From Alaska to Arizona: Native Artists Explore the NMAI Collections and Beyond
By Keevin Lewis, NMAI's Community Services Coordinator
Since August 2010, seven Native artists have used the NMAI collections to gain inspiration and renew cultural connections before returning home to conduct community art projects with other artists or Native youth in their communities. Dylan Miner (Metis), John Hudson (Tsimshian), Erica Lord (Athabascan/Inupiaq), Royce Manuel Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian), Jeri Redcorn (Caddo/Potawatomi), Kelly Church (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Ojibwe Indians), and Eric Hamar (Haida) all came to Washington, DC, to study and document cultural material in the Smithsonian collections, archives, meet with SI staff, and conduct staff and public art presentations.
Knowing that Indigenous people have historically traveled in sustainable ways, Dylan Miner came to the Cultural Resources Center (CRC) to study Native transportation items, such as, carts, canoes, shoes that were eventually replaced by the automobile, plane, or bicycle. Dylan’s Youth Public Art Project hopes to work with about 10 Native youth in East Lansing, MI, to collectively produce 10 unique lowrider bicycles that will reflect the urban Native community in Michigan and serve as portraits for noteworthy Metis and Anishinaabeg visionaries.
Oral Native storytelling encompasses a variety of formats and puppetry is one method of storytelling for the Tsimshian of Metlakatla, Alaska, which is located about 20 miles south of Ketchikan. John Hudson researched wooden Tsimshian puppets that were carved and used to explain legends, battles, and cosmologies. Mr. Hudson plans to collaborate with the Tsmishian art class in the Annette Island School District in Metlakatla, AK. The art students will help in the creation of numerous puppets, and will assist in the planning and public performance of the puppets.
Erica Lord traveled from Nenana, Alaska to learn more about the material culture of Alaska's Athabascan tribes, and how popular culture has connected indigenous groups that are geographically disparate and remote. (Photo by Roger Whiteside, NMAI Staff Photographer)
For Erica Lord it is all about the future for the youth in her home community of Nenana, Alaska, some 50 miles west of Fairbanks. Ms. Lord searched high and low in the collections, Photos and Film Archives of images of the Tanana Athbascans and material culture of the Gwich’in, Canadian Dene, and the Inupiaq to the north. For Erica’s community project, she will collaborate with the boarding school students who are from rural villages who attend school in Nenana and stay at the Student Living Center and create a wall mural in Nenana. The theme of the wall mural will explore how these young people relate to and define the history and culture of their village.
For Royce Manuel his goal is to recreate the tools of yesterday using the most authentic materials and methods. By studying the Kia-ha here at the CRC and at the Department of Anthropology for the National Museum of Natural History at MSC, Royce was challenged to gather and record as much information to patterns and size of agave fiber used to create these carrying baskets. Mr. Manuel plans to conduct an Artist Community Workshop to teach the methods, processing, and creating Kia-ha under the theme “Binding Our Future to the Past” in Scottsdale, Arizona, from January 29 to February 11, 2011. Royce told me that because the baskets are no longer used in its traditional sense no one has made these baskets in over 60 years. The NMAI Collections once again is a vital resource to Native artists for sharing skills and methods of Native knowledge through art.
Royce Manual researches the traditional methods of Kia-ha baskets for a community workshop he will hold this winter in his hometown of Scottsdale, Ariz. (Photo by Roger Whiteside, NMAI Staff Photographer)
Revivals in Oklahoma can mean many different things to people. But for Jeri Redcorn the revival of Caddo pottery is her main mission and personal story. Following the forced removal from their traditional lands Jeri realized that today no Caddo are making any pots and the pottery traditions are lost. After spending 2 weeks last month in the Smithsonian collections at the CRC and MSC, Jeri will share her new knowledge and inspiration with 30 other artists at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History and the Oklahoma History Center March 10 – 12, 2011. Jeri Redcorn sees herself as a teacher and mentor and notes that she “accepts the challenge and responsibility to share her pottery experience so this clay art is not lost, but handed down from generation to generation with the utmost respect.”
One of the challenges of the NMAI Artist Leadership Program (ALP) is to provide a stimulating and empowering learning experience for all Native participants while here in Washington, DC. And when the participants are able to return for the second or even third time this challenge is set even higher. So with the third NMAI visit by Kelly Church we expanded her research time to include consultations with staff from the Woody Landscape Plant Germplasm Repository of the U.S. National Arboretum and Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. For Kelly it is all about black ash trees, the Emerald Ash Borer, and the legacy of the cultural and traditional black ash basket making. Ms. Church will conduct a Community Arts Symposium to include Native leaders on black ask basket making, seed collection and seed driers, harvesting and preparing black ash. This symposium is scheduled to take place in Plainwell, MI, April 5 – 7, 2011.
Eric Hamar is a participant in the NMAI Emerging Artist Program (EAP) as a sophomore in Native American Studies at the University of Fairbanks. This track is shorter than ALP but still allows the participants to research the collections, meet with staff, and conduct staff presentations. Mr. Hamar knows the Haida language is on the decline and is making an effort to learn as much Haida as possible. Eric is also a carver and hopes to carve a fully functional dancing mask that incorporates facial features that will be painted with the corresponding Haida word. This will be Eric’s contribution to incorporating his Native language in art.
It is truly amazing to see so many SI, NMAI and off site facilities helped to make this ALP and EAP so meaningful to so many Native artists and their communities. Thanks goes to staff in NMAI Collections, Conservation, Photo and Film Archives, Education, Public Programs, Resource Center, Administration, Protection Services, Information Technology, Exhibitions, Curatorial, Public Affairs, Photo Services, Film & Video, External Affairs, Department of Anthropology, National Anthropological Archives, SI Arctic Studies Center, Library of Congress, U.S. National Arboretum, PROVISION Learning Project, SI Enterprises, Smithsonian Magazine, Discovery Theatre, La Mama Theatre, First Peoples Fund, Alaska Public Radio, and the Indian Craft Shop, Department of Interior.
The Emerging Artist Program seeks to enhance the artistic growth of emerging artists in high school and college. This program aims to rebuild cultural self-confidence, enable artists to think more broadly about themselves while providing the art student with new learning environments and resources of cultural materials.
The NMAI Artist Leadership Program enables indigenous artists to research, document, network, and then return to their home communities empowered with new artistic knowledge and skills to share with their community and the general public the value of Native knowledge through art. This program aims to rebuild cultural self-confidence, enable artists to think more broadly about themselves and their art while perpetuating indigenous cultures and reflecting artistic diversity.
The next ALP and EAP deadline for applications is April 4, 2011.
Please see the NMAI website under Indigenous Contemporary Arts Program for more information on ALP and EAP: http://www.nmai.si.edu/icap/leadership.html