My name is Steph Littlebird and I am an Indigenous artist born and raised in Northwest Oregon. I am a proud member of the Grand Ronde Confederated Tribes and a descendant of the Kalapuyan and Clatsop Chinook people. Some readers may be familiar with my 2018-2019 curatorial work for the Five Oaks Museum’s This IS Kalapuyan Land, a hybrid historical and fine art exhibition highlighting the lives of the Willamette Valley’s Atfalati Kalapuyans, while also featuring the work of 17 contemporary Indigenous artists from the Pacific Northwest.
Part of my curatorial responsibility for This IS Kalapuyan Land was to take an existing historical display about my tribe and update it to include a Native perspective. Instead of getting rid of the old inaccurate installation, I literally took a Sharpie to the museum and used it to reveal errors made by previous museum employees 15-plus years ago when it was created – errors that ranged from literal inaccuracies to subtle biases that informed the overall tone of the exhibition. Oregon ArtsWatch reviewed the exhibition in January of 2020.
INDIGENOUS RESILIENCE IN OREGON: An ArtsWatch Series
I learned a lot in this endeavor, discovered more about my own family history and my Tribal ancestors. It made me realize just how much of Oregon’s Tribal history has been covered up or erased. I wanted everyone to see the errors for themselves, to juxtapose facts vs. fiction in real time so anyone could see the clear obfuscation of colonial violence against Natives.
Much of my creative work revolves around the contemporary Indigenous community and causes that are close to our hearts, like responsible land stewardship and cultural resilience. I am interested in the ways Native cultures preserve and reclaim traditional ways of life post-colonization.
As 2021 begins, I am on the precipice of a new collaboration with Oregon ArtsWatch that will center on Oregon Tribes and the ways we cultivate resilience within our communities. I’m excited about this series and want to provide some context to explain why my stories may seem different than other articles that you read. The stories will be sprinkled with historical context; it’s how I think and how my worldview is constructed. Everything is connected to the past, and the past is forever tied to our future, one informs the other.
Over the past year, I’ve developed a fuller understanding of how the Indigeneous relationship to the past is fundamentally different from the Non-native one. In 2020, I became the AICAD-NOAA National Artist Fellow. For the last year I have collaborated with scientists in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sacramento offices to create educational public art focused on the endangered Winter-Run Chinook Salmon.
During my fellowship, I’ve had the opportunity to help NOAA develop relationships with nonprofits like SYRCL and Tribal entities like the Winnemem Wintu. Sitting in on such meetings between the government and those they wish to engage has given me some interesting insights: Native culture prioritizes history and family, whether it’s a professional or personal conversation. Non-native culture privileges individual expertise and academics.
Leading with history is how Indigenous people situate themselves, how we contextualize our thought process. When we talk about the land or our tribe, we talk about our history. Our culture exists today, in this form, because of our history. When I create a painting or curate an exhibition, as an Indigenous person I am thinking about my elders and my ancestors as I make my decisions. I am constantly asking myself, “Am I honoring those who have come before me? Am I considering my decisions carefully for those who come after me?” Not every artist or every creative person has to think about their Great Great Grandmothers when they make work or write, but as a Native person, I do.
History is deeply important to Indigenous culture. History informs our way of life. I believe history and tradition are the grounding forces of resiliency. It is literally how we survived colonization, by hanging on to whatever traditions could be salvaged through the often violent settlement of this land.
This history-centered mindset also comes with great responsibility to get things right, to honor those who came before me and those doing the work now. Sometimes this causes me great consternation as I write an article about my culture or an individual from my Tribe. I worry about getting it right. I experience great anxiety about portraying my subjects with the utmost respect and dignity, because historically speaking, Native people have not been bestowed such kindness. Many Indigenous folks are suspicious of outsiders who wish to portray them, because so often the portrayals get it wrong.
Accordingly, in this series, history is interwoven into each narrative. If it were separated from the present, the account wouldn’t be as accurate, or as faithful to the way we tell our stories. Our unique Tribal history is the touchstone for how we interact with the world in contemporary life, and how we envision our futures tomorrow.
This new series, “Indigenous Resilience in Oregon,” focuses on different aspects of Oregon’s contemporary Tribal culture and explores how traditional ways of life have continued forward throughout colonization and settlement of Oregon. This collection of writings and interviews showcases the history and resiliency of Oregon’s First Peoples. It will continue with a story on venerated and beloved Grande Ronde educator, Greg Archuleta.