Indigenous artistry: Native American creatives talk life on the res, kicking down boundaries, and learning to tell their own stories
Graphic designer, comic book artist, musician, filmmaker – it doesn’t matter the medium or the tribe – Native artists want to be the ones to tell their own stories, from the grit to the shine.
These artists are proud of who they are. They embrace the struggle of challenging the status quo to shed light on who their people are, and balance the weight of telling their truths without being exploitive or harmful. These artists choose to tell their stories to fight back against the oft-misconstrued beliefs about their cultures, the victories and struggles of their people, and the confusion that persists over the fact that Native American reservations are still around.
Native hip-hop artist and DJ Antonio “Tones” Herrera put it this way: “We were here first but nobody hears us. But nobody knows what we go through right now, and nobody knows what we have to overcome because we’re some strong individuals.”
This week, in part two of our series, Native artists weigh in about growing up on the reservation, overcoming their dark sides, not giving a damn about the mold they’re expected to fit into, and the difficulty of walking the fine line between being honest about the “ugly side” of the Indigenous narrative and the fortitude of their people.
Lyshawna BenallyFort Lewis College graduate and Navajo artist Lyshawna Benally isn’t worried about making other people happy with her art. She’s interested in pushing the bounds of what it means to be a Native artist.
“I do want to push the traditional norms,” Benally said. “I just don’t want to be limited.”
It was the creation of a character that she drew – a Navajo woman samurai that she’s thinking of turning into a comic book – and the criticism it brought on for “not being Native enough” that pushed her toward kicking down the confines of what it means to be a creative who also happens to be American Indian.
“The concept was that I was trying to smash Native American mythology with Japanese mythology monster-wise. In Japanese culture, they have the yokai and in the Navajo (culture) they have all the giant stories and skinwalkers and everything mythological. I kind of want to smash them up and see the similarities between the two. … I have definitely gotten criticism saying like, ‘She’s not Navajo enough,’ and what I should have added to the work.”
Tired of seeing female characters portrayed as needing to be saved, she intends to make the Navajo samurai woman the main character in the comic series.
“I want the main character to be the female because that’s always the trope of the woman being weak, useless, and always screaming. The man is always the savior, so this one I want to make the female the main character, the main savior of the story. I want to incorporate all the Native American and Japanese mythology.”
When asked why she is so fascinated by the Japanese culture, Benally said she sees a lot of similarities between the two cultures, especially in spirituality and tradition.
“What I thought was very interesting between the two is that they do definitely go with the inner strength and inner spirit. And they do have the temple, how they have like the Holy People, like how Native people do, especially the Navajos.”
Like her fellow artists, the alarming numbers of missing and murdered Native women is especially concerning to Benally, and she uses her art to bring attention to it. Native Americans are more than twice as likely than any other group in the U.S. to be victimized by violence, rape, and sexual assault, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. More than one in three Native women are raped during their life, according to a study published by PubMed Central. During the month of October, she participated in the Inktober drawing challenge and, for the theme of stars, she drew a Native woman standing before a night sky – the stars a series of holes against a veil of darkness.
“The circles are the stars, or the missing holes of someone’s life. It represents how many missing women there are,” she said.
Other topics Benally incorporates into her art involve the abuse of Native elderly people and Navajo code talkers.
In one piece, she drew an image of an elderly Native woman walking down a road with a cane, alone.
“It’s just kind of messed up how that (elder abuse) is actually happening all over the reservation. I hear from other people. I just want to encourage young people to still have to respect and take care of your elders. … It’s just quite sad,” she said.
In one poster, she honors the work of the Navajo code talkers who helped communicate military plans over the radio during World War II. Unlike other codes the American military used, the Japanese were never able to crack the Navajo code, and it remains the only oral military code to not be deciphered.
“They were the reason why the U.S. during the time was able to win the war and many people don’t know that, and I think it’s a very important part of our history.”
Now that she’s graduated FLC with a degree in graphic design, Benally has aspirations of becoming an illustrator and to start her own clothing line, while incorporating aspects of her culture into both mediums.
“What really did inspire me to incorporate those was when I took Native classes on how we were misrepresented, the stereotypes, and also break the traditional norms, too. Being a Native American and trying to be an artist, they either associate you with weaving or pottery making. I want to inspire young kids – you don’t have to grow up and do those types of professions. It’s like breaking the traditional norms. I want to inspire young people to become a business owner or be an artist in their own way.”
Antonio Herrera Antonio “Tones” Herrera is not someone who sugar coats his life or his experiences growing up on a reservation – not when he sits down with you for a cup of coffee, and especially not in his music.
“Us Native Americans go through a lot of stuff that people can’t even imagine. We go through big city problems,” said Herrera, who’s part Ute and Mexican American. “Being on my reservation, alcoholism is so huge. Everybody drinks there.”
He expresses that struggle and his journey to get to where he is today through his music, a medium that gives him a rush like nothing else, he said. Herrera attributes his talents to growing up in a family where music was just part of life.
“They call me a jack of all trades, master of none. I’m a DJ, hip-hop artist, musician, martial artist. I do everything,” Herrera said. “I grew up in a predominately music(al) family. My brother is an emcee-producer. My little brother is the person who makes all my beats and all the stuff that I do. My older brother is the one who engineers my music. My grandfather plays pretty much every instrument that I can think of. … My family is just musically inclined. I’m very spoiled.”
Herrera, who grew up in Ignacio, was once part of an award-winning hip-hop group called The Council, alongside D’miti “Drezzy” Reynolds and D’shon “Tre” Lloyd,. The since-dissolved crew won an award in 2014 for the best rap hip hop recording for their album, “One Tribe One Nation,” at the 15th Annual Native American Music Awards.
“It’s kind of fortunate the way that I did it because I don’t think I would have ever been known as a musician coming out of a small town in Colorado – selling records worldwide and touring nationwide. I never thought I’d ever be performing in the middle of Canada or visiting Montreal. That just wasn’t something that happened where I’m from.”
Though the group doesn’t make music together anymore, individually, the former members work on their own projects. Herrera will soon release his own solo album, “Dark Ominous Tones,” which he hopes to have done by the end of the year. The album will be available on iTunes and Amazon.
“This is my life’s work into one album, and then we’ll see what happens after that. … To put out a good solo album you have to tell your story first.”
The album will start off spinning the tale of Herrera’s old way of life, while the end of the album will reflect the positivity of what he’s doing with his life now, Herrera said.
“The dark and ominous theme is more like telling people my dark side of my mentality and telling people that growing up on a reservation, not just my reservation, is tough to do. It’s really tough to do. It’s a life that you think about a lot, all the time, and that you can never get away from because it’s what brought you to who you are right now. I feel like this album is saying goodbye to that dark side.”
Surrounded by violence, tragedy, and abuse growing up, it was difficult to keep from normalizing the hardships he witnessed. On walks to school as a child, Herrera would sometimes come across the bodies of people on the side of the road who had been drinking and ultimately died of exposure.
“That’s just what it is. People go missing and that’s the worst part. Some of my friends have gone missing. Some of my friends have been killed by gunshot or stabbing. I’ve been stabbed. I’ve been shot at. I’ve been robbed multiple times. I’ve robbed people multiples times. … I’m glad that’s all behind me.”
Despite the challenges Herrera has faced, he’s clearly not one to play the victim card. Throughout our interview, Herrera kept a big smile on his face, and shook his head while laughing at some of the stories he told. Thanks to his good-natured demeanor, people often find themselves surprised at his past.
“Buddhism is a beautiful thing, and yoga, too. Finding yourself is very important because if you don’t do it, you can’t love anybody else. You can’t be around anybody else and have that same glow. I got tired moping. I got tired sitting around and slouched in my chair all the time, complaining about my life and there’s really nothing to complain about.”
Lacey TewanemaFor Lacey Tewanema, film is the ultimate medium through which to tell her story.
“It’s a lot harder to describe things in words rather than being able to see it on actual film. You can only describe so much, but being able to see that emotion...basically, a picture is worth a thousand words, so a moving picture is worth even more.”
Tewanema – who is Navajo, Shoshone Paiute, and Hopi – is at the beginning stages of learning the film craft, but is eager to represent her culture in the industry.
“I really want to be able to get that Native narrative out there, that Indigenous narrative, in other words,” said Tewanema, a Fort Lewis College student. “What I’m going to school for right now is to be able to write about Indigenous aspects about things. So that plays into what I’m going to be filming and what my films are going to be about.”
She is currently working on a film about powwows. There’s a lot more to powwows than singing and dancing, she said, and by giving certain aspects of Native culture more exposure and background, she hopes to help eliminate assumptions people make about American Indians.
“I want to get those stereotypes of what a Native is, what an Indigenous person is, and get those stereotypes thrown out. I’m advocating for the Indigenous community,” she said.
Tewanema became interested in the field after learning how low the percentages of Native journalists, film writers, and actors were. People who weren’t Native were telling their stories, often leading to Native characters and story lines about American Indians that were two dimensional.
“Well, are we not telling our own stories? Why are we letting someone outside of our nations telling our stories when they don’t know even the history of it sometimes? … It’s something that could be improved, I think, but it can’t be improved unless us as Native nations decide to.”
While she’s part of three tribes, there are times where she’s made to feel as though she’s not enough of one tribe or another to express or explore certain aspects of the culture.
“I get that nation-to-nation racism. So I get I’m not Navajo enough because I don’t know my language. I’m not Hopi enough because I don’t know my culture and I don’t know how to do certain things, but at the same time, I know enough to be able to represent all of them, no matter where I go.”
One way she expresses that is through her KDUR show, where she plays only Native-composed music.
“So that’s one way I can express how I represent whether I’m Native enough or not. I’m still playing what I think will be interesting, not just to me, but everyone else out there, and not just playing my own tribes’ music ,but everyone else’s.”
Another challenge she faces is the criticism of showing the “ugly side” of the Indigenous narrative, which she realizes is painful, but also necessary to tell the full story.
“That’s (a) major part of what my art is advocating. People need to know about these things. People need to see things. There’s people that say, ‘You’re just showing our weak spot.’ But at the same time, is it weak to show these spots or is it weak to not show these spots and show that we do have a weakness?”
Bringing awareness to these issues while not being exploitive or negative is a big challenge, though. Still, it’s a test that Tewanema is more than happy to take on. She’s proud of her culture, history, and customs, warts and all.
“I like to say I’m an Indigenous woman before I’m an American citizen because that’s really where my roots are. That’s part of where the resilience comes into play.”