As more and more Natives move to cities, artists urge merging identities and reject the ‘urban’ label
- Native Peoples Magazine, July/August 2014
Settling in Denver in 1986 was a practical move for Lynda Teller Pete (Diné). She had graduated from college two years earlier with a degree in criminal justice and knew returning home to Newcomb, N.M., on the Navajo Nation would offer her few employment opportunities to use it.
“Helping Native people was always in the forefront,” says Pete, 54, of her employment history. After nearly two decades working to help Denver’s Native population in social services and government agencies, Pete picked up the loom she had earlier set aside and began weaving full time two years ago. It was a skill she began learning from her mother and other family at the age of 6.
“I grew up in a little community where you didn’t see a lot of outsiders,” she says. “I was very influenced by a fourth grade teacher who came from Maine. When he showed us on a map how far he traveled to get to us, I thought he came from around the world.
“I got a very big education, not from the curriculum, but from the stories he brought into class,” Pete continued. “There was a whole world out there. And I thought, ‘How many of us [Navajo] are out there?’ To this day our people can’t be out ‘there’ without us helping one another.”
Artists like Pete, who teaches Navajo weaving at workshops across the country, help pave the metaphorical roads from reservations to urban centers where Native populations are growing exponentially. Although generally associated with a rural lifestyle, last year, the U.S. Census Bureau released figures showing 78 percent of all identified American Indian/Alaska Natives were living off reservation. That’s a jump from 45 percent in 1970 and 8 percent in 1940.
Assimilation policies, including government boarding schools and relocation programs of the early-to-mid 1900s, encouraged – and often forced – Natives to adopt American culture, language, and lifestyle, and leave reservations for big city hubs like Oklahoma City, Minneapolis, and Denver. These policies continue to have a profound impact on Native identity.
The six artists profiled for Native Peoples Magazine, including Pete, represent the innovative ways art can help heal or enhance Native identity, whether on the reservation or off. In fact, the artists profiled here dismissed the idea of the reservation/urban Native binary, saying more than anything it acts as a divisive wedge among Natives. Indigenous people, they say, have always adapted and evolved, and art has always played a role in keeping traditions and culture strong through the generations.
“Art reflects current situations, in addition to being able to capture the past,” says Minneapolis-based artist Dyani White Hawk, some of whose paintings use a transitional moccasin motif to explore what makes something traditional.
“Natives were always trading and using the influence of other cultures – look at the jingle dress,” White Hawk says. “We have a strong history, but it’s always changing and always dynamic depending on the perspective it’s coming from. Our ‘real’ traditions are the teachings that come with it, the beliefs and world knowledge.”
Feeling pretty blessed to participate in some of the interviews and conversations I’ve had lately. Native America: We have heroes alive and well and kicking the shit out of stereotypes and bad news TODAY in all our communities. They are creating photos, music, jewelry, and laws, and hashtags. Support them. Encourage them.
Recently – and over the past few months – I’ve had the honor and privilege to speak to Natives living in Minneapolis, Pine Ridge, Orange County (CA), Phoenix, Bernalillo, Chicago, NYC, Seattle… The list goes on, thanks primarily to the amazing stories I get to write for Native Peoples Magazine and other publications. Every single one of these people are in some way bettering their communities and the people within through art, law, activism, rapping, cultural preservation, volunteering, health/wellness, and even simple parenting or mentoring (wait – what’s so simple about that???).
These individuals: Thosh Collins, Debra Yepa-Pappan, Frank Waln (with a profile coming in the next NPM issue) and others embody the true spirit of what it means to be a thriving indigenous person. Someone who embraces modernity and traditionalism. Someone who understands there is no “two worlds” or there is no “urban” or “reservation.” We struggle but also succeed regardless of location or adjective or blood quantum applied to us by Western narratives.
Collins, a photographer living in Tempe, Ariz., said the binaries we place on ourselves as Native people – reservation vs urban or traditional vs modern, educated vs uneducated, full vs everyone else – only further divide us as a people that really can’t be separated from one or the other. Our traditions have ALWAYS been adaptive and evolving. I’ve said this before, but the whole point of the oral culture was to ensure adaptation and evolution. The Lakota language, for example, is tough to learn because each word and sentence you utter will be different as the time of day changes or whether you’re speaking to your grandmother or your child or a stranger, and what kind of body movements and emotion go into it. The structure is different because you always speak with deference to the subject and everything flows around it. And like water flowing over stones in a river that is always changing, so, too, does the language (and “language is culture is language” – not my quote – I’ll edit post once I remember who said it – I think it was a White Hat…?). It’s about context, not about stagnation. Being Native is to be an ever-moving aspect of Nature.
Case-in-point: We are indigenous to this land, Collins said, and so to say one of us is urban or one of us is rural and to put value on one or the other is to deny our inherent sovereignty and claim to Turtle Island. When I walk out my door in Colorado Springs, I don’t (shouldn’t) see *just* a military/evangelical mecca/touristy city, but a sacred space of healing waters and mountain scapes with a history AND current importance unique to the Native perspective and experience. While I honor and respect and miss the family on my reservation in central South Dakota (and elsewhere), I don’t need to be on a reservation to live a Lakota existence. You may be reading this and thinking, “Duh,” but having light skin and having attended eight different mostly white-filled K-12 schools, I had a huge identity crisis growing up that somehow I was never going to be “Native enough.” And, yes, there are people — too many of them Native, but a lot of them rich white men who own film studios or sports teams — who will never see me as “enough,” but the point isn’t about them. It’s about me. How I live. What moves me to action or to prayer. About my daughter who will carry with her what I’m able to pass down.
There is something powerful in recognizing just how much control we have over our own identities, surely, but there must also be recognition to the power OTHERS have in shaping that identity… Why appropriation and mascots and media representation have such a significant impact on how our younger people will identify as Native. Because without the voices of people like Warren Montoya, Louie Gong, Brent Learned, and others throughout Turtle Island, we lose sight of ourselves through the fog of mainstream (read: culturally insensitive) entertainment, sports, fashion, and politics. Listen to these voices, support their endeavors, follow them on social media. Our identities – the identities of our children – depend on their messages being spread.