April 24, 2015

The Artist Leadership Program and the Institute for American Indian Arts, 2015

2015 IAIA ALP grantees Tania Larsson and Lee Palma at the Cultural Resources Center
Tania Larsson (left) and Lee Palma at the museum's Cultural Resources Center.

The Artist Leadership Program (ALP) of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) seeks to inspire new generations of artists; to mentor young people through pride in learning about their cultural and artistic heritage; and to reflect the fact that indigenous arts hold value and knowledge, and offer communities a means for healing and new ways to exchange cultural information. On research visits to Washington, D.C., ALP artists have access to more than 800,000 objects, photographs, and archival documents in the museum’s collections at the Cultural Resource Center, as well as to exhibitions at the museum on the National Mall. 

The museum and the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe together have developed a program within the ALP for IAIA students. 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 receive credit for independent study. 

Here, 2015 ALP–IAIA grantees Lee Palma (Comanche) and Tania Larsson (Gwich’in) describe their experience in Washington. In the next phase of the program, Lee and Tania will create new works of art for public display at IAIA, based on their research projects at the NMAI. 

LEE PALMA 

My name is Lee Palma. I am Comanche and am currently a junior at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, studying Studio Arts with a focus in Jewelry and Metals. I also work within the Digital Arts department as a work-study student.

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Lee Palma doing research in the NMAI Photo Archives.

My primary purpose in coming to the NMAI was to explore my heritage. I particularly wanted to see if the museum's physical collections and archives contained any clues to some mysteries within my family about where we come from and who we were before we were Comanche. My secondary purpose was to view jewelry and other metalwork objects from both my tribe and the surrounding tribes in the Southwest, having previously noticed a correlation between those objects’ designs. 

My experience was a lot different than I had anticipated. I didn’t expect the collections to feel so alive, and I was really happy to find out how much respect and love the NMAI staff has for all of the objects. It was an unexpectedly emotional process—both looking at the objects and playing history detective by researching their history and possible relation to each other with NMAI Collections Specialist Cali Martin. I also discussed my family history and addressed the lack of visibility and acceptance of mixed-race Natives with Gabrielle Tayac, a historian on the museum's staff. I came through this experience feeling settled in some ways and unsettled in others, but completely prepared to deal with processing those emotions. I have so many mysteries to solve about my family history now as a result, but my entire experience with the NMAI solidified my security in my identity, which I feel will make this next journey easier to embark on.

Participating in the NMAI Artist Leadership Program gives you a better sense of yourself as an artist and your relationship to your culture, but also where you stand within your community and culture. By looking through the collections and objects from your culture, you gain a more complete understanding of where you come from and can take elements from the past to bring with you to share with the present. This experience opens up a lot of unexpected doors and many unanticipated reactions, but it is absolutely worthwhile.
                                                                                                                        —Lee Palma


TANIA LARSSON

My name is Tania Larsson. I am Gwich’in and Swedish and I live in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. I am a junior at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I am pursuing a Bachelors of Fine Arts with a focus in Jewelry and Digital Arts.

My purpose in coming to the NMAI was to laser scan Gwich’in traditional tools used to tan hides. These scans are converted to models in software that allows me make 3D prints I can use as a reference when I make hide-tanning tools. My goal is to go back home to the Gwich’in region and share with my community the experience and knowledge I earned.

Tania Larsson
Tania Larsson studying materials and techniques used to make objects in the museum's collections.

Seeing the collection made me realize the big cultural loss we have experienced in the Gwich’in tribe, which brought me to tears on several occasions. However, seeing how well our clothing and artifacts are being preserved at NMAI gave me hope that we can regain some of the culture we have lost due to colonization and the westernization. The helping staff made this experience so much more; they made me feel welcomed and accommodated all my needs.

I believe my life has been altered from this experience. I have enough reference material for a lifetime of work in various mediums, such as traditional arts, drawing, painting, printmaking, digital arts, and metalwork. I received many tools, tips, and contacts from the staff to help me with my research. I am looking forward to working with some of the contacts I received to learn traditional quillwork and reintroduce this aesthetic in my work.

The greatest impact of this research will be on the authenticity of my work. I no longer have to question if my work is Gwich’in or not, because I now have the cultural confidence to back up my work. This was only possible by seeing firsthand what my Gwich’in tribe was all about before our westernization.

Participating in the NMAI artist leadership program has really enriched my knowledge of my own culture. For many years I wondered what our traditional clothing was, but had never seen it in real life. I am looking forward to bringing that knowledge back to my community. With the help of my experience at NMAI and the previous research work others have done on this clothing, I believe we can bring some lost traditions back to life. That is why working with traditional tools is so important. When Gwich’in people have their own tools replicated from the tools of our ancestors, we will be able to work on our hides and then use those hides to make our clothing again. By filling in the gaps in a weakened cultural circle we will be able to strengthen our cultural knowledge and work.
                                                                                                            —Tania Larsson

 

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 4, 2015. 

The program Lee and Tania have described is a prototype currently limited to applicants from the Institute of American Indian Arts.
                                                                                                                        
—Keevin Lewis 

Keevin Lewis (Navajo) is coordinator of the National Museum of the American Indian's Artist Leadership Program. 

All photos are by Keevin Lewis, NMAI.

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January 14, 2015

Lisa Rutherford Offers Words of Encouragement: Apply to the Artist Leadership Program!

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. ALP's goal is to recognize and promote indigenous artistic leadership. At the same time, the program seeks to enhance the artistic growth, development, and leadership of emerging student artists and scholars through community art workshops in the artists' communities. Selection for the program is based on the artists’ proposed research, proposed workshops or public art projects, digital portfolios, resumes, artist statements, and letters of community support.

During December 2014, the museum hosted artist Lisa Rutherford while she conducted research in the museum’s collections. Here Lisa shares her aspirations and values, and her thoughts about what museums and Native artists can offer each other.

Lisa Rutherford doing research at the NMAI CRC
Lisa Rutherford, an Artist Leadership Program grantee for 2014-2015, studies the design and technique used to make a deerskin coat in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian. NMAI Cultural Resources Center, Maryland; December 2014.


My name is Lisa Rutherford, and I am Cherokee. I live on a ranch near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where I get a lot of inspiration for my work. My primary art form is hand-coiled pottery, but I also create twined textiles and feather capes based on historic descriptions. The 1700s is my favorite century.

Part of my work is demonstrating cultural arts and living history, so I want to maintain cultural and historical integrity, even though I also want to try new things and move in new directions. I don’t want my art to become stagnant or just to copy artifacts, I want to create new things with old influences while maintaining that cultural integrity.

The reason I applied to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Artist Leadership Program was to study feather capes and early textiles, to learn the different methods of textile-making and to help with historic accuracy in my work. I also want to study what Cherokees were wearing at specific points in more modern time periods to help with my impressions when I demonstrate living history.

The NMAI Artist Leadership Program was so much more than I expected! I almost gave up on submitting my application, because I had applied a few times before and not been chosen, and I was really frustrated with my project proposal and research proposal. But Keevin Lewis, NMAI outreach program coordinator, gave me some guidance, and I got the application in just before the deadline, despite the Wi-Fi in my studio going down.

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The four individual artists in the Artist Leadership Program for 2014-2015 (from left to right): Lisa Rutherford (Cherokee), Anita Paillamil Antiqueo (Mapuche), Jacob Butler ((Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community), and Irma Alvarez Ccoscco (Quechua). NMAI Cultural Resources Center, Maryland; December 2014.

To other artists, my advice is don’t give up! Keep applying! The museum staff is there to help us, and they are good at their jobs. I’ve already suggested to several artist friends that they apply to this program. In addition to offering opportunities to see cultural items in the collections, the NMAI staff is also knowledgeable in film and photo archives, documents, and books, and they'll try to make other resources available.

My fellow program participants and I also had training from the First Peoples Fund and assistance developing our staff and public presentations, which we gave three times. Speaking to diverse audiences was a good experience. But the exposure to so much wonderful art in all the museums on the National Mall, by other ALP participants, and in the NMAI collections will provide so much inspiration for new projects.

One of the most exciting times was when I first walked into the collections section of the museum's  Cultural Resources Center (CRC) in Suitland, Maryland, and saw two rolling shelves with my name on them, filled with deerskin coats, twined textiles, and beadwork for me to study. I saw cultural objects I had studied only in photos. I was so excited that I couldn’t wait to get to the next group of materials! I got to see a couple of twined skirts found in Tennessee that have been attributed to the Cherokees. Although one is incomplete, they are in unbelievably good condition, and I could clearly see how they were made. Studying the textiles inspired me to try a different, complicated technique for my community project. Most of my community workshop participants are skilled artists with some experience with twining, so I think they will like the challenge. I hope others are encouraged to do their own research and perhaps apply to ALP themselves.

Many of the things I studied were made to be utilitarian items or for everyday use, not for artistic expression. But I noticed the quality of the artifacts in the collection. Many items were well made and had stood the test of time. Stitches were tiny, even, and strong. Repairs were imperceptible. Beadwork was flawless, no thread or stitches showing. There were extra decorative touches that had no purpose other than to make the items more aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes today we rush to make deadlines and don’t take the time to add extra little touches. Although these things were meant to be used, they were still made attractively and with obvious pride in workmanship.

Lisa Rutherford on the Washington subway
Lisa Rutherford exploring the area's cultural resources via the Metro. Washington, D.C.; December 2014.

I’m pretty much an introvert, so spending a week basically on my own in the city was an exciting experience that I enjoyed a lot. I was out of my comfort zone at times, but I loved every minute of it.

I feel that I now have validation of some of my theories, and new information to help me move ahead on new projects. I also have new questions to research. One thing I gained from the program that I didn’t anticipate was confidence in myself. When I was in the collections, I realized I already have a lot of knowledge and am even able to share information about some of the objects with the museum staff. I gained knowledge that I will share when I teach and when I do living history. I learned that I can gain a lot of information from the resources at the CRC and the Smithsonian Museum Support Center to share with others and help them with their art.

I posted a lot of my experiences on social media during my trip and am surprised by how many people have mentioned they were following me. My community workshop will be limited in size, and the subject probably won’t appeal to a large audience. In addition, though, I am doing a presentation and slideshow to share my newfound experiences with whoever wishes to attend. 

—Lisa Rutherford

Lisa Rutherford is giving a public presentation about her research experience Friday, January 16, 2015, at 6 p.m. Central time, at the Cherokee Arts Center's Spider Gallery in Talequah, Oklahoma.

All photos are by Keevin Lewis (Navajo), NMAI

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September 02, 2014

Protecting a Way of Life: Royce Manuel Leads a Workshop and Demonstration on Traditional Bows and Arrows

By Keevin Lewis 

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On Thursday, June 12, 2014, at the Talking Stick Visitor Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, around 60 interested people attended a bow and arrow showcase and reception highlighting a commmunity art project conceived and led by Royce Manuel (Ak-Mierl Aw-Thum). In the snapshot above, you can see community artists Chris Hughes (holding a quiver) and Jacob Butler (in the baseball cap) talking about the bows and arrows they made from trees found in their home regions. And then, of course, there were bow and arrow demonstrations for guests at the reception and, that Saturday, for interested families at a nearby park. The results were wonderful to see, as some arrows easily cleared 30 yards! 

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Leading up to these events, Royce held a four-week bow and arrow workshop that focused on how to make a self bow and arrows that are good enough for hunting. The workshop targeted fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, and each participant had the opportunity to harvest wood for his own bow and gather plants for his arrows. Obsidian was provided for making arrowheads.

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The National Museum of the American Indian supported Royce’s project—his research into bows and arrows and other objects in the museum’s collections outside Washington, D.C., the workshop, and the reception—through the Artist Leadership Program.

You can see Royce talking about his experience at the museum and his plans for the community art workshop in a short video on the museum’s YouTube channel. For more information on other artists’ projects supported by the Artist Leadership Program, scroll through our section of the museum’s blog or visit our photo album on Facebook. Information about the program, including its goals and detailed instructions on how to apply, is available on the museum’s website

Keevin Lewis (Navajo) is coordinator of the Artist Leadership Program at the National Museum of the America Indian.  

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This is really nice. college & university students must read this.

Great archery learning pictures!

Its like going back to basics & learning what our forefathers used or practiced.

Same with our food. Now we all our going back towards Organic Food.

Cool program to protect the culture.

thanks for sharing.

May 29, 2014

The Artist Leadership Program Class of 2014 Shares the Experience


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. ALP's goal is to recognize and promote indigenous artistic leadership. At the same time, the program seeks to enhance the artistic growth, development, and leadership of emerging student artists and scholars through workshops and youth public art projects in the artists' communities. Selection for the program is based on the artists’ proposed research, proposed workshops or public art projects, digital portfolios, resumes, artist statements, and letters of community support.

During April 2014, the museum hosted Holly Nordlum, Gerald Cournoyer, Royce Manuel, and Nathalie Picard—outstanding artists from Alaska, South Dakota, Arizona, and Québec—while they conducted research in the museum’s collections. Here, Holly, Gerald, and Nathalie share their aspirations and values, and their thoughts about Native leadership and the arts. Later in the summer, we'll hear from Royce on his research into the technology of bows and arrows and their importance to Aw-Thum men and boys. 

—Keevin Lewis 

 

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From left to right: Gerald Cournoyer (Oglala Lakota), Nathalie Picard (Huron-Wendat), Holly Nordlum (Inupiaq), and Royce Manuel (Ak-Mierl Aw-Thum)—individual artists selected for the 2014 Artist Leadership Program at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The NMAI Cultural Resources Center (CRC), in the background, houses the museum's object collections and archives. All photos are by Keevin Lewis (Navajo), NMAI.


Holly Nordlum

I am Holly Mititquq Nordlum, Inupiaq visual artist, and I live in Anchorage. I grew up in Kotzebue, Alaska. My work reflects where I come from, but also who I am now as a Native person, an American, a mother, and a common woman. I use printmaking, painting, sculpture, and other mediums to express my ideas about life.

My intent when I came to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington was to do museum collections research and find as many objects as I could to show my summer high school students in Anchorage—urban Native students who might not have any idea where they came from or who they are as Native people. I wanted to find something for everyone. Also, while I was looking in the NMAI collections, I was naturally interested in Inupiaq items and was so inspired by what I found. I took many photo images and can’t wait to get home to get working.

Holly Nordlum 1
Holly Nordlum photographing objects that will click with her students in Anchorage.


There are so many significant moments of the program to recall! But I do remember that I held a pair of Inupiaq wooden sun goggles (glasses) up to my face and felt I had stepped back in time. I was amazed at the objects the museum has in the collections, but also at what my own people created with the technology available to them. I hope to get that across to my students.

I guess my biggest perception shift during this trip is that, as Native Americans, we are the same. We are all affected by the same issues and government restrictions, whether we are on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota or in a village in Northwest Alaska. The climate might be different, but the lives and culture are so similar it’s hard to deny our connection. The NMAI Artist Leadership experience has only increased my feelings of community.

I am also more determined. The experience at NMAI and the Artist Leadership Program confirmed and strengthened my quest not only to educate myself, but also to give my students more as far as a connection and community. I would encourage all artists to apply to the NMAI Artist Leadership Program as this program was so inspiring and exciting and gave me so much to work with for future art projects and for my students. 
 

Gerald Cournoyer

I'm Gerald Cournoyer, an Oglala Lakota painter from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and I recently relocated to the Washington, D.C., area. My goal with the NMAI Artist Leadership Program changed from making pots to actually harvesting raw clay and turning it into useable clay.There is more to making pots than just coiling and firing.

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Gerald Cournoyer working with reference materials from the archives and the Vine Deloria Jr. Library at the CRC. 

When I initially applied to the ALP program, I was working at our local tribal community college. Now I want to give back to my community this knowledge of pit-firing pots. We will use slip to decorate the pots and fire the slip in a fire pit. The process will be a learning experience for me as well as for the community.

I recommend this program to any and all Native artists for the opportunity to share new knowledge and experiences from the museum. The NMAI and Smithsonian collections are a great resource for information. You will learn more about your people in several different areas, not just about what you are studying. Getting into these different collections brought my Native American art history classes to life. I am learning through my ancestors—they are speaking to me with an ancient voice. In a way I feel I am bringing their spirit home with me. Throughout history Native people have adapted to climate change, invaders, traders, and technology. We continue to tweak our art forms with this new information while keeping our connections to our ancestors. 


Nathalie Picard 

My name is Nathalie Picard, and I am Huron-Wendat. My community is in Wendake, Québec, in Canada. I recently moved to the United States to live in Oregon, and I am a musician. I studied the transverse flute at the Conservatory of Quebec and the University of Montreal in the jazz and pop music program. I specialized in Cuban jazz and Latin jazz. I also play the Native American flute, I am a composer and storyteller, and I sing traditional songs with the drum.

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Nathalie Picard studying a flute and other musical instruments in the NMAI collections. 

I came to the National Museum of American Indian to gather information about Iroquoian music, musical instruments, and traditional longhouse songs to share with my community and teach the teens and young adults in Wendake. I was amazed that there was an enormous amount of cultural material in the collections of the Smithsonian from my tribe, too! What a gold mine of objects, images, and knowledge from my culture! It is very touching to see up close so many objects in the Smithsonian collections. This research experience doesn't compare to looking at pictures in publications or seeing objects on exhibit. 

It always has been a dream for me to do research in the audio archives of the Smithsonian, and it came true. This experience has been incredible! One beautiful surprise along the way was that I was able to see a wampum that my great-great-grandfather, who was chief, was wearing in an old photo. How amazing it was to see this personal family experience reflected so far from home! 

My collections research in Washington, D.C., and getting to know the different archivists of the different museums and archives will be very helpful in the future. The Smithsonian and Library of Congress staff helped me find what I needed and showed me where to search. I will be able to continue to do more productive research even from my home. 

I also had time to get to know each of the other visiting artists and what they do in their lives. We were able to share our experiences together for 12 days. I now feel I have even more new information and knowledge to share with my people in Wendake that will hopefully instill in the lives of teenagers greater cultural interest toward their ancestors’ traditions! I realize that art was the way of life of Native people; they were so creative and patient. The world has changed now, and it is too bad that these traits and knowledge are disappearing. Today I find that modern Native artists carry tradition inside themselves, and they feel that their traditions, songs, and stories need to get out into the world! They have important things to say through their art.

Since I moved to the United States two years ago, I have been able to integrate myself professionally. It is good to be able to share and exchange information with other Native artists in this program. There are things that are beyond words that make us understand each other better, and it feels good. Usually we think of ourselves as a minority in today's world. But for two weeks, it felt like I was on a journey in time, between the past and the future. My head was full of the images and impressions from the objects in the collections, and my hands are now ready to create new projects from these new sources of inspiration.

I am so happy and feel honored to have had the opportunity to be part of this amazing journey that is ALP! Thank you, Keevin, NMAI, and all the wonderful staff! önenh!  


To learn more about Artist Leadership Program opportunities for mid-career artists and arts organizations, including detailed information on how to apply, see the ALP page on the museum's website. 

Keevin Lewis (Navajo) is coordinator of the Artist Leadership Program at the National Museum of the America Indian. 

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March 27, 2014

The Museum's Artist Leadership Program Launches a New Collaboration with the Institute of American Indian Arts

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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. 
 

CHARLES RENCOUNTRE 

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. 

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Emil Her Many Horses (left) and Charles Rencountre working together at the museum's Cultural Resources Center. 

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. 

—Charles Rencountre 


MELISSA SHAGINOFF

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.

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Melissa Shaginoff's research focuses on Ahtna–Athabascan objects in the museum's collections.

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.

—Melissa Shaginoff

 

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 

Keevin Lewis (Navajo) is coordinator of the National Museum of the American Indian's Artist Leadership Program.

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