By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
Moving aside tables and chairs, the group came together in a circle. No one was left out as the 25 Indigenous artists participating in the 2018 First Peoples Fund (FPF) Fellowship Convening came together a final time in solidarity as an intergenerational community to make music.
The presenter, performing artist Ehren Kee Natay (Dine), led the 2018 Artist in Business Leadership (ABL) and Cultural Capital (CC) fellows in associating sounds with visuals before creating two groups to use their art in making music. Working together, the groups soon had sounds flowing, and dancers joined in by moving to the beat in the center of the circle — a dancer from the desert Southwest and another from the Northwest in Alaska.
“We had some fun with it,” says Dana Warrington (Menominee/Prairie Band Potawatomi), a 2018 ABL fellow. “At the end, they asked, ‘what did you learn?’ For me, I think as artists we strive to be perfect. Everything we do has to be perfect. That’s the standard we put on ourselves. Somehow in that exercise, though maybe it wasn’t exactly perfect, to us it was. Everybody was smiling and having a good time. Enjoying ourselves is what made it perfect. That was a valuable lesson for all of us.”
The convening took place at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 2018 CC fellow Joseph “Brophy” Toledo (Jemez Pueblo) welcomed the diversity of artists to the space with a blessing and prayer. Throughout the convening, the 25 artist fellows had a chance to show their work with 3-minute artful introductions. The challenge allowed each fellow an opportunity to present their art and share a part of themselves.
“The convening brought together a very gifted group of artists, educators, writers, and musicians who all share a passion for perpetuating cultural traditions,” ABL fellow Jeff Peterson (Native Hawaiian) says. “The ‘artful introductions’ allowed everyone to share their stories, talents, feelings, and experiences. We had lots of opportunities to connect through the programs at IAIA, meals together, and exploring downtown Santa Fe.”
In the beginning, some fellows had trouble identifying themselves as an artist. But when they heard others had the same issue, doors began to open.
“A lot of them feel like they are just doing what they do,” FPF Communications Manager Cecily Engelhart (Ihanktonwan/Oglala Lakota) says. “I saw it multiple times that a fellow was struggling with calling themselves an artist, but then they see the work of another fellow –– who they would absolutely consider an artist –– also doubting whether or not they really can call themselves that, and it made it easier for them to think of themselves in those terms. That shared feeling seemed to really validate everyone's experiences with their work.”
Being at the IAIA, which holds one of the largest contemporary Native art collections in the country, inspired artists and staff alike. A tour of the space revealed what was available to artists.
With the creative side of art, comes the business and legal aspects which was covered with in-depth presentations by Amy Atzel (Atzel Tax Services), Andrew Johnson and Sean McGann (Underexposed Studios), and Leonard DuBoff (DuBoff Law Group). Since a portion of the fellows were CC recipients focused solely on community building, we included sessions geared toward them, including “Artists as Community Leaders with Native Youth Leadership Alliance” by leadership society member Amber Morningstar Byars (Choctaw) and Angel Two Bulls (Oglala Lakota), FPF Program Manager of Fellowships.
“We had such an array of mediums and types of artists,” says Mary Bordeaux (Sicangu/Oglala Lakota), FPF Vice President of Programs and Operation. “We tried not to be too specific in the presentations to meet a lot of different needs.”
Throughout the convening, the FPF core values were not only present but felt and practiced.
“One fellow said that it was a reflection of the organization, that even though everyone came from different places, there was this common core, these shared values,” Cecily says. “They felt less alone in their work and goals. Regardless of where they came from and everyone’s ages, there was a strong sense of camaraderie and connection.”
The notable range of ages broke down barriers. While younger fellows might have a stronger grip on social media marketing, they looked to the elder artists for wisdom and mentorship in teaching cultural art in their communities.
“The intergenerational learning and sharing was really important,” Cecily added. “For some of the younger fellows it was good to see how people have created mentorship in their work, but then also for the elders in the room to see the motivation and dedication of these younger artists. That was a beautiful piece of bringing everyone together.”
As the group grew closer to one another over the two days, the heartfelt “artful introductions” built up a sense of heavy emotion. This led to a unique piece of art being created the first day of the convening.
“A highlight for me was writing a song about the experience with Raye Zaragoza,” Jeff says. “We wrote it together after the first day of the convening, performed it for the group the next day, and filmed it in the morning before leaving.”
The heavy emotions sometimes came from the struggle of an individual to call themselves what they are. But each session, each introduction, each presentation moved the artists closer to what many former FPF fellows discover by the end of their program year: the courage to call themselves an artist.
“Cecelia Fire Thunder [Oglala Lakota] was saying before the convening that she’s not an artist, that she couldn’t believe she got a fellowship,” Mary says. “When she was leaving on the last day, she said, ‘I’m an artist.’ Just the fact that she was able to change her view of herself was beautiful.”