What is the purpose of a small group of large egos coming together in a cozy space for two full days have to do with creating art?
The Sealaska Heritage Institute sponsored it’s first Northwest Coast Artist Gathering to seek advice from approximately 26 Sealaska shareholder (or descendants of shareholder) artists for their Native Artist Program. Some of the programs include: the SHI Retail Shop, the Native Artist Market held during the bi-ennial Celebration, the Apprentice/Mentorship Program, and the most recent proposal of the Dugout Canoe Project.
I think that I can speak for most if not all of us, that it was an honor for all of us to be in the presence of one another while we touched upon a number of subjects having to do with the creation of art, the passing on of the knowledge, and the marketing of our work while still maintaining a sense of balance in our lives within the basis of our Native spirituality. I think all of us had a good time getting to know one another since we come from many different backgrounds and communities along the Northwest Coast of this continent. I know that all of us felt that natural high of being in the same room with one another and having the opportunity to share ideas and inspire one another during our breakfasts and lunches together. Thank you to Sealaska Heritage Institute for putting together a fine Gathering.
Back in 1981, I was hired (as the 5th employee) of Sealaska Heritage Institute as their Scholarship Coordinator. There was Executive Director David Katzeek, Secretary Lisa Sarabia, Scholarship Coordinator Mary McNeil who was training me to take her position, and my Aunt Katherine Mills who was recording our language and many of the Native stories and songs that eventually Dick and Nora Dauenhauer transcribed and translated into written books published by SHI. The Bi-ennial “Celebration” had not even been created yet, though in 1981 there was a gathering of the elders who at that time felt there needed to be an event which provided an opportunity for the sharing of the oratory, the stories, history and legends, and the song and dance. Hence, Celebration began in 1982.
Rosita Worl has been at the helm of Sealaska Heritage Institute for the past 17 years. I have watched SHI grow into the institute that it has become. As I said in my introduction at the gathering, although I don’t agree with some of Rosita’s business tactics, I commend her on the dedication she has towards making things happen at SHI, not to mention her dream of creating the beautiful Walter Soboleff Building that now houses the inner workings of SHI with all of its language, art and culture programs, publications, retail shop, exhibit hall, simulated clan house and archives.
1981 was nearly 35 years ago. I was a kid, really. I was going through the motions of being a responsible young parent, a young artist, a young mind full of ideas, hopes and dreams. I’m still kind of like that, but now I am facing another type of dream which includes more responsibility than I thought I had 35 years ago. I feel a responsibility towards our younger generations. There are many of us who are not going to be around much longer; many of us in our 50s and 60+ are beginning to feel like we have to pass on our knowledge before our time is up! And it’s not just the technique we teach, it is our Native values and our process of being in how we pass on our knowledge. No Westerner is going to be able to teach what we know spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. It is next to impossible because they don’t “have the connection” – that DNA that innately is passed from one generation of a people to the next. For example, it would be impossible for me to teach the African weavers how to weave their style with their ways because I was not born to that bloodline or landscape or culture; nor would I want to take away from their livelihood.
So when SHI talks about their “Formline Curriculum” (which was just published at the disappointment of many of our artists), and their idea of partnering with the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau to create the Northwest Coast Art Academy, to inspire and teach our younger generation of artists and scholars, then judging by this most recent past and the fact that the formline curriculum was drafted (by non-Natives with the token Native advisers), printed and distributed, and SHI puts our Non-Native scholars up on a pedestal and is not in the habit of employing our own Native scholars, advisers, teachers and artists, then what makes us believe and think that our own Native teachers will truly be at the helm of the Native Art classes offered at UAS to give the “stamp of approval and credit” that now we have taught and created true “Northwest Coast Native artists?”
The teaching of Northwest Coast Native Art taught in an academic setting by non-Native art instructors is a big concern to some of us Native artists. Big concern, though many of us do not voice our opinions about it for a number of reasons. Why? Fear. There is a possibility we get ousted out by SHI and UAS and ousted by other fellow artists who are “part of the academic circle” — we are accused of being racists, we fear to be ousted out by grant organizations, other art institutions, galleries, cultural centers, etc. etc.
None of us want to be accused of racism, or not have the opportunities that other Native artists have in the art world, or not be able to provide for our families because we fear that eventually there is no support for us, and we find ourselves alone because even our fellow Native artists may shun us. It’s a horrible feeling to THINK about these things. So what do we tend to do? We keep our mouths shut. There are many of us who will not speak up about our disappointments in how the non-Native artists, academics and cultural centers such as SHI have not hired our own people for prominent jobs. Why not? Some of the reasons may be because they feel that the non-Native have more experience at teaching in the academic arena, or are “better” teachers, or that the non-Native is more knowledgeable about the topic(?). Of course, that is how it is going to be. We are not of the western mind-set and do not necessarily teach in the same way that is for sure, however, this is no excuse, because as studies have shown, Native people learn in an entirely different manner than non-Native so therefore, it is only sensible that a Native person teach our own Native students, right?
Sure we have the Artist Gathering to provide advice and guidance to assist SHI (and other institutions for that matter). And we touched upon all kinds of topics to assist them in assisting us. But truly, how many of us Native artists will directly benefit from donating four days of our precious time to SHI (two days of prep/travel and two days of actual gathering time)? We each gave SHI and our communities 4 days of our time; in a culture where reciprocity is important, how will those four days be reciprocated? And how many of our younger generation of artists will benefit from the advice we gave to influence the actions and decisions of SHI, and eventually UAS and other institutions that say that they are here to help us preserve and perpetuate Native art, language and culture? How much of the advice we provided will these institutions actually use? The answers will remain to be seen.
How come the topic of Native indigenous hire as opposed to non-Native hire was not ever brought up during the gathering?
Because all of us know this is a topic of “hot” discussion and no one wanted to rock the boat; this was not the purpose of this gathering, yet the topic is something that many of us are passionate about. No one brought it up because many of us have the same fears and we don’t speak up for reasons named above. And the topic was not discussed because both SHI (and UAS) know that they will not be able to live up to the idea, let alone the promise or written agreement, that no matter what, they will always hire the Native over the non-Native. Bottom line.
If we do not bring these “hot” subjects up at artists’ gatherings, and many of us feel that we are not being “heard” elsewhere, then how do we go about presenting the issue so that those who need to hear it are actually listening without being defensive? How do we propose the concepts of Native hire, and the buying of Native art and product over the overseas-made “art” and “product”? How many times, how many ways, how many places, and how many people need to hear these are really big issues for the Northwest Coast Artists before they BELIEVE us, BELIEVE IN US?
So with all that I have said here, then you may ask: what was the true purpose of this SHI Artists Gathering? As I mentioned earlier: we came together invited by SHI’s Native Artists Committee to provide advice to SHI for their various projects to help them work out the bugs to advance their offerings to help advance the careers of their Shareholders who are artists. We are all in this together; there is no “us” and “them.” What affects one, affects us all.