The exhibition "Americans," opening in October, previews with a 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle

Motorcycle in atrium blog
A 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle, a loan from the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, is on view in the atrium of the museum. When Americans opens in the fall, the motorcycle will be moved to the exhibition gallery

The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., recently installed an iconic 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle in its majestic Potomac Atrium. On loan from the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, this classic American motorcycle, with its Indian head fender ornament, will be featured in the museum’s exhibition Americans, opening in October. This exhibition explores Americans’ and American Indians’ deeply entangled history, made manifest by the imagery of American Indians all around us in our everyday lives.

Motorcycle fender ornament
The ornamental fender light representing an Indian wearing a Plains-style feather headdress became one of the icons of the brand. The Chief’s unmistakable large skirted fenders were designed in the 1940s.

Produced from 1922 until 1953, the Indian Chief was built as a large and powerful motorcycle by the Indian Motorcycle Company, once the largest motorcycle maker in the world. Founded in 1901—the first motorcycle manufacturer in the United States—Indian produced motorcycles for the U.S. military during World War I, survived the Great Depression with the help of two Du Pont brothers, and went on to build motorcycles for the Allies during World War II.

Indian tank
In 1928 the Hendee Manufacturing changed its name to the Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company ("motocycle" without an R), now the Indian Motorcycle Company. "No more popular or wealth-producing name could have been chosen," the company's first advertising executive observed. The elegant script logo appears in chrome on the Chief's fuel tank.

Manufactured in a range of radiant colors, vintage Indian motorcycles are highly coveted by collectors enthralled by their early technical advancements and styling enhancements. To give an example, in season 2, episode 6 of the TV series Billions, hedge-fund manager Bobby “Axe” Axelrod takes a private moment to sit upon his newly acquired vintage Indian Four as a new monarch sits upon his rightful throne.

The Du Pont yellow Indian Chief Motorcycle now on view at the museum is one of four specially highlighted objects that will function as anchors in the Indians Everywhere section of the Americans exhibition. As the exhibition's introductory gallery, Indians Everywhere will confront visitors with the ubiquity of American Indian imagery in American popular culture. This bold, immersive display of more than 300 photographs and other images is designed to arrest our attention. But much more than that, it is intended to focus our thoughts on what, unknowingly, Americans have created and accepted as the white noise of our lives. No other country in the world is as fixated on one segment of its society as the United States is on American Indians. Why is this? Why are images of American Indians—some real, most imaginary—everywhere we look in American life, from boardroom to stadium, farm to inner city, fashion runway to tattoo parlor, Hollywood studio to military base, factory to highway?

Moving beyond now-commonplace discussions reflecting the politicization of visual culture in the United States, Americans delves deeply into the historic reasons behind this phenomenon. Whether taken-in sweepingly or considered in detail, Indians Everywhere reveals not only the time span of this imagery—its use began with Paul Revere and the revolutionary generation and has continued unabated to the present day—but also the myriad unexpected, sometimes paradoxical contexts in which it appears. American Indian imagery has been used by the federal government to distinguish the United States from other nations and to define the nation for its citizens, by U.S. armed forces to express military might, by American corporations to signify integrity, and by designers, such those who created the 1948 Indian Chief, to add luster and cachet to commercial products.

Motorcycle + admirers
An unexpected and fun thing to see at the museum, the Indian Chief also carries a message that will be explored further when Americans opens in October: Indians are everywhere in American national and pop culture, and have been for centuries. Why is that? 

Within Americans, Indians Everywhere—the backdrop of American life—provides a starting point for exploring four foundational events in U.S. history: Pocahontas, Thanksgiving, the Trail of Tears, and the Battle of Little Bighorn. The heart of Americans lies in thinking about how each of these events has affected and shaped America’s national consciousness and Americans' lives. In Americans these four events illuminate political realities when and after they occurred and, ultimately, our changing understanding of what it means to be an American.

The title of the exhibition is a play on words. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first historical definition provided for “American” is: “An indigenous inhabitant of (any part of) the Americas; an American Indian.” This usage was common until the early 19th century. As visitors move through Americans, from the imagery of Indians Everywhere to the four events, the museum hopes to spark a greater awareness of the history American Indians and non-Indians share. We hope people will leave the museum newly attuned to the pervasive presence of American Indian imagery in everyday life. And when people begin see Indians everywhere, as they will—even on the front fender of a motorcycle widely believed to represent perfection in functionality and design—we hope they will see it for what it is: A phenomenon that exists in no other country of the world, one that ultimately speaks to the fact that the United States was carved out of the indigenous lands of American Indians, and that its history is inextricably and profoundly intertwined with American Indians.

—Cécile R. Ganteaume

Where do you see Indian imagery? Tell us, using #NDNsEverywhere. 

CRG-small-2017Cécile R. Ganteaume is an associate curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and formerly at the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, in New York. A recipient of a Secretary of the Smithsonian’s Excellence in Research Award, she curates and writes on American Indian art, culture, and history. With lead curator Paul Chaat Smith, she is co-curator of Americans, scheduled to open on October 26, 2017. Her new book, Officially Indian: Symbols That Define the United States, will be published this fall to coincide with the opening of Americans.

Motorcycle photos by Matailong Du for the National Museum of the American Indian. Author photo by R.A. Whiteside.

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May 23, 2017

Native Fashion Now: Designer Sho Sho Esquiro

Through September 4, 2017, the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York celebrates indigenous designers from across the United States and Canada, from the 1950s to today. Native Fashion Now—a traveling exhibition organized by the Peabody Essex Museum and now making its final stop—explores the exciting and complex realms where fashion meets art, cultural identity, politics, and commerce. In a series of interviews, writer and cultural specialist Dennis Zotigh (Kiowa, Santee Dakota, and San Juan Pueblo tribes) speaks with the artists taking part in the exhibitionhere, designer Sho Sho Esquiro.—Dennis Zotigh


Sho Sho Esquiro by Matika Wilbur
Sho Sho Esquiro. Photo by Matika Wilbur (Swinomish and Tulalip)

Please introduce yourself.

Hello! My name is Sho Sho Esquiro. I am Kaska Dene from the Yukon Territory Canada and also Cree.

Can you give us your Native name and its English translation?

My Indian name is Belelige, meaning Butterfly. I use my name Sho Sho for most things and use my Indian name when introducing myself to my people or at a ceremony.

Where did you grow up and where do you call home now?

I am proud to say I grew up in the Yukon, where it snows eight months out of the year. Being able to cross country ski to school and eat what my dad shot was a luxury. I now reside in Vancouver, British Columbia.

How old were you when you became interested in your art form?

I have always been interested in sewing and learning our traditional ways. From as far back as I can remember I watched my mama, aunties and grandma sew, bead, and work with furs. I think my first sewing project was when I was five.

Sho Sho Esquiro %22Moma yeh%22 jacket Matika Wilbur
Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dene and Cree, b. 1980), Moma yeh estsu yeh Giyets'edih (Remembering Our Mothers and Grandmothers) jacket, 2016. Sealskin, silk, lynx fur, beads, gold. The jacket is dedicated to Sho Sho's late grandmother Grace McCallum and modeled by her aunt Louise Profeit-LeBlanc (Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation). Photo by Matika Wilbur

Who are the individuals who inspired you?

I am inspired by the women in my family. Hearing stories of my grandma going out and shooting her own moose, cutting it up, and tanning her own hides—those are the type of things that inspire me. In the harsh conditions in the north, 50 below zero was not uncommon. So my aunties were always sewing up hides and furs to make mitts, gloves, jackets, and hats.

Have you competed and won any awards for your work

I have had the honor of winning various awards from museums. At Santa Fe Indian Market (SWAIA), in 2016, I received Best of Show Contemporary Fashion, Best of Division, and First Place. At the Heard Museum in 2016, Judges' Choice and Conrad House Award. At the Heard in 2015, First Place and Honorable Mention. At Santa Fe Indian Market (SWAIA) in 2015, Honorable Mention. At the Autry Museum in 2015, First Place. At Cherokee Art Market in 2014, Second Place. At the Elteljorg Museum, Best of Division and First Place two times. At Santa Fe Indian Market (SWAIA) in 2013, Best of Show Contemporary Clothing, First Place Clothing. At the Autry in 2013, Second Place.

What does the title Native Fashion Now mean to you?

I love the title Native Fashion Now. I had to chuckle once when a lady told me she was the first Native fashion designer. There has always been Native fashion, so to me this title is very suiting. It is the current work of some of our time's visionaries.

Where do you envision the future of Native fashion to be headed on the world’s stage?

I love that we as artists are getting a platform and attracting more of a general interest. I was very proud two years ago I was the first Native to take part in the world's first-ever fashion show presented on the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Experiences and opportunities like these are what inspires me to keep pushing the boundaries.

How do you describe the relationship between your work and traditional Native art forms?

My work coincides with traditional Native art forms because I am a Native woman doing my art form. Our art form is not stagnant, it grows and develops while we honor the ways. There aren't a lot of historical photos or even old pieces from my tribe's history. Does that make what I do less authentic? I think not, because I am a Kaska woman doing my art. There isn't anyone who can tell me I'm doing it right or wrong because it's from my heart, and thus my spirit.

Sho Sho Esquiro  Wile WIle Wile by Thosh Collins
Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dene and Cree, b. 1980), Wile Wile Wile (the sound of wings in flight), Day of the Dead Collection, 2013. Dress: seal fur, beaver tail, carp, beads, silk, and rooster feathers; fascinator: tulle and skull by Dominique Hanke for Sho Sho Esquiro. Peabody Essex Museum Museum 2016.41.1-.2. Photo by Thosh Collins (Salt River Pima Maricopa)

When you are asked by the media to explain your work, how do you answer?

I would explain my work as contemporary art using traditional techniques.

On average, how much time does it take you to complete one of your creations?

One of my pieces can take months, my longest piece took four months. While I was preparing to show in Paris, I worked about four months, 18 hours a day. I don't usually like to keep track. It's a labor of love.

What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced in creating your art form?

I wouldn't say I've had too many challenges so far in my career. My grandpa always taught me challenges are the times to rise and learn. But I would say any time I've tried to get a grant, I always get declined because they view my work more as fashion and less textile. It's a double-edged sword when you want to be relevant in the fashion sense, but still get the respect and attention of museums and serious collectors.

What do you do to get inspired to be creative?

I love to go home and be on the land. I find that inspiring. But I get inspired by all sorts of things. Elders, family, life, death, hip hop, the environment. When you are an artist you see life a little differently, and so through those eyes many things can inspire.

Are there any unique signature styles that you are known for?

I would like to think I have defined a style in my art forms. I love bright colors and bold patterns, textures and hides and furs. I never like to get too comfortable in what I'm doing, so you will often see me switch it up to challenge my abilities and continue to learn new techniques.

How do your earlier art forms differ from what you produce today?

In my earlier work I used a lot of Pendleton. I don't so much use it anymore.

In your opinion, is it significant that this exhibition opened in New York during Fashion Week?

I love that the exhibition opening coincided with Fashion Week. I think it is significant because in the past couple of years we've seen a lot of non-Native designers being inspired by our culture. I think this exhibition will make people think and will helpfully leave with a better insight into Native Fashion Now.

In the exhibition, are you presented as a Pathbreaker, Revisitor, Activator, or Provocateur?

My work is billed as Provocateur. Let me add that I love Karen Kramer and her vision. Before this show she supported my work. She even came to my first big fashion show during New York Couture Fashion Week 2013. I would like to think my work surprises people when they find out what it is made of. My gown in this exhibit is made of sealskin, beaver tail, carp skin, beads, and rooster feathers.

Where can people go to learn more about you and your art?

You can reach me at

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I would just like to add it has actually been a life goal to have a piece showing at the Smithsonian. I thank you for this opportunity.

Thank you for doing this interview, and congratulations on having your work chosen for Native Fashion Now.

Native Fashion Now is on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York through September 4, 2017. Sho Sho Esquiro's work is represented in the exhibition by her Wile Wile Wile dress.

Native Fashion Now is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. The Coby Foundation Ltd. provided generous support. The New York presentation of this exhibition and related programming is made possible through the generous support of Ameriprise Financial and the members of the New York Board of Directors of the National Museum of the American Indian. Additional funding provided by Macy’s.

Photographs are © the photographers and are used courtesy of Sho Sho Esquiro. 


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May 19, 2017

Meet Native Hawaiʻi: Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi

To celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month at the museum, we interview Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi, a Native Hawaiian who works in Washington, D.C. The museum frequently invites interesting and accomplished Native individuals to share a little about their lives and work. Their responses offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today.—Dennis Zotigh

Native Hawaiian Governance 'Aha 2016
Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi (first row, wearing a black blazer and long necklace) participated in the Native Hawaiian Governance ʻAha (Conference) 2016. February 2016, Oʻahu, Hawai'i. 

Please introduce yourself and, if you can, give us your Hawaiian name and its English translation.

I'm Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi. The name Kawahinekoa was given to me at birth by my tūtū, or grandmother. It means “the brave, fearless woman” or “the woman warrior.”

Where did you grow up, and where in Hawaiʻi do you call home?

I was born in Wailuku on the island of Maui, and that is where I call home.

Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi
Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi.

What Hawaiian community are you affiliated with?

In 1920 Congress made a commitment to house the increasingly landless and homeless Hawaiian community after they had been displaced from lands they’d occupied for generations. The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 was passed to help Native Hawaiians reconnect to the land and improve their economic situations by leasing homesteads on which they could live and farm. I grew up on the Paukukalo Hawaiian Homestead on Maui, part of the 200,000 acres of land that Congress appropriated then. 

You've also held a pageant title in Hawaiʻi.

In 2012 I won the Miss Maui Scholarship Pageant and became a goodwill ambassador for the island of Maui. During my year of service I was a spokesperson for the Children’s Miracle Network, raising funds for the Kapiʻolani Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

What is a significant point in history from your Native community that you would like to share?

Kahoʻolawe is the smallest of the eight main islands in the Hawaiian Archipelago. From 1941 to 1994, the island and its surrounding waters were under the control of the U.S. Navy. This area was used by the navy and United States’ allies as a live-fire training area. A decade-long struggle by the people of Hawai‘i succeeded in stopping the bombing of Kahoʻolawe and helped to spark the rebirth and spread of Native Hawaiian culture and values. In 1994 Congress conveyed the island back to the State of Hawaiʻi. The Hawaiʻi State Legislature had already established the Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) in 1993. Its mandate is to manage Kahoʻolawe, its surrounding waters, and its resources, in trust for the general public and for a future Native Hawaiian sovereign entity.

What issues are the Hawaiian people facing at this point in time?

Of the nation's three major indigenous groups—American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians—we are the only one that currently lacks a government-to-government relationship with the United States. The long history of Native Hawaiians to recover our lost lands, abundant resources, and moreover our ability to self-govern, as a legal sovereign, has been blocked by both political and public policy conscription for over 120 years. The disparity in the federal treatment of Native Hawaiians has caused questions about the legitimacy of Native Hawaiian programs, services, and preferences, resulting in lawsuits threatening our assets and our ability to use them as they were intended.

Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi 2
Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands?

The incorporation of Hawaiʻi into the United States at the turn of the 20th century included the extension of a policy against indigenous languages used as the medium of education. What had earlier been a flourishing system of education through the Hawaiian language was closed, and legal barriers to using the Hawaiian language in education were only removed 90 years later, in 1986. By that time fewer than 50 children under the age of 18 were proficient in Hawaiian, and Native Hawaiian educational achievement had plummeted.

A small group of Hawaiian educators began a plan to revitalize the language by focusing their efforts on the best chances the language had for survival: the keiki (children) of Hawaiʻi. The educators decided to create Pūnana Leo (language nest) preschools—Hawaiian-language immersion schools that would rely heavily on involvement from parents and community members to stay afloat. The first Pūnana Leo was established at Kekaha, Kauaʻi, in August 1984, with subsequent schools opening in Hilo, Hawaiʻi, and Honolulu, Oʻahu, the following year.

This started a revitalization movement that has been extremely successful, serving as a model to other indigenous communities in similar straits. According to the 2011 census, the number of fluent speakers of Hawaiian had risen to a reported 24,000, including 2,000 native speakers. The ʻAha Pūnana Leo has been one of the leading organizations in the Hawaiian language revitalization movement, and there are now a number of immersion schools and programs throughout the state. In the University of Hawaiʻi system, Hawaiian language classes are offered at all 10 campuses, and the number of second-language speakers continues to grow.

What cultural activities or events did you participate in Hawaiʻi?

I have danced hula since the age of 6. My kumu (teachers) were very influential in my upbringing and early development. They instilled in me a set of beliefs based upon our familial and cultural experiences, ultimately solidifying my identity as a Native Hawaiian woman. This identity has motivated me to travel through life confident in the key elements of what it means to be a wahine (woman) as part of a vibrant and flourishing culture. There could have been many other outlets and ways for a six-year-old's energy, emotions, and dreams, to take concrete form, but it was hula that allowed my creative dreaming to happen and those ceremonies and rituals that helped center my thoughts and behaviors.

It was also hula that taught me the history of our female gods, including Haumea, goddess of childbirth, war, and politics. I truly believe that this early understanding—an understanding that came from these powerful female ancestors—largely contributed to my spiritual and mental health and overall well-being.

What are some ways you stay in contact with your culture while living in Washington, D.C.?

I strive to cultivate and embody the values of the Hawaiian community in my everyday life:

Kuleana, to view your responsibilities as a privilege and honor, to accept responsibility as a duty, not in pursuit of reward, but because it is the right thing to do.

Haʻahaʻa, to be unpretentious and to exude a sense of humility. The word can also be used to describe a degrading and lowly state, but this is not an expression of the value. As a value, ha‘aha‘a is a sign of strength through humility.

Hoʻomau, to having perseverance and endurance. To be unceasing and committed to achieving a goal or completing a difficult task.

What message would you like to share with the Hawaiian youth who may be interested in coming to Washington to live?

Our aliʻi (monarchy) and appointed representatives conducted numerous diplomatic missions to Washington. Princess Kaʻiulani (1873–99) was only 17 years old when she left school in England to travel here to meet with federal officials to prevent the passage of the Annexation Treaty. Prior to her departure, the princess outlined her purpose: to plead for my throne, my nation, and my flag. After meeting with Kaʻiulani, President Grover Cleveland removed the treaty from consideration, although it was ultimately adopted by his successor.

Much has changed since then, but the importance of our presence here remains. As laws are being crafted and implemented every day, we cannot assume that our leaders, even those in the highest positions of authority, have had the opportunity to learn and understand the unique history of Native Hawaiians. It is important that we are here to ensure that the contributions of Native Hawaiians, as well as our unique challenges, are kept at the forefront.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Photos courtesy of Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi.

To read interviews in the museum's series about Native elected leaders, click on the banner below. Meet-native-america
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission.

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May 12, 2017

This weekend at the museum in New York

Things to do and see at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York this weekend, May 13 & 14.

From Mohala Mai 'O Hau by Robert Lono ‘Ikuwā, illustrated by Matthew Kāwika Ortiz.

Family event: A storybook reading of Mohala Mai 'O Hau—How Hau Became Hau'ula 
Saturday, May 13, from 1 to 2 pm 

In Mohala Mai 'O Hau by Robert Lono ‘Ikuwā, illustrated by Matthew Kāwika Ortiz. A young girl from Ko'olauloa, is overshadowed by her beautiful and talented older sisters named Niu, Pühala, and Lehua. But with the help of her kupuna, Hau begins to blossom as she discovers her unique talents and contributions. 
The reading is followed by a hands-on activity stamping kapa paper designs on totebags.

Rotunda of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, showing the vaulted ceiling by Rafael Gustavino and murals of New York City by Reginald Marsh. Photo CC Jeanvic24. 
Tour of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House 
Saturday, May 13, 2017, 12 to 1 pm 
Tour highlights include a discussion of the history of the Custom House, architect Cass Gilbert, and sculptor Daniel Chester French; viewing the Collectors Office with Tiffany woodwork; Reginald Marsh murals; and the 140-ton rotunda dome by Rafael Gustavino.
Greater Nicoya female figure-vessel, AD 800–1200. Linea Vieja area, Costa Rica. Pottery, clay slip, paint. NMAI Photo Services, Smithsonian 22/8837. On view in Cerámica de los Ancestros.
Tour of Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed 
Sunday, May 14, 2017, 12 to 1 pm & 2 to 3 pm
Explore the exceptional artistry of approximately 155 objects made of clay, gold, jade, stone and shell. All together, these objects span the period from 2000 B.C. to the present and provide fascinating details about the lives of the peoples who have called present-day Central America home for centuries.
Tour of Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian 
A 45-minute tour of Infinity of Nations, showcasing the material culture of the Americas from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic through many of the most beautiful and historic objects in the museum's collections. 


NFN-10-014-web (1)
Orlando Dugi (Diné [Navajo]) and Troy Sice (Zuni), The Guardian—Bringer of Thunder, Lightning and Rain handbag, 2013. Elk antler, stingray leather, parrot feathers, bobcat fur, rubies, shell, glass beads, and sterling silver. Courtesy of the artist. On view in Native Fashion Now.
Native Fashion Now
From vibrant street clothing to exquisite haute couture, Native Fashion Now celebrates the visual range, creative expression, and political nuance of Native American fashion.
This bilingual (English/Spanish) exhibition illuminates Central America’s diverse and dynamic ancestral heritage with a selection of more than 150 objects. For thousands of years, Central America has been home to vibrant civilizations, each with unique, sophisticated ways of life, value systems, and arts. The ceramics these peoples left behind, combined with recent archaeological discoveries, help tell the stories of these dynamic cultures and their achievements.  
Iñupiaq ship carving ca. 1880–1910. Point Barrow, Alaska. Ivory, sinew. NMAI Photo Services, Smithsonian 21/4677. On view in Infinity of Nations.

Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian 
This spectacular, permanent exhibition of some 700 works of Native art from throughout North, Central, and South America demonstrates the breadth of the museum's renowned collection and highlights the historic importance of many of these iconic objects.
Circle of Dance 
Featuring ten social and ceremonial dances from throughout the Americas, the exhibition illuminates the significance of each dance and highlights the unique characteristics of its movements and music.
The National Museum of the American Indian George Gustav Heye in New York
Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House | 
One Bowling Green | New York, N.Y. 10004

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April 30, 2017

National Poetry Month 2017: An interview with Autumn White Eyes

For National Poetry Month 2017, Dennis Zotigh, cultural specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian, interviews the young Native poet and spoken word artist Autumn White Eyes.

Spoken word artist Autumn White Eyes
Poet and spoken word artist Autumn White Eyes.

Please introduce yourself.

Han mitakuyepi! Autumn White Eyes emačiyapi ye. Hello relatives. My name is Autumn White Eyes.

Can you give us your Native name and its English translation?

My Lakota name is Wanbli Ohitika Win, which means Brave Eagle Woman

What tribe, nation, or Native community are you affiliated with?

I am an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe. I am Turtle Mountain Anishinaabe on my mother’s side, and I am Oglala Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Pawnee on my father’s side.

Where did you grow up, and where do you call home now?

I grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in western South Dakota, in the village of Pine Ridge. This is where I call home. I currently live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and attend the Harvard Graduate School of Education, studying Arts in Education.

How old were you when you became interested in poetry?

i was 14 years old. One of my closest friends in high school was writing poetry and shared it with me. I was fascinated by her ability to paint pictures with words. The following year I was able to take Creative Writing as an elective at my high school, Red Cloud Indian School. This was when I first delved deep into writing, and I have been writing ever since.

Who were the individuals who inspired you?

The first poet I started reading was Nikki Giovanni. I was inspired by her work focused on issues that are particularly relevant to women of color. I also watched performances by John Trudell and was inspired to see a Native leader use poetry to speak out against injustice. His writing inspires me to take the same direction of action through my work. As a young spoken word artist, I was very inspired by Mayda Del Valle’s performance style and hope to captivate audiences in the same way that she does.

Currently, popular Native artists such as Mic Jordan, Frank Waln, Tanaya Winder, and SupaMan inspire me. Their drive and courage to speak freely inspires me to take the same direction with my work.

Have you competed and won any awards for your work?

I’ve competed in numerous poetry slams throughout the years. Most notably, I led a team from Pine Ridge to the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam in 2011. I’ve also had my work published in the Yellow Medicine Review (2016), Last Stand Mixtape (2015), and Last Real Indians (2012), and a video of my work was featured on Indian Country Today Media Network (2012). In college, I was awarded an honorable mention in the William C. Spengemann Award in Writing for my piece Dear Pe’Sla, which you can also read at Last Real Indians.

Do you consider your art form Indigenous popular culture?

Yes, I do. I think writing poetry is a common practice among Indigenous peoples because often our cultures are rooted in oral history.

How does your work coincide with traditional Native art forms?

Poetry and spoken word are forms of oral tradition and storytelling. Our elders have always passed down stories of our tribes. I was lucky to grow up with my great grandmothers, and I loved hearing them tell stories, which always sounded like poetry to me. I also incorporate Lakota language throughout my work.

Where do you envision the future of your art form headed on the world’s stage?

I hope that someday wider society will know and read my work. I believe spoken word generally has reached the world’s stage through artists such as John Trudell and Joy Harjo who have paved the way for artists like me.

Autumn White Eyes
Autumn White Eyes.

When you're asked to explain your work, how do you answer?

When I begin writing a new piece, I do it with the intention of my personal needs—I use writing as cathartic practice. As I continue to create a piece, I do it with the intention for audience. I hope that my work inspires Native youth to share their stories, too. As Native people, we are virtually invisible to wider society, so I use my artwork to reach others and speak out against injustices I have faced and my people face.

On average, how much time does it take you to write one of your complete lyrics?

This is hard to say. I revise my work a lot before I feel ready to share it with others. On average it takes about a month of work before I feel that something is ready to share. But I wouldn’t call any of my pieces complete, because I often return to my them and will change things based on how I’ve grown as an individual.

What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced in creating your art?

The biggest challenge I am currently facing is finding the time to dedicate to writing because of my work as a full-time graduate student. Lately I have been working on revising past work, submitting these works for publication, and performing spoken word whenever I can.

What do you do to get inspired to be creative?

I often will read poetry and watch performances from poets who inspire me. I also listen to music from artists such as Tupac and Blue Scholars, which often inspires me to begin to write. Any time something inspires me, I write it down and will return to it to create.

Are there any unique signature pieces you are known for?

When I run into people who know my work, they usually mention my piece A letter to Urban Outfitters. This piece explores cultural appropriation as an injustice. I wrote it after the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for using the nation's name in their clothing.

How do your earlier pieces differ from what you produce today?

My earlier pieces were created in the tradition of slam poetry. They were very political and have angrier connotations embedded within them. My more current work is more reflective and speaks more on the ways injustices personally impact me. I’ve also been creating work that uplifts Native youth, which was my intention behind the piece Power, published in the Yellow Medicine Review.

Where are some notable places you have performed?

Brave New Voices Bay Area; Dartmouth College; Harvard Graduate School of Education Cultural Celebration; Dahl Arts Center with Wichoiye Washaka (Strong Words), Rapid City, South Dakota; Oglala Lakota Nation Powwow, Pine Ridge, South Dakota, where I opened for the band Scatter Their Own.

As you're a spoken word artist, where can we find more of your work in video?

You can find A Letter To Urban Outfitters and I survived Catholic School on YouTube. Indigene  is one of the tracks on Last Stand Mixtape, Vol. 1.

Thank you.

Thank you.

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April 21, 2017

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: Let's go sailing!

1. Introduction and author bio
2. Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood

3. Roughing out the hull
4. Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock
5. Stitch and glue
6. Sanding and gluing
7. Outrigger and booms

8. Cordage
9. Lashing the booms to the hull 
10. Lashing the booms to the float 
11. Sailmaking
12. Rigging the canoe

Mid Atlantic Small Craft Festival
Heading out from St. Michael's, Maryland.


It’s taken a long time to reach this point in my story, but the canoe was actually finished by the fall of 2013—about four months after I started. That August, I took the canoe and my son (then almost 4) up to visit my cousin Allison and her husband, Steve, in New Hampshire, and they took us up to his family’s place on Little Sunapee Lake. This was my first opportunity to actually launch the canoe.

My first notion was to try it just as a paddling canoe. The Wharram's Melanesia design can be built either as a paddling canoe or as a sailing and paddling canoe, which is what I did. So beside the lake I put it together without rigging the sail.

I mounted the ‘iako (booms) and the ama (float), as well as the bamboo set-outs. I am including the first photo below to show that my cousin and I were easily able to lift and carry the canoe to the water. Two people can move this canoe even when the boat is loaded, though it helps to have a sandy beach where you can drag or shove it yourself if you are going alone.

Left: Launching the canoe on Little Sunapee Lake in New Hampshire. Right: My son rejoices as I return from the maiden voyage of paddling out. Note how the curve of the outrigger keeps its nose out of the water. Photos by Steve Pope

Out I went, and the very first thing I noticed was how incredibly stable the canoe is! There is no comparison to your ordinary tippy lake canoe. The outrigger turns this canoe into something more like a catamaran in terms of balance. The width of the platform created between the outrigger and the hull makes it a very stable craft. I paddled out, then came back and picked up my son. Now you can see, once both of us are in the craft, that the stern of the canoe is pretty close to the waterline (my son being much lighter than I am). This had been my concern as soon as I looked at the plans and images on the Wharram website, and will lead me to ultimately modify the canoe. But that’s another day.

Paddling with my son on Lake Little Sunapee. You can see why I wondered about the freeboard, or distance from the water to the deck, toward the stern.

Then we put the sail up. Oh my goodness! The craft is light, the wind was moderate but sure, and away we went, smooth as silk. I had some difficulty figuring how to simultaneously hold the sheet and steer the canoe (hence my eventual addition of the cam cleat) but it was miraculous to be sailing in a boat I had built myself. And, just a reminder, I had no previous boat-building experience, not even that much carpentry. 

Sunapee diptych
Left: Paddling out to catch the wind on Little Sunapee. Right: The classic profile of an outrigger canoe under sail. Photos by Steve Pope

With practice I got my system down and could put the canoe together efficiently in 30 or 40 minutes. Taking it apart is even faster. As I mentioned earlier, the entire craft—dismantled—fits on top of my VW Golf. I can go from my home in Baltimore to Rocky Point on Chesapeake Bay, assemble the canoe, sail for several hours, dismantle and load the canoe, and be back home, all in one afternoon.

Lashing the float and booms
Left: I've set the pieces in place and am preparing to lash the ‘iako to the hull. Right: After the iako are lashed,  I begin assembling the ama. Note the Xs and the Ys in the foreground, lashed in advance. I also carry a spare length of bamboo in case the mast or spar breaks. 

This has changed my perception of living near a large body of water. I grew up in Washington, D.C., not that far from the Chesapeake, but I had no sense of its presence at all. Now it is virtually my backyard.

Scouting the horizon  launching the canoe
Left: The canoe is assembled and rigged. My son, Holden, scouts the horizon as we prepare to leave. Across the water is Hart-Miller Island, about mile away. Right: Shoving off!
I  sealed off the area under the stern for flotation, with a valve to release water as necessary.

Here I want to point out one more minor modification I made to the design. Wharram’s instructions leave the bow and stern compartments open. You are advised to maybe get a bunch of empty plastic bottles (with their lids on) and tuck them in there for flotation. Wharram also advises you try swamping the canoe in shallow water, just to know how it will behave. Well, I never did that, but I did worry about flotation. So I painstakingly sealed the spaces under the bow and stern decks, leaving a valve to let out any water that might get in. It was really difficult figuring the shapes of the pieces to cover these areas—lots of angles and curves—but I managed. This left me feeling much safer.

Then in October 2014, my girlfriend (now my wife) and I took the canoe to the Mid Atlantic Small Craft Festival (MASCF) in St. Michael’s, Maryland. I had attended this festival the previous year, when I was invited as keynote speaker on traditional Oceanic navigation. The festival includes an optional overnight sail 9.5 miles up the Wye River to a charming campsite, and I had done that the previous year as well. I wanted to share the experience with this lovely girl.

Unfortunately, the wind was dead against us going up, and we ended up getting a tow from the safety boat (which had already transported our camping gear to the site). The previous year I paddled the entire way, as there was no wind at all, but that was too much to ask of a new partner. We spent a lovely night with the small group of others who made the trip (all of whom had larger boats, and motors).

Slow progress up the Wye River
On our way up the Wye river—way behind everyone else. 
Camping on the Wye River
The canoe moored at the campground.

The next day sailing back, the wind had shifted almost 180 degrees, and we were again at a disadvantage. The crab-claw sail just does not like to sail into the wind, but is awesome in crosswinds or downwind. Anyway, it was a lovely, sunny day and we tacked a lot, making reasonable time but gradually falling behind everyone else.

Then we reached the one spot to make the turn into the inlet where St. Michaels sits. Here we were open to the bay itself, and the 10-to-12-knot winds had again shifted to—yes, once again—directly in front of us. The sky had darkened, and the water was getting rough. My instincts told me this was serious and that I had to really pay attention. What we did not know was that a flood tide was now mixing with these strong and adverse winds.

So we tacked back and forth, endlessly, each time losing so much ground to leeway drift that we were making very slow progress going forward. But we were getting closer. The safety boat came back and told us he was going in for the evening. He asked us whether we wanted a tow. It was now about 6 p.m., in October. We said no—we were so close! On one tack, we almost arrived at St. Michaels. I decided on the next tack to go waaaaaay out, almost to the other side of the inlet, so that for sure we would reach our goal.

“Prepare to tack,” I announced, and my girl bent over to avoid the swinging spar. I started to sweep with the steering paddle to turn the canoe, then glanced down. There was six inches of water in the boat! “BAIL!!!” I yelled frantically, and she scrambled for the bailer she had been using to manage the little bit of water we had been shipping all along. Then I turned and saw water wash over the stern of the canoe. “We’re going down!” I announced, as the water came up and the canoe sank beneath us. I felt it go down past my feet, and worried that it was truly sinking, but it gradually came back up, leaving a floating bathtub.

The water was warm, thank goodness, and we had been wearing life jackets all along, but I had to scramble for our belongings that were floating away (the safety boat had transported all our camping gear, thank goodness). We tried the trick I had been taught in Micronesia: We stood on the ama in an attempt to angle the hull out of the water to empty it. But the hull did not have enough flotation for this to work, so we had to flag down a nearby catamaran. There were almost no boats on the water, as it was getting dark.

Map showing our outgoing route (red dots) and where we had to start massively tacking on the return route (black line). X marks the spot where we sank.

A surly young man with his partner and elderly parents begrudgingly rescued us with his high-end catamaran. Once we had piled our belongings on his deck, I said, “Now if the three of us just lift the canoe by the booms, we can dump the water out."

“Hey man,” he replied sternly, “I’m not here to save your boat." So I left the sail up to make it easier to spot, and watched it recede into the distance as we motored away. The man got on the radio to the Coast Guard to let them know he had rescued us, and when the Coast Guard asked about our boat, he replied “It’s just a pile of sticks.”

This is a man who has not built his own boat.

We were unceremoniously dropped off a quarter mile from where we needed to be (but where he needed to be), carrying our wet gear and wet selves through the dark and wind and back to the festival. There some friends we had met immediately swung into action to commandeer a speedboat, and we went out to get the canoe.

These are people who have built their own boats.

It was almost dark, but even with the canoe's dark sail, we were able to spot it. It had drifted almost a mile back towards the bay. Then we did as I had suggested earlier: We lifted the boat by the booms and dumped the water out, strapped it alongside, and took it back.


Flooded St. Michaels
The morning after we swamped the canoe, streets in St. Michaels still showed the effect of the flood tide.

The next day, as I was giving a demonstration on traditional canoe-building, a bunch of grey-bearded boat builders stood around my canoe, which was parked on the ground nearby. “I’d put a floor in it,” said one, “and extend those flotation tanks as far as possible." Yes, I thought. And raise the gunwales! I had always worried about how close they were to the waterline, but the Wharram folks had discouraged me from tampering with the design.

Doug sailing
Doug Herman, sailing the Nāmaka‘iwa (eyes of the frigate bird).

Now I am in the process of instigating these design changes, which I hope will make the craft safer and more seaworthy. Someday I will update this blog about that. But for now, I am signing off. This has been the voyage of building an outrigger canoe. It was something I always wanted to do, but I didn't think I had what it took. I learned—and I hope you did, too—that with just a little knowledge, a great deal of perseverance, and help from articles like this and from YouTube videos, anyone can do it. I encourage you to give it a try.

There is nothing quite like setting sail in a craft you built yourself.

Aloha nui,

—Douglas Herman, NMAI

Doug Herman, senior geographer at the National Museum of the American Indian, is a specialist on the cultural knowledge of Hawai‘i and the Pacific Islands. On April 22, as part of the Smithsonian's Earth Optimism Summit, he will give an illustrated lecture at the museum in Washington, D.C., on traditional leadership and resource management practices in old Hawai‘i. Doug curated the exhibition E Mau Ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation, on view January 2016 to January 2017. He also blogs for the Smithsonian and is the institution's liaison with the round-the-world voyage of the Hōkūleʻa.

All photos by RDK Herman, Pacific Worlds, unless otherwise credited.

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