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

Erin Genia is an Olympia-based artist of Dakota descent. With her skills in two- and three-dimensional techniques, she creates mixed media sculptures, drawings, paintings, prints, pottery, and jewelry.

Erin studied art at the Institute of American Indian Arts and Evergreen State College. Her award-winning work has exhibited nationally and internationally. One of her pieces recently won the Honoring Innovation Award at a show at the Washington State History Museum.

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A little boy in a ball cap tugged against his mother, straining to stay under the morning stars overhead. All those bright colors of the rainbow drew his attention while light filtered through the 35-foot banner of morning stars.

While still carrying a heavy message typical in her work, Erin created the Dakota Pride — Anpa O Wicahnpi (morning star) — banner to act as a little blessing and a reminder to embrace our differences as well as our commonalities in the shared struggle of humanity. Through this public art piece, displayed at the Seattle Center, Erin shares the resilience of urban Native people even when far from home.

“Something about the colors makes people happy,” Erin said. “When they walk underneath it, their spirits are lifted.” This public art piece came about through a Seattle-based art program which added to Erin’s full life as an artist and mother of five.

She’s become more methodical through her 2017 First Peoples Fund Artist in Business Leadership program. Through business training in the program, Erin developed a line of work to support her while she pursues graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall where she’s in the Art, Culture, and Technology program. This “bread and butter” line of work also allows her time to focus on mentoring her son, Samuel, an accomplished young artist with the creative spirit alive in him.

“With knowledge and skill come responsibility,” Erin said. “I must bring others along with me on my journey.”

She also brings the past forward. This spring, through a fellowship with the National Museum of the American Indian (an FPF Our Nations’ Spaces partner), Erin conducted research for her project, “Canupa Inyan: Researching the Carvings of My Ancestors.”

She took the rare opportunity to carefully study designs to pass along the knowledge her ancestors left for her. She recreates pieces in soapstone or clay while she continues to learn traditional pipestone forms. In this way, she brings the pipestone pieces back to her people — and to the public.

Like that little boy in the ball cap, Erin hopes they are drawn to the resilience and hope of her people.