Feeling Inspired By These Inspiring Natives

The best part about my work is having the opportunity to seek positivity and share that experience with you. I have made a conscious choice to showcase the beauty and positivity of Indian Country. 

Why? Because I believe that we are the manifestation of our ancestors’ prayers: We survived genocide. We survived relocation.We refuse termination. And we are doing our best to move beyond assimilation and the pressures of extinction.

Each new generation takes on the responsibility of carrying forward the work of our ancestors past. We make a choice: Will we forget where we came from? Or will we do our best to protect our sovereignty and elevate our Tribal Nations? I know that throughout my lifetime, I will be required to rededicate and recommit to answering that question in an honorable way; but through my current work, I aim to offer that enduring richness, strength, resilience, and tenacity of our survival. Sometimes Rez life, (or any life,) can be hard. Sometimes it can seem hopeless.  In an effort to counteract that hopelessness, I would like my photographs to offer some form of hope…

People frequently ask me: “Why don’t you photograph the REAL INDIANS?”  As if “real” Indian identity should somehow coincide with the look of poverty or stoicism.

I refuse to accept those identities as our only forms of representation.

We deserve to have sheroes too. And we do, they are walking among us. They are our aunties that work at our clinics helping our grandma’s and children get the health care they need; They are our farmers that cultivate our indigenous seeds; They are our uncles and grandpa’s who are fighting the good fight to protect our sacred sites and natural resources. 

Here are some of my heroes; I hope they inspire you as much as they inspire me…

Dr. Jessica Metcalfe is Turtle Mountain Chippewa from North Dakota, (though we took this photo on O’odham land in Arizona, since our paths crossed in the dessert).

Dr. Metcalfe is a very accomplished woman. She holds a Ph.D. in American Indian Studies from The University of Arizona and owns and operates a website called Beyond Buckskin– an online boutique offering Native made fashion, jewelry, and accessories. Its mission statement is to “Empower Native American artists and designers, advancing the quality of Native American fashion through education while providing an in depth podium for societal participation. Inspired by relevant historical and contemporary Native American clothing design and art, Beyond Buckskin promotes cultural appreciation, social relationships, authenticity and creativity.” 

I’ve been following Dr. Metcalfe’s work for some time, but have only recently had the opportunity to meet her. I was taken aback by her essence. She’s fun and smart- the perfect combination of strong Indian grandma and your younger-educated-cousin.

We had a very long discussion on the rooftop of my friend Cate’s house in Scottsdale. The sun was setting and as we soaked up the sunshine, we discussed the complexity of contemporary Indian identity. I love Dr. Metcalfe’s reflection on cultural duality:

“People say we live in two worlds, but that’s not how we understand it up North. We do not live in two worlds. We are not split in half. We do not have to choose. We do not strip our Indian-ness. We do not leave our Indian-ness at the door when we walk into a grocery store or academic situation. We are who we are, wherever we walk and we carry all of that wherever we go. Our history and language is with us constantly. There is just this one world.” 

In the past, I think I may have believed the sentiment that I must figure out how to walk in two worlds—and now, after much thought, I believe what Dr. Metcalfe says. I can only walk in one. 

Louie Gong is a Canadian artist, activist, and educator who was raised by his grandparents in the Nooksack tribal community. Although he is best known for his highly sought after, hand-drawn custom shoes, Louie has received international recognition for a body of work that - like his mixed heritage - defies categorization. 

I love Louie. I have known about Louie for about 10 years (since Seattle is a very small city and there aren’t a ton of Native media proliferates), we frequently bump into one another at art doings. It was only recently that I had an opportunity to sit down with Louie and get to know him. I was blown away by his gentle warrior spirit and compassionate way of expressing himself. He is articulate and smooth, yet humble and easy going. I have watched Louie grow as an artist, his dedication and perseverance has truly inspired me. He says, “In my work, whether it’s art, or education, or my activism around identity, my goal is always really simple: to inspire people to look in the mirror and ask themselves the question, “Who am I?”. I like to do that because I think that the sooner you make a habit of checking in with yourself to see if your decisions are matching your values and your sense of self, the sooner you can realize that you can actually control who you become.”

To learn more about Louie, please visit: http://eighthgeneration.com/.

Tatanka Means is Oglala Lakota, Omaha and Navajo from Chinle, Arizona. I met Tatanka last year while I was in Albuquerque: my good friend Valerie insisted that I meet him; she assured me that I would be “blown away” and that he was a great leader. I have to be candid with you- I didn’t believe that I would consider a 28 year-old actor to be a leader….  I was wrong. Some people have a way about them that transmits inspiration. Tatanka is one of those people. He doesn’t consider himself an activist, he identifies as an actor, stand-up comedian and motivational speaker. It has led me to question what it means to be a leader. Does it mean that we stand from the podium preaching principles? Or do we do as Tatanka does, and live a life that can be used as an example for the next generation? He says, “I’d like to be a positive role model for the youth, for my own community and for my own daughter. I do not drink. I do not do drugs. It’s a part of my way of life, a reflection of my own personal beliefs. I’ve seen the effects of drugs and alcohol on my own reservation, it surrounded me in my community. I just didn’t want to live a life like that.”

Tatanka belongs to a great family legacy: he is the son of Gloria Grant and actor/activist Russel Means.  I had the opportunity to meet Gloria while I was in Chinle, Arizona. She is the Associate Superintendant of Chinle Unified School District, which is in the heart of the Navajo Nation and Land of the Diné people, its high school is the largest primarily Native American public high school in the entire United States. Ninety-seven percent of the students are Diné. I loved visiting with Gloria. She reminded me of my mom, Grandma, and favorite Aunties all wrapped up into one. While I was re-listening to Gloria’s interview, I had a really hard time picking out my favorite quotes. 

Although I never had the honor of meeting Tatanka’s late father Russel Means, I know that his legacy will live on. Tatanka talked about him with great fondness in an Indian Country today article by our friend Valerie Taliman, “My father now walks alongside Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Gall, Spotted Tail, Fast Thunder and Fools Crow,” Means said. “My Dad was my Hero. He was fearless. His life was dedicated to the people. He was one of the greatest. He will be remembered forever.”

If you’d like to check out some of his recent films or his comedy please visit his website at: http://www.tatankameans.com/

As I sit and write this blog post for you, I sit across from one of my favorite Cherokee’s of all time. Her name is Adrienne Keene and she’s a fierce educator, doctoral student in Culture, Communities, and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and author of Native Appropriations- a forum for discussing representations of Native peoples, including stereotypes, cultural appropriation, news, and activism.

I’ve been reading Native Appropriations for about a year now, and I always imagined a really tall loud siren wearing army green and shouting from a crate with a loud speaker- mostly because her written words are bold, bouncing with voluptuous thought-provoking examinations of Native American representation, commanding the reader to think about privilege, racism, sovereignty and nation building. So you can imagine how I acted when I met her…. I was a little sheepish (hard to believe, I know), because I thought she might discover my secret blogger crush, and tell me to go away. But alas, she didn’t. Instead, she joined me in friendly chuckle, exposed her lovely shy-nature, and agreed to participate in Project 562.  And before I let you listen to an excerpt from our conversation, I’d like to share some of my favorite Adrienne Keene words from her blogpost entitled, Why Tonto Mattersit may be a little difficult to understand, because I am putting you into the middle of it, but you’ll get it, I promise:

 “Our community is so much better than that. We are worth so much more than background roles and misrepresentations. Ryan also said something that resonated with me beyond this issue alone, quoting his grandmother:

 Everything you do, grandson, is going to be political because you’re Anishinabe.The way we represent ourselves is, therefore, inherently political. These “trivial” issues are representative of deeper, darker, larger issues within Indian Country. For those who live in predominantly Native communities, fighting against cultural appropriation and misrepresentation may seem like the cause of a privileged few who can sit in their ivory towers and point fingers all day, ignoring the “real” issues in Indian Country. I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it as many times as I can until it sticks: Yes, unequivocally, we have big things to tackle in Indian Country. We have pressing and dire issues that are taking the lives of our men and women everyday, and I am in absolutely no way minimizing this reality. But we also live in a state of active colonialism. In order to justify the genocide against Native peoples in this country, we must be painted as inferior–that’s the colonial game. These images continue that process. The dominant culture therefore continues to marginalize our peoples, to ignore and erase our existence. We are taught everyday, explicitly in classrooms, and implicitly through messages from the media, that our cultures are something of the past, something that exists in negative contrast to “western” values, and something that can be commodified and enjoyed by anyone with $20 to buy a cheap plastic headdress. These stereotypical images like Johnny Depp’s Tonto feed into this ongoing cycle, and until we demand more, our contemporary existence (and therefore the “real” problems in Indian Country) simply doesn’t exist in the minds of the dominant culture.

 How can we expect mainstream support for sovereignty, self-determination, Nation Building, tribally-controlled education, health care, and jobs when the 90% of Americans only view Native people as one-dimensional stereotypes, situated in the historic past, or even worse, situated in their imaginations? I argue that we can’t–and that, to me, is why Tonto matters.”

It was an honor to get to meet Adrienne. She is so lovely. I hope that you will take a look at her blog and soak up her thoughts. I know I will.

And so, I have shared some of my current inspirations with you, (I know they are all art related media proliferates, but what can I say, I’m most drawn to artists… and knowing that they are out there doing their thing gives me comfort, and makes me want to work harder.) So, I will continue to seek  positive indigenous role models, I will take their photo, and I will share it with you. 

The journey continues.