By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
Tosa Gladys Two Heart (Lakota) was taught to keep her Lakota values with her wherever she went. Her mother, Iris Gay (Lakota), an elder and retired elementary school Lakota language teacher, instilled in her the importance of money management skills and to work hard to remove herself from their impoverished situation.
Tosa joined the First Peoples Fund staff earlier this Month as a Program Manager and works closely with Jeremy Staab (Santee Sioux), Program Manager. She is supporting the Indigenous Arts Ecology (IAE) grant program as it continues to develop and grow.
“All Natives have art in their blood; it’s a part of our way of life,” Tosa says. “When you enrich that aspect of our culture, it impacts the rest of the community’s health and quality of life.”
During her first week at First Peoples Fund, Tosa attended the Indigenous Arts Ecology grantee convening in Phoenix, Arizona. She observed examples of what happens when organizations invest in artists and their community leadership.
“I met the grantees and the artists that are connected to them,” Tosa says. “Seeing how First Peoples Fund impacts artists firsthand was incredible.”
During that convening in March, they explored the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market. The debriefing at the end highlighted challenges emerging artists face and how communities can support them in breaking into larger art markets.
Tosa comes from a family of artists, including her grandmother, Gladys Gay (Lakota), who has made star quilts for over 50 years. Tosa and her mother help her grandmother with quilting, Tosa continues this art form, along with her many other mediums: drawing, painting, graphic design, fashion design, printing, mixed media, traditional and digital photography, creative writing, music, and paper sculptures. She experienced early art success in high school that included the Heard Museum Guild Student Art Show and being featured in a gallery at The Riverside Arts Walk in California.
Her values have carried her through higher education, including a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, a Master of Business Administration at Bentley University and through Native American nonprofit work since 2008. They took her to the 2015 Miss Indian World competition where she used Lakota traditional cooking as her Traditional Talent Presentation. Her late grandfather, Wilson Gay (Lakota), preserved these traditions and handed them down to Tosa through her mother and grandmother.
“The whole competition experience made me more comfortable in my own skin,” Tosa says, “of being in public and just being me.”
With her focus on higher education, Tosa had set aside her artistic endeavors for most of her adult life until she decided to live out a high school dream to become a fashion designer. It was after she had spent a summer at the Peabody Essex Museum as a Native American Fellow in Public Relations.
“That was a fire starter to bringing me back to practicing art,” she says. “I’ve come to the realization that art makes me truly happy, and it’s a lifelong passion.”
At a 2017 workshop presented by the American Indian Business Leaders Conference, Tosa learned how to run an online shop, and the Tosa Two Heart brand became a reality.
Tosa carried her Lakota values into her brand with providing meaningful apparel for everyday people. She loves fashion that is fun, and at the same time, tells her story. The star designs are inspired by her family’s star quilts. Tosa’s two heart designs represent the double beat of one of her favorite powwow dances.
“With my brand, it’s about tying humanity into fashion,” Tosa says. “We’re all ikce oyate, everyday people, trying to make it in this world.”
Realizing the importance of art to an individual and how that connects to communities as a whole is invaluable in Tosa’s new role as First Peoples Fund’s Program Manager of Community Development.
“When I launched my graphic art apparel brand, I was invited to sell at Racing Magpie in Rapid City,” Tosa explains. “That’s where I met more of the First Peoples Fund staff. I realized I would enjoy the culture, the philosophy, and the type of work of the organization. It aligns with my personal goals and what I believe in.”
“I’ve always been an artist, but to actually do it in a professional capacity is new to me. To be in the environment where supporting artists who want to develop themselves felt like fate tugging at me. I took a deep consideration and decided First Peoples Fund was meant for me.
“There have been numerous people who have helped me, and sometimes help was sharing a meal,” Tosa says. “They reinforced that idea of being a part of community.
“All my life, I’ve felt responsible for making sure I was supporting Native people, whether with my own or in general. We all share the same circumstances and struggles. Working together has always been important to me.”