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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 (Navajo) is coordinator of the National Museum of the American Indian's Artist Leadership Program.
All photos are by Keevin Lewis, NMAI.