Native artists support sovereignty through art

Apr. 18—Themes of sovereignty, preservation of language, and art expressing these issues peppered the agenda for the Symposium on the American Indian, and the logo for this year's event celebrated 100 years of recognized citizenship.

Makiya Deerinwater designed this year's logo that populates flyers, programs and T-shirts, for the annual event at Northeastern State University.

"In 2023, I was commissioned to create the logo for this now 51st symposium. All I was provided was the theme, which was 100 years since the Indian Citizenship Act," Deerinwater said.

Deerinwater wanted to convey the celebration that Native peoples are almost recognized people, and legally, they are finally acknowledged.

"I felt a way to present that was showing a traditional practice that many indigenous people do, which is stomp dance," Deerinwater said.

The logo is a homage to the stomp dance and depicts a lineup alternating between man and woman, and the dancers circle counterclockwise. The figures represent a timeline — left to right — of Indigenous people. It starts with modern, then female seminary, to the trading era, and all the way back to pre-contact.

"So they go around the sun to represent the fire of the stomp dance but also a new generation — a new day," Deerinwater said.

In the session "Soft Power: Proclaiming Tribal Sovereignty through Visual Arts," three presenters shared how Native artists support sovereignty through their art.

Amber DuBoise-Shepherd, a member of Navaho, Sac and Fox/Prairie Band Potawatomi tribes, shared the work "Artspace At Untitled" in Oklahoma City, commissioned for an exhibit.

The project was woodblock printing. DuBoise-Shepherd began by drawing three figures on a 2-foot by 3-foot panel of wood. With chisels, she carved out the designs and then rolled ink over the board, each time creating darker and lighter highlights.

"A lot of my paintings are very narrative-based, so I try to tell a story from my Native background," DuBoise-Shepherd said. "I will put in my french heritage — DuBoise — it means 'the woods.'"

Her grandparents on her mother's side were Navaho silversmiths, and her great-grandmother was a weaver. On her father's side, her grandmother was a seamstress and fashion designer and created ribbon skirts and jingle dresses.

America Meredith, Cherokee Nation citizen, is publishing editor of "First American Art" magazine.

"[It was] impressed upon me that all the opportunities I have as an artist is because people sweated and made those opportunities happen," Meredith said. "They fought a lot of heavy duty racism and lack of funding and support for the arts."

The theme of Meredith's talk was, "What does a tribe look like?" She said most people don't have a clue what a tribe looks like. Who gives a tribe its image is the artist, Meredith said.

"Now we have lovely things like Osiyo TV and there are more and more tribal culture centers, which is absolutely fantastic," Meredith said. "But in that thin thread of time during the '60s and '70s — before the internet — you kind of disappeared."

It was the artists who showed what tribes were, Meredith said.

"And by artists — I use that as a big umbrella. Because regalia makers are absolutely artists," Meredith said.

Stacy Pratt, a member of the Mvskoke tribe, spoke on the art that adorns the walls of the Council Oak Comprehensive Healthcare campus in Tulsa.

"The hospital opened in August 2021, and can treat Natives and nonnatives — so [with] sovereignty, we're the nation within your nation — and I was really proud of that," Pratt said.

The art collection was part of the hospital's conception, Pratt said.

"Having a national art, respecting it and using it for your daily life is so important for your identity, but also as a nation," Pratt said.

Part of the money to open the hospital was dedicated to pay artists for pieces to adorn the walls of the facility, Pratt said.

"All the art was either bought from Muskogee artists or commissioned, so we have some massive murals in there," Pratt said.

More than 30 Mvskoke artists are currently in the collection, but it is ongoing, Pratt said.

"I'm also a patient of the hospital and a Muskogee citizen and those are two ways I experience this art collection," Pratt said. "When you [enter the front doors] the first thing you see is Bobby Martin's massive piece that goes all around [the lobby]."

Martin's piece is about the Council Oak story — which is when the Muskogee reinstated their government after the tribe arrived in Indian Territory.

"It tells the story all the way through the removal until the establishment of the government in Oklahoma," Pratt said.