“I make art to perpetuate culture,” Portland artist Shirod Younker told a crowd at The Old Church Concert Hall a few nights ago. Of late, he added, he’s been working on building traditional canoes. “Making canoes helps me understand my community. By doing this we learn what’s important to our ancestors and I can apply these lessons to my own life.”
Younker, a printmaker, illustrator, and carver and a member of Oregon’s Coquille Indian Tribe, was speaking at We Can Listen, a series that has been working to cultivate listening in Portland with a series of free events highlighting the lives of marginalized people. On May 8 the series, now in its second year, presented Native Perspectives on Arts, Culture and Justice, a discussion with native artists about their work, how their identity informs their work, and how their work intersects with social justice.
After an opening drum prayer each artist gave a short presentation, and Younker took the stage first. Besides being a working artist he is the program manager for Journeys in Creativity, a program through the Oregon College of Art and Craft that teaches traditional and contemporary art to native youth. He sees his art as a form of sharing, a way to connect with people, and the antidote to greed.
Portland writer Jacqueline Keeler (Diné and Dakota) is the editor of Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears, a collection of poems and essays by native writers about the significance of Bears Ears National Monument and author of the upcoming book Standing Rock to the Bundy Standoff: Occupation, Native Sovereignty, and the Fight for Sacred Landscapes. Keeler strives to provide an intellectual understanding of the situation of Native Americans in her writing. “The media has historically made no mention of us,” she said. “So we have to do this on our own.” Over the years she has interviewed hundreds of native people from across the county, giving her a wealth of stories that have never been told.
Visual artist Brenda Mallory (Cherokee Nation) creates mixed media sculptures and wall hangings. She used her time to talk about the inspiration for her art, how she draws inspiration from the natural world, not just shapes found in natures, but the way in which systems in nature and culture are disrupted. She uses crude mechanic parts like screws and bolts to connect softer, more ‘natural’ appearing materials. “I’m interested in what’s ‘real’ or ‘natural,’” she said. A lot of the materials she uses are reclaimed from industrial waste and sometimes her own art. “Reconstruction is a metaphor for culture,” she said, drawing a parallel between discarded materials and displaced native peoples. “It’s about taking what you’ve been left with and making something new.”
Anthony Hudson (Grand Ronde), also known as Portland’s premier drag clown Carla Rossi, is an artist, writer, performer, filmmaker, and occasional contributor to ArtsWatch. He launched right into an excerpt of his show Looking for Tiger Lily, which he recently preformed at Dartmouth. The show is an exploration of Hudson’s conflicted feelings about native representation and his own mixed identity, and it includes quite a few musical numbers (the audience was treated to his rendition of Cher’s 1973 hit “Half Breed”). Pared down to just a projector and a hand mike, he managed to get across the humor, thoughtfulness, and pathos of the show in the short time he was allotted.
The last presentation of the evening was by LaRonn Katchia (Warm Springs) and Isaac Trimble (Apache/Yaqui) who created the short film Missing Indigenous as part of the Portland 48 Hour Film Festival last year. The film highlights the epidemic of missing indigenous women in the United States and Canada. After winning “Best Film” and “Best Cinematography” in Portland the pair took the movie to Paris to show as part of Filmapalooza, a gathering of 48 film competition winners from all around the world.
Unfortunately the program was running an hour late when intermission ended, and a sizable portion of the audience left. Moderator Julianne R. Johnson sat down with the artists for a panel discussion, opening with thoughts on how non-native people can support native artists. “An easy way would be to donate to the Native Arts and Culture Foundation,” said Younker. “Try to get people to listen. Our voices are minimized outside panels like this.”
Hudson compared Portland to the world of Larissa FastHorse’s show The Thanksgiving Play which premiered at Artists Rep earlier this year. “Portland is full of such delightfully woke white people. White people who just take up so. Much. Space.” Like the characters in the play, he sees that non-native Portlanders are so afraid of getting something wrong they usually end up doing nothing to improve the lives of native people. “Ask questions. Listen. Try,” implored Hudson.
“Our history is buried,” said Mallory. “I think there needs to be more education at the base level.”
Johnson tried to tie these ideas into the larger issue of race in America, but Keeler posited that it was separate. “We aren’t just an ethnic group. We are sovereign nations. People think we signed our rights away with treaties. But you cannot sign away your existence. Only sovereign nations can even sign treaties. You are colonists here and everything done to us is done on your behalf. We are paying the price for the American Dream. You can see it in the numbers. What would ethical colonialism look like? Can it even exist? We need to remake the relationship.”
When asked about the struggles of making their art, Trimble brought up the struggle to represent people authentically. With so many different tribes there is no singular native experience. Hudson talked about the struggles to simple support himself as an artist. “I was lucky to receive the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation National Artist Fellowship, but there are hundreds of artists who aren’t getting support,” he said. Younker struggles with the lack of a market. “It’s rooted in specificity. Markets like the Historical Society and Portland Art Museum are mostly selling native goods from Alaska and Canada. That’s what people think native art is. No one here knows what local native art is. We need a marketplace for our goods.” He also cited the large exhibit Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy at the Portland Art Museum two years ago as a missed opportunity to showcase more local native artists.
Keeler talked about the cultural gatekeepers native writers encounter. “We don’t have control. The publishing industry is mostly white. They had Sherman Alexie and they were happy with that. They didn’t do the work of finding new voices.” She cited an anecdote that Alexie had recounted, that until he got his first letter from a publisher in the mail he thought he would end up an alcoholic like his father. “It’s the power of yes. He got his in the mail that day. We need to hear that yes too.”
Johnson ended with a brief discussion of the epidemic of violence against native women. “Listening is the first step,” said Trimble. “Men need to be accountable.” Katchia found that a lot of non-native audiences to Missing Indigenous were genuinely shocked that the problem existed while many native audience members would bring flyers of missing women to screenings. The two would try to share information brought to them as often as possible. “Unfortunately a film has a short life,” he said. “After a few months people stop talking about them.”
Mallory and Keeler brought up the problem with jurisdiction laws in America. Because of the Supreme Court case Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, tribes have been unable to prosecute non-natives who commit crimes against native women. This makes native women especially vulnerable to non-native men who come onto reservations. Major crimes can be prosecuted at the discretion of the FBI. “But they decline to do so about 70 percent of the time,” said Keeler. “I’m actually less safe on a reservation than I am here.”
For more information on native communities in Portland:
- The Native American Community in Multnomah County: An Unsettling Profile
- Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA)
- Reconnecting land and culture