Native American women are murdered at rates 10 times higher than most United States citizens. This was just one of many issues discussed at “Native Perspectives on Arts, Culture and Justice,” a panel event series presented by We Can Listen at The Old Church Tuesday, May 8. The first half of the event welcomed six Native American artists who introduced themselves, their work and how their cultural heritage has informed their practice.
The ‘Missing Indigenous’
Film producers LaRonn Katchia and Isaac Trimble discussed their recent silent film Missing Indigenous, which seeks to raise awareness to the crises of missing Native American women. Their award-winning film has been shown internationally. “This is not just a Native American issue, this is an all Indigenous issue,” Trimble said. “We showed this in Paris—we had Melbourne and Mexico City next to us—some folks had no idea what was going on, and both of them said ‘you know, this happens in my country, and I’m so glad you said this….We put Missing Indigenous to mean all Native people.”
In addition, Katchia and Trimble named their group Team Red Fawn to raise awareness regarding the imprisonment of Red Fawn Falls, a water protector and political prisoner who was arrested at Standing Rock in October 2017. Standing Rock was not simply an issue related to water; the main issues involve who controls Native American land and what jurisdictional sovereignty indigenous tribes have in order to stop corporations from laying oil pipes through burial grounds.
Contentions involving jurisdictional sovereignty also interfere with the legal processes of solving missing persons cases. “At least just on Native lands, jurisdictions need to change,” said Brenda Mallory, one of the panel’s visual artists. “A huge part of the problem is certain Native lands are known as hunting grounds for sexual predators because they can come onto reservation land, commit crimes and can’t be prosecuted for it—except at the federal level, and the feds aren’t interested.”
“Most Native families never find a body,” said journalist and writer Jacqueline Keeler. “There is no body; they don’t get answers. They certainly don’t get the tribal police taking bullets and storming man camps.” Federal laws have tied the hands of tribes to be able to prosecute non-Native people for crimes on reservations. Keeler’s solution: “Change the laws.”
Keeler recently wrote about the #MeToo movement and nationally renowned writer and filmmaker Sherman Alexie; Keeler expressed disappointment publishers who give Alexie power by not publishing more Native American writers. Recalling Alexie’s story, Keeler pointed out how Alexie said he would have died an alcoholic if it wasn’t for the eventual yes he got from a publisher. Alexie’s first novel Reservation Blues was published in 1995.
According to The Guardian in 2008, a highschool teacher introduced Alexie to the works of poets that included Leslie Silko, James Welch and Joy Harjo:
“It was the first time I’d seen anything creative by an Indian. Everything else was archaic, loincloth literature. But they combined the day-to-day desperation of being Indian with the magic of being alive, in poems about powwows, broken-down cars, the food we eat, basketball. It was a revelation.”
Keeler said there are at least 400 more books with quality writing every year by talented Native American authors not getting published. Multidisciplinary performer Anthony Hudson agreed with Keeler, adding the point of even with their eight jobs, they are still just scraping by.
Without the recent award for Native Arts and Culture Foundation National Artist Fellowship, Hudson said they would be struggling even more—and most Indigenous peoples don’t have that support. Native American artists, like all artists, need support, they need more yeses.
Portland Art Museum backlash
In 2016, the Portland Art Museum featured the exhibition, “Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy,” which featured Edward Curtis’ prominent grayscale and sepia photographs alongside three other Native American artists Zig Jackson, Wendy Red Star and Wil Wilson. According to PAM’s Curtis exhibition webpage, the exhibit’s objective was to “ask visitors to consider Curtis’ continuing influence on the interpretation of Native American culture while highlighting contemporary reactions to his complex role within the history of representation of Indigenous peoples.”
However, multidisciplinary artist and mentor Shirod Younker pointed out that when it came to PAM visitor consideration, “[PAM] did not allow local Indian people to respond…That’s a slight,” he said. “We have a response to that because we live with the stereotypes that Curtis put on those other tribes.”
“Colonists [and] others,” Younker continued, “they come and they expect us to look like that, they expect us to do those things, they expect to buy artwork that represents that—and that’s wrong.”
The promotion and utilization of Curtis’ exhibition is an issue because it sets up the idea of Native American identity. The art institutions and its patrons accept this single sided reality as getting the gyst of who Native Americans are. Likewise art historians and art history curriculums are comfortable with solely getting the gyst of what indigenous artists’ art looks like.
Indigenous people, Native American people are complex and vast. Art does not benefit by settling for the gyst of Art. Art requires specifics, details, and the agency to seek out, view and appreciate all of the intricate differences and contexts of Art and art production. Native Americans are people and all people deserve to have more than just the gyst of their existence be representative of who they are and what they create.
According to Katchia, the best way to help Native American women is to listen, which in turn can help Native American artists. The event host, Julianne Johnson, added to this point by sharing her experience as a professional singer as a Black Native American woman. Johnson explained that she has a lot to say, but event promoters and venues often told her, “Don’t talk, sing.”
Keeler wants us to know: When water protectors were mauled by police dogs at Standing Rock, when activists were shot with rubber bullets and hosed down with water in freezing temperatures, these acts of violence were done on the behalf of U.S. citizens as colonists. Keeler wondered aloud, “What would ethical colonialism look like?”