AN INDIGENOUS ARTS ECOLOGY IN A VAST LANDSCAPE

By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015

 

Established in 2010, Native American Community Development Corporation (NACDC) Financial Services, Inc. is a tax exempt, non-profit Native community development financial institution  located in Browning, Montana on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. NACDC is part of a Native-owned and operated community development financing network, and a 2016-2017 First Peoples Fund Indigenous Arts Ecology grantee.  

 

The audience watched in awe. They had never experienced anything like this. Flashes of color, the heartbeat of the drum, the Native dancers and their fluid movements captured this moment in time for the audience to reflect on for years to come.   

In the expansive Montana country, so few encounter the culture lived and practiced by Native people. But the Native American Community Development Corporation (NACDC) is bringing authentic Native culture back into the world of the annual Western Art Week which takes over Great Falls, Montana, every year in March.

“They used to have the Great Falls Native American Art show there, run by Great Falls Native American Art Association,” Darrell Norman (Blackfeet) said. “It went on for about 26 years, a great gathering of Native artists.”

Darrell Norman (Blackfeet)

Darrell Norman (Blackfeet)

Darrell specializes in traditional and contemporary forms of Blackfeet art, and is a past recipient of the First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Award and two-time recipient of the Artists in Business Leadership fellowship. He serves on the NACDC board of directors’ loan committee, and as a general advisor for all things related to Blackfeet culture. He’s exhibited at the Western Art Week since 1985.

“The Native American art show was really missed in the few years when we didn’t have anything during the Western Art Week,” Darrell added.

Through his encouragement, Native artists came back in strength to the Western Art Week by exhibiting within The Great Western Living & Design Show in 2016. The artists were supported by NACDC in part through their Indigenous Arts Ecology program granted by First Peoples Fund. Audiences are once again able to view and purchase work created by Native artists.

“The art week is centered around Charles Russell,” Darrell said, “but a lot of the imagery and paintings depict Native American people, so for us to be a viable part of that Western Art Week was very important since we were the ones being represented so much.”

NACDC Executive Director Angie Main (Gros Ventre) said, “The first year, we only had about eight or nine Native artists, but it grew in 2017. We had 19 artists. They came from Canada, Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota. Because it’s generating so much interest with the Native artists, we’re going to have our own Native artist show next year. We hope to have 30 artists.”

NACDC covered the expenses of the show with various funding sources leveraged with their Indigenous Arts Ecology (IAE) grant. They also worked with First Peoples Fund to create marketing material for the show.

The relationship between the work at NACDC and First Peoples Fund is layered through many years. It was Elouise Cobell (Blackfeet) who helped connect NACDC and FPF. Elouise is best known as the plaintiff in the groundbreaking class action suit Cobell v. Salazar which successfully challenged the federal government’s mismanagement of trust funds belonging to 500,000 individual Native Americans and resulting in a $3.4 billion settlement. Elouise was head of the Blackfeet Development Loan Fund which later became the NACDC. An early activist and leader in the field of Native community economic development, she was also part of an advisory group that formed FPF more than 20 years ago.

Elouise Cobell (Blackfeet) at FPF's 2010 Community Spirit Awards. Image by Ronnie Farley.

Elouise worked for many years on the Harvest Moon Ball with the NACDC, and her longtime friendship with First Peoples Fund President Lori Pourier brought the two areas of work together for a partnership that spans time and space.

In 2010, FPF began collecting survey data from the region. After NACDC became a certified Native CDFI in 2012, FPF conducted a Native Artists Market Study (The Artist Landscape: Blackfeet Indian Reservation) examining the needs of artists in the area.

Because of the survey, and an Indigenous Arts Ecology grant from First Peoples Fund, NACDC was able to begin tackling challenges specific to the growth of artist-entrepreneurs. FPF assisted NACDC with developing a line of credit for Native artists, and conducted FPF’s Train the Trainer program with them, certifying local artists to conduct FPF’s professional development workshops. Artists need access to technical and business training, and FPF offered its values-driven Native Artist Professional Development workshops to cover topics like marketing, business planning, and market booth setup.

“It’s a lot of just empowering the artists, to say that they can do it. They can be full-time artists,” said Jeremy Staab (Santee Sioux) FPF Program Manager. “We’re encouraging them, helping them grow as emerging artists to part-time and full-time artists. We see them supporting one another within the region and district.”

Top on the list of challenges is the vastness of the region where the artists live. It is at least a two-hour drive and steep expenses to sell at markets and art shows.

Through the IAE grant, NACDC now takes artists to shows that expand their markets, including the Western Art Week in Great Falls. Some of these artists are current or former FPF Community Spirit Award recipients or FPF fellows like John Pepion. John is a 2017 Artist in Business Leadership fellow, a longtime exhibitor at the Harvest Moon Ball, and one of the artists to exhibit at the Western Art Week.

One of Angie Main’s goals through the IAE grant is to create an economy for these artists to promote their work collectively. “There’s really not a market for the Rocky Mountain area,” she said. “We’re trying to raise the visibility of artists in the Rocky Mountain region, or you could call it Great Plains Native American artists. It would encompass North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, that whole area. There’s still a lot to do to raise the visibility of just the region.”

There’s really not a market for the Rocky Mountain area. We’re trying to raise the visibility of artists in the Rocky Mountain region..”
— Angie Main, NACDC Executive Director

Taking artists to shows — especially the Western Art Week — expands their market and exposes them to new buyers who may turn into lifetime collectors of their work.

FPF’s Theory of Change — uplifting individual artists who then come together at the community level with guidance from culture bearers, and ultimately gain momentum on a national level — is at work through the NACDC. Artists who are supported through the IAE program circle back to work in their own communities, teaching youth to ensure art and culture continue to the next generation. Several former CSA recipients, like Darrell, guide the work.

This Indigenous Arts Ecology breathes, moves, and interrelates across a broad expanse of time and space. As the weave tightens between FPF and the NACDC, the ecology thrives.

“I’m looking forward to networking with the other groups that are a part of the First Peoples Fund IAE program at the upcoming convening,” Angie said. “It’ll be great to hear how everybody talks about their own regions and how they support their artists.”

Meanwhile, the Native artists assisted by the NACDC are many steps further down the path in their journey to a sustainable art career in the midst of a vast and exceptionally rural landscape.