The Museum's Artist Leadership Program Launches a New Collaboration with the Institute of American Indian Arts
Melissa Shaginoff (Chickaloon Village) and Charles Rencountre (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) are the first participants in a prototype Artist Leadership Program for students at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
The Artist Leadership Program (ALP) of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) aims to rebuild cultural self-confidence, challenge personal boundaries, and foster cultural continuity while reflecting artistic diversity. This year, the museum and the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe worked together to develop a prototype program within the ALP for IAIA college students from indigenous communities in the United States. The program's goal is to recognize and promote indigenous artistic leadership and, at the same time, enhance the artistic growth, development, and leadership of emerging student artists and scholars. Selection for the program is coordinated with the IAIA and is based on students’ proposed research, public art projects, academic presentations, digital portfolios, resumes, artist statements, and letters of support from IAIA faculty. Participating students register and receive credit for their independent study experience.
Melissa Shaginoff (Chickaloon Village) and Charles Rencountre (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) are taking in the inaugural program, conducting research in the museum’s collections and making presentations to the museum’s staff. In the next phase of the program, Melissa and Charles will create new works of art for public display at IAIA, based on their research projects at the NMAI. Here are their personal stories of their NMAI research, staff experiences, and perceptions on Native art.
I am a Lakota from Rapid City, South Dakota. I am enrolled at the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. I am a student and artist working on a BFA at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I will begin my senior projects in the fall semester of 2014.
My goal in coming to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) was to research the calumet and see first-hand how they were constructed by the ancestors. My perception of the world of research changed over the course of the first several hours I spent at the Cultural Resource Center (CRC) during the week of March 17 to 22, 2014. I was introduced to Mr. Anthony Williams, a museum specialist, and he guided me through the research and treated me and the sensitive objects with the highest level of respect and professionalism. He also asked if I would like to use the smudge room, and I gratefully accepted this offer.
The level of security personnel, locked doors and departmental passes all seemed a normal part of the museum culture I have been accustomed to in the larger museum field. It was the level of kindness and family at the NMAI while attending to the need for security that affected my perception.
My wife Alicia brought this NMAI opportunity to my attention after seeing it in her IAIA email account. She is my strongest educational advocate. I will share my experience with my fellow art students as a must-do, and I will also share my new knowledge about the accessibility and proper protocols for attaining research through the NMAI.
The most significant moment was when I was consulting with Mr. Emil Her Many Horses in the CRC collections. He is a respected artist, scholar, role model, and elder from my home community, the Lakota Nation in South Dakota. Mr. Her Many Horses took the time to share with me the stories of our people and how they related to the making of the calumets. He explained the reasons why different feathers, yarns, and colors were used. He taught me things that could only be taught person to person. His teaching will stay with me, and I will share it as I make my public art project for my community.
Regarding the question of art, or of contemporary and traditional Native American Art: I have always identified myself as a Native American contemporary traditional artist. After visiting the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Cultural Resource Center in Suitland, Maryland, my perception of the idea of art is reaffirmed. The making of what we call art is a gift of expressing what is important in our lives. It could be as simple as decorating a bag that holds a ration card from the early reservation era, or as large as a forty-foot totem pole from the Northwest coastal tribes.
The value of this NMAI Artist Leadership Program experience to me is that I now have more of the skills required to be an effective researcher and artist, not only at the NMAI but also within the entire Smithsonian complex worldwide. I have been taught some of the foundational protocols for accessing information from the Cultural Resource Center’s staff. I have become a member of the NMAI’s family, something I value very highly, and I am deeply honored by it.
The first skills I learned and will be practicing have to do with the archival aspect of research. I think this is the most important part for me, because I will be conducting research from afar. Working with Heather Shannon, Rachel Menyuk, and Michael Pahn in the archives department was gaining a very important tool that I can use immediately. I could have spent more time with them easily.
Based on my desire to learn and on what the NMAI has shared with me, I will lead by example. I will continue to research with the tools I have been gifted and share with my fellow students my successes.
I will use these new skills to research my Senior Projects in my last two semesters at IAIA. I will take these skills through the rest of my career and share them with all who ask for my help.
It truly has been an honor to become a family member of the NMAI; it is a dream come true. Thank you Jill Norwood, community services specialist; Jacquetta Swift, repatriation manager; Heather Shannon, photo archivist; Rachel Menyuk, archives technician; Zandra Wilson, cultural interpreter; Dennis Zotigh, museum cultural specialist; and so many more of the Smithsonian family who where so helpful and supportive.
My name is Melissa Shaginoff, and I am Ahtna Athabascan of the Tsisyu clan from Chickaloon Village, Alaska. I grew up in the small fishing town of Kenai, Alaska. I received my first Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and I’m currently enrolled in the BFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. My current work centers upon my own personal identity and issues of contemporary indigenous female identity.
My first intention was to gain a visual reference for objects I had been told about but had never seen back home. Items such as traditional red ochre painted regalia and symbolic amulets. I applied to the Artist Leadership Program in my first semester at IAIA. Being a new student, I didn’t think my research proposal would be chosen, but the chance to experience these items empirically was so intriguing I had to at least apply. And luckily I was chosen for this great opportunity. I would certainly recommend this experience to other students. My time at NMAI I feel has forever changed my art, and the knowledge I’ve gained I will share with my tribe and family.
It’s hard to narrow down what was the most significant moment of this NMAI Artist Leadership Program experience, but I would have to say that a certain item I looked at was particularity special to me. There is only a small number of Ahtna-specified material in the NMAI collections, so I asked to look at all of it. I came across a knife and hide sheath. The NMAI collection staff member I was working with, Veronica Quiguango, suggested that we turn the item around and look on the back. When we did, we discovered the name Chief Nikolai carved into the hide sheath. Chief Nikolai was my great-great granduncle. There are some 800,000 items in the collection at NMAI and somehow I chose to look at this knife and sheath. Perhaps it is just serendipitous, but I feel very blessed to have been gifted with such a physical connection to my experience at the museum. This knife and sheath have inspired a confidence that I am on the right path in the current exploration of my art.
As artists we all draw upon personal history in developing our ideas and process. As an artist with a Native background, I naturally draw upon indigenous technique and material in my work. This experience with NMAI has only increased that background of techniques and materials to draw upon.
I feel that I gained a new respect for the collection itself. There’s a certain power to these items that I studied that is palpable and reverent. Both the knowledge possessed in the construction of these items and the thought that perhaps the last Ahtna person to hold these things quite possibly was my great-great granduncle is a humbling concept. I now want to become a leader of my community. I want to share what I’ve learned and experienced at NMAI and encourage others to reach out for opportunities, because experiences like this have the ability to change so much of one’s own work. I certainly will never be the same and neither will my art. I’ve grown as both an artist and as an Ahtna person. I cannot thank NMAI and IAIA enough for this gift. Tsin’aen—thank you.
To learn about Artist Leadership Program opportunities for mid-career artists and arts organizations, including detailed information on how to apply, see the Artist Leadership Program page on the museum’s website. Please note that this year's deadline for applications is Monday, May 5, 2014.
The program Melissa and Charles have described is a prototype currently limited to applicants from Institute of American Indian Arts.
Keevin Lewis (Navajo) is coordinator of the National Museum of the American Indian's Artist Leadership Program.