By: Megan Red Shirt-Shaw
As Indigenous people, we depend on community engagement, collective reckoning and healing through artwork, poetry, film and true histories about our Tribal communities. COVID-19 has challenged the creative process and engaging Indigenous ways of knowing on new platforms and venues virtually – across nations and experiences, in isolation and on long FaceTime calls with friends and collaborators.
Thanks to American Indian Graduate Center, I had the opportunity to visit with four Native Creatives, through Zoom calls and the written word – Tazbah Rose Chavez, Hud Oberly, Tommy Orange and Crystal Echo Hawk – about Native representation in the current state of American culture and social movements.
Tazbah Rose Chavez is a citizen of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, and from the Nüümü, Diné and San Carlos Apache Tribes. As a poet, writer and director, we visited about her years growing up on the Bishop Paiute reservation.
Hud Oberly is an Osage, Caddo and Comanche creative and American Indian Graduate Center Board Member. While his journey started by working in film, he is now the Creative Director for Urban Native Era (UNE). UNE specializes in clothing design and content to increase the visibility of Indigenous Peoples.
Tommy Orange is a novelist and writer from Oakland, who is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. He is also an American Indian Graduate Center Alumnus. As he works on new writing projects, he and his family are learning the Cheyenne language from his father.
Crystal Echo Hawk is Pawnee and the founder and CEO of IllumiNative, a new nonprofit initiative designed to increase the visibility of – and challenge the negative narrative about – Native Nations and peoples in American society.
Working across Tribal nations and mediums, these four leaders are pushing their movements forward in their fields for other Native people, who hope to contribute to these spaces as well. By creating genuine portrayals of Native people and culture within their own mediums and by their own agency, they are setting the stage for future generations to push for strong representation of Indigenous peoples.
As Orange reflected “Our existence is really inconvenient to a narrative America wants to tell about itself. And, so we represent something this country has not wanted to look at…as long as we keep fighting for equality and justice, I think representation will be all the better for it.”
These leaders of the written word, the shutter click and fight for Indigenous justice show as the American narrative of history continues to be questioned, doors open to show complex stories about Native experiences.
Before and through the worldwide pandemic, there exists new modes of expression across social media. Scrolling through the photography and collection rollouts on UNE, influencers and Native youth who love the brand can look into the lens with Oberly and UNE’s founder Joey Montoya (San Francisco Lipan Apache Tribe). From “You Are On Native Land” hats to hummingbird pins, UNE has created an international brand through its online platform, which Oberly has experienced personally in his own work.
“Representation has improved…I think that also can be attributed to social media and media being expanded – being able to reach more places and reach more people…(and) has really allowed representation to be more accurate and be increased.”
This furthered ability to express oneself and create new and innovative ways of connection provides Native Creatives the space to express across different mediums of art and the spaces they occupy in the physical and digital world. Chavez moves between poetry and film. Orange started writing later in his life. Oberly has moved from film into fashion and believes in the possibility of change throughout his experiences. For the creative expressions of self and identity, perhaps the most powerful part of any journey is the path one takes to pursue it.
Native identity is and should be allowed to be complex, and as artists and advocates, as those who believe in their voice should have the opportunity to change their minds. As Chavez reflected: “I was studying for the LSAT one morning, I (thought) when I’m eighty (years old) on my porch – I’m not going to regret not going to law school. I’m not going to regret not getting my MBA, and I’m not going to regret not getting an MFA in poetry. But what I will regret, is I will regret never having tried to be a writer and an artist full time, because that was something that I just hadn’t given myself the opportunity to do.”
Watching the videos Chavez directed as the Creative Director for B.Yellowtail’s marketing and the trailer for her AT&T lab film “Your Name Isn’t English.” her willingness to leap into her love of creating extends across her mediums of expression. Across these experiences of change, believing in the power of their perspectives as culture keepers, designers, writers and authentic Indigenous voices in mainstream media and culture can move the narrative. As Chavez reflected, the more normalized we become as writers and characters, the more complex our experiences become to viewers.
In the written word and for many of us Tommy Orange’s “There There” was one of the first times we did. For so many Native people with urban experiences, we remember the first reads of Orange’s debut novel “There There” – on flights, or before we fell asleep, in our grandmother’s homes, or the city we loved. So rarely do we get to see versions of ourselves as urban people, and for many of us Orange’s universe was one of the first times we did.
Despite the Pulitzer Prize nomination, Orange still faced choices about his Indigenous frame of reference.
“You wrote the Native American (book) (suggesting) your next book is just going to be normal…as if writing with white characters is what I should be doing – and I sort of did this weird detour thing and I can get back to writing about regular people. And I think, I feel like that’s such a huge reflection and representation and this idea that being a Native person in contemporary society, isn’t the normal thing, or just being a regular Native person isn’t normal either.”
With every collective project that pushes forward, Native people work towards defining complex Native experiences. The more Indigenous voices can move towards being normalized and the creation of art becomes part of the mainstream conversation about community and expression, the better opportunity for future generations.
All four referenced mentors who believed in and encouraged their work as reasons for being successful, from family members to other artists in their field or older mentors who knew it was their turn to pass the mic. When will the country that occupies our homelands allow us to celebrate the powerful complexities we occupy?
“I think Native leadership is defined as a Native person representing themselves and their families and their nations at a high level while making a difference and being a person to look up to in the way they’ve lived their life,” Oberly shared.
As representation continues to be challenged, as monuments and memorials fall, and as the American public is awakened to the possibility of other perspectives, opportunities for new eras of leadership in Native representation continue to unfold.
As Echo Hawk reflected, “(I hope) Native people are seen as fully realized, multi-dimensional human beings (and) it will no longer be unusual or unheard of to see Native peoples and voices in positions of power.”