their 4th of July, we asked on Facebook. Here are some of the answers we received in the last few days: 

Norman, Oklahoma: Independence Day has a different meaning for us as Native people. We exercise our freedom carrying on the traditions of our people in whatever that form that may be. For me, it is in Carnegie, Oklahoma, in Kiowa country, at the Kiowa Tia-Piah (Gourd Clan) Society Celebration.

Tulsa, Oklahoma: I am headed to Quapaw Powwow, arguably the longest running annual powwow—145 years. Our family and tribal nation have always played host to friends and visitors from all over the world.

Laguna, New Mexico: As much turmoil the United States government has given our people in the past and present, my father has instilled in my family a sense of loyalty, liberty, and responsibility for our country. He is a Vietnam Veteran and could easily have forsaken this country due to the treatment he and other Vietnam veterans received upon their return. Instead, he chose to defend a country and the land of Indigenous Americans. He then raised his children and grandchildren to respect the country. So we will spend the day probably watching a parade in the morning and then have a BBQ with friends and family. We will honor and remember the veterans on this day.

Akwesasne Mohawk territory, Haudenosaunee territory: We don't celebrate the independence of our colonizer, especially considering that George Washington ordered the Sullivan–Clinton Campaign of burnings, displacement, and murder against the Haudenosaunee villages during their war for Independence. This while so many of our people were helping the Americans at Valley Forge, while decisive battles were won due to Iroquois allies.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin: We have a powwow in Oneida every 4th of July, because we fought with George Washington and the colonists to help them win their independence.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: In Canada First Nations people are faced with that dilemma this year more so than ever, because the federal government is promoting their 150th anniversary and reconciliation at the same time.

Cpl Mitchell Redcloud Jr Day Powwow
Poster for the 4th of July powwow honoring Cpl. Mitchell Redcloud Jr. Courtesy of the Andrew Blackhawk Memorial Powwow Grounds.

Tomah, Wisconsin: The 4th of July—my Ho-Chunk Nation made the day known as Cpl. Mitchell Redcloud Jr. Day, with a powwow at the Andrew Blackhawk Memorial Pow-Wow Grounds. My choka (grandfather) was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, killed in action during the Korean War. Mitchell Jr., was my maternal choka's first cousin and was also a choka to me, Ho-Chunk relationship. I will volunteer on the 4th, if my relatives, the Redcloud family, need my assistance.

Arizona and the Diné (Navajo) Nation: Greet and end the day by thanking Creator for another blessed day. We don’t celebrate but use the day for family activities.

Pawnee, Oklahoma: I celebrate my two grandmothers who were born on the 4th of July. My mother’s mother, Lillie Carson (Otoe), and my dad’s grandmother, Sally Kaulaity (Kiowa). They were both good grandmothers. I miss them.

Santa Fe, New Mexico: We chose to get married on the 4th of July. Having our anniversary on that day makes the day about love and the continuity of my Cherokee family and the families of all the cultures we've married with over the generations. It adds nuance to a day that could just be about patriotism and blowing things up. Plus we always have the day off and get to spend the day with family and friends who believe in the importance of journeying together in peace and equality. And yes, we get fireworks, too.

Waldorf, Maryland: Yes. We have our homecoming then. It never feels like a 4th of July celebration even though it is. It feels more like what we call it, Lumbee Homecoming. We have thousands of people packed in one little town for nine days celebrating our people, our food and culture, their talent, or their coming back home to visit relatives, spending time together, and making new memories, and of course enjoying eating grape ice cream.

Shawnee, Oklahoma: The flag of the United States is not exclusively the flag of the immigrants who came here and created a government, it is also the flag that our own warriors defended many times in the last century and currently today. Yes, it was once flown by our enemy, but it now represents those warriors who fought under it and all those who work toward fulfillment of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights and an inclusive country where immigrants and indigenous people live together equally protected under the Constitution. It is a symbol of the treaty agreements that we as indigenous people still have our inherent rights. Okay, that’s not a celebration but that’s what I think when I celebrate.

Oklahoma City: Do as our people always have: Help feed and care for those who need it!

These are the answers we highlighted in earlier years:

Carnegie, Oklahoma: We celebrate every 4th Gourd Dancing, camping, and visiting my Kiowa people while we’re here, listening to the beautiful Kiowa songs. For three days we are just in Kiowa heaven. Been doing this for years. Now my parents have gone on, but we will continue to attend the Kiowa Gourd Dance Celebration.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Do American Indians celebrate the 4th of July? Answer: Yes, it represents freedom in the United States of America. Freedom to continue to worship Creator, freedom to dance my prayers, freedom to sweat, freedom to rise early and pray the day in and be up late to pray the day out. We, the Host People, celebrate the 4th of July every day!

Prewitt, New Mexico, and the Navajo Nation: No, I do not celebrate. Because I as a Diné will never relinquish my belief or understanding that we as a people and a nation have the right to be loyal to the Holy Ones before all others, including the United States of America, since we as a people existed long before there was ever a United States.

Taos, New Mexico: Taos is a very close-knit community, and even more so at Taos Pueblo nearby. Both have had many citizens serve in America's military in the heartfelt belief that they are protecting our nation. One of our honored tribal elders is Tony Reyna, 97, who survived the Bataan Death March in World War II. I have been told many times that, for us, the idea of protection goes deeper than for most Americans, because this land is where our people emerged, and that any threat to it is met from a place of deep, deep meaning. People here celebrate Independence Day pretty much as they do everywhere. It's a day off, and there are parades and fireworks displays. But for many we remember WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sacrifices our people made. I wish all people could remember that, especially those who allow blind bigotry and hate to cloud their judgment.

Parshall, North Dakota, and the Three Affiliated Tribes: The 4th is the celebration of independence, which Native people have practiced as sovereign nations for generations.

Shawnee, Oklahoma: No, I do not celebrate Independence Day, simply because the Declaration of Independence labels my people "our enemies, the merciless savages of our frontiers." You notice they were already calling the frontiers "ours" when the land was not theirs. Because I do not celebrate Independence Day does not mean I am not proud of our Native American veterans and soldiers. I am very proud of them and of the fact almost all Native American families have a family member who is a veteran and/or an active member in the Armed Forces.

Anadarko, Oklahoma: I am Kiowa/Delaware/Absentee Shawnee, my mom is a Kiowa/Comanche, my uncle is a vet, as many of my other relatives are, as well as my stepdad (Comanche/Caddo). My Delaware grandma always said, “This is not our holiday. Out of respect we will honor their day, because our people helped them.” She said, “I will mourn on this day.”  She would wear a black dress that day.

Laguna, New Mexico, and the Pueblos of Acoma and Laguna: I celebrate the 4th of July and I do so proudly. . . . When you have been lucky enough to travel and see life in other places, you come to appreciate the home and land you live on. Maybe I'm not as bitter as some of my other Indigenous brothers and sisters because my tribes were not relocated and have been lucky to remain on ancestral lands. Our Pueblo people . . . fought against the Spanish in the Pueblo Revolt, but also learned to harmonize with the Catholic Church. Many years—even centuries—of healing have taken place to get us to this point. And I think by celebrating the 4th of July, I feel I am honoring that healing my Pueblo ancestors have prayed for. . . .

Sawmill, Arizona, and the Navajo Nation: I recognize Independence Day as a day off, as time with family. I recognize that the United States declared its independence on that day, but Native people weren't a part of their envisioned emancipation. As Native people, we recognized our independence through our prayers and practicing our traditions. We didn't need a special day to mark our freedom, we just were. So on the 4th of July, I will practice my American heritage and celebrate this country's Independence Day. But my heart knows I don't need a day to recognize my autonomy.

Oklahoma City and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma: I think of the 4th of July as American Ideals Day. If only America would live up to its own stated ideals, none of what happened to American Indian people would have happened. Today, if those ideals were finally acted upon, American Indian sovereignty would be fully recognized and the treaties would be kept intact. The fireworks celebrate the great ideals that could be America, if only greed were not allowed to pervert them.

Norman, Oklahoma: My 13-year-old son (Comanche/Cherokee) is currently reading the U.S. Constitution (just because). When I asked him about the 4th the other day, he kind of shook his head and said that most people just don't get it. Reading the comment above on American Ideals Day made me think of how true it is—how little we know about America's ideals of the past and where we hold them now.

Wichita, Kansas: My people, Kiowas, have always held this time of the year as a gathering of all our bands. They would celebrate for a week, indulging in each society’s dances, renewing friendships, visiting relatives, and so on. As we progressed into this modern society we are a part of, we recognized the importance of this celebration even more so. To honor our freedoms and the men and women who sacrificed for us today is truly a reason to celebrate the 4th of July. Does it mean we are to forget our struggles and the plight of our people? NO, but it commemorates the beauty of our land and the resolve of this nation we call America.

Pawnee, Oklahoma: [It's a day] to celebrate all our Native men and women who served in the Armed Forces of the United States of America, our Native men [the Codetalkers] without whose tribal language, [World War II] might have been lost. To honor our fallen ones, who sacrified their lives for us, and the veterans who are buried in our tribal cemeteries . . . and overseas. To honor my daughter . . . in the U.S. Army, a proud Native American woman who is serving our country. 

Waikoloa, Hawai'i, via the Red Cloud Indian School, Pine Ridge, South Dakota: It is a sad time, . . . thinking of all the treaties never honored. I try to hold my children and grandcubs near and invite others who are alone or ill or elderly to eat lots of food that I cook until I am very tired and thank the Creator for another wonderful day.


As Americans everywhere celebrate the 4th of July, I think about how many American Indians are taking their yearly vacations back to their reservations and home communities. All across Indian Country, tribes hold modern celebrations— including powwows, rodeos, and homecomings—that coincide with the United States’ Independence Day celebrations.

As for me, I’ll be with my two daughters, and we'll watch a huge fireworks display! 

—Dennis Zotigh, NMAI

Dennis Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

How do you, your family, or your community observe the 4th of July? Share your comments here, or look for the discussion on the museum's Facebook page.

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