Through the Native lens: American Indian artists on pushing boundaries, being activists in their work, and ‘not being Native enough’

by Amanda Push

Native comic book artist Kayla Shaggy is tired of how Indigenous people are portrayed in the media.

Often two-dimensional background characters, stereotyped, and placed against a backdrop of poverty porn, there’s a lot of room for growth in terms of how American Indians are depicted across a variety of art forms. We spoke with Shaggy specifically about the 2017 film “Wind River,” the story of an FBI agent and hunter, both white, who are investigating the death of a young Indigenous woman on a Native American reservation. Though she enjoyed the film, the subject matter left her emotionally drained, and she found the worn-out white savior trope and negative portrayal of Native Americans problematic.

“There’s that sobering statistic they put at the end of the movie and I’m like, ‘OK, what does this movie do besides add on to all the, so to speak, doom and gloom and poverty porn?’” said Shaggy. “So in my (comic book) series, I want there to be hope, I want there to be happiness, I want there to be some beauty and there to be some humor as well. I think I’ve had enough of movies that show that type of stuff. … My work is two dimensional but my characters aren’t.”

Shaggy isn’t the only Native artist in the Four Corners looking to change how Native Americans are represented with their art. DGO Mag spoke to seven local Native artists working in a variety of mediums, all of whom are looking to break out of the boxes they’re so often closed into.

They want to see people that look like them on TV, in comic books, music, movies, and so on – Indigenous characters that aren’t afterthoughts, victims, or caricatures. Wanting to honor tradition steeped heritage, yet still coexist in a modern age, some artists we interviewed struggle with the criticism of “not being Native enough,” or being too negative in their portrayals of their experiences and culture.

Many of the women we interviewed spoke on how they used their art to spread awareness on the alarming rate at which Native women go missing or are murdered. 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. Despite the dark nature of these statistics, these artists are choosing to embrace optimism and the resilience of their culture and – they hope – inspire others to listen to them. Either way, they aren’t staying quiet.

Kayla ShaggyDurango comic book artist Kayla Shaggy doesn’t just like monsters. She’s inspired by them. However, according to her Navajo, or Diné, culture, she’s not supposed to be.

“In Navajo culture, you shouldn’t have a fixation on, so to speak, ‘dark things’ – I’m doing air quotations right now. We’re not supposed to be fixated with skulls. In Navajo culture, you’re not supposed to touch dead things,” Shaggy said. “But I’ve always found them to be inspiring. We have a lot of stories about monsters, but we always conquer them. And to me, a physical thing would be easier to tackle than racism and poverty.”

That doesn’t stop Shaggy from sharing her creepy creatures with the world, though. Versed in a variety of artistic mediums, she – part Navajo and Anishinabe – is the author of what will soon to be three comic books. In 2016, she received a $500 grant from Durango Arts Center to create her first book, “Monstrous.” She compiled 20 drawings, printed 50 copies of the book, and started selling them to fund future projects. Since then, she has also published the first issue of “The Sixth World” series, and plans to release the second issue by the end of the year.

“(‘The Sixth World’ is a) comic book about – if I were to sum it up basically – it’s Navajo mythology and science fiction, because I feel like in Navajo media, or Indigenous media in general, we haven’t really explored the science fiction genre enough. And science fiction was started as a way for social metaphors, for people to write speculative fiction about what’s going on. I think it would be a really good match up.”

Part of the draw toward creating comic books is the lack of representation she remembers growing up, and is still evident in much of today’s media. And many times, if there is a Native character included, the portrayal is not flattering.

“Growing up, I really liked to read comic books, but seeing a Native American in a comic book is usually like, it was an awful caricature, or it was a side character – just a background character with no name. I was like, ‘I want to make stuff that shows people from my culture,’ because I think that’s a really good way to show other people your culture is through art. So I draw a lot of inspiration from my life, from my friends and my family, from the stories we have in my culture, from nature. Just a lot of things, honestly. Issues that are important to me, because I know a lot of my work has that social commentary in the background.”

Many of the topics she addresses in her work are inspired by her culture and issues within her culture – specifically the sovereignty of Indigenous people and the alarmingly high percentage of missing and murdered Native women.

“Within my personal circle, I know a lot of women who were assaulted, and I know within their circles, they know women who were assaulted who have gone missing. It’s not uncommon to hear about people that have gone missing, and you want them to be found – you really hope they’re found. Growing up, I got used to going to a lot of funerals, which is very sobering. I’ve kind of gotten used to it. I don’t want to be used to it.”

Shaggy closely identifies with these stats. She faces a triple jeopardy of violence for being two-spirit, or gay, Native American, and a woman. Gay Native women have disproportionately higher risks of suffering violence, as they are both sexual and racial minorities.

“Triple jeopardy is when you fulfill all the demographics of being Indigenous, being a woman, being LGBTQ. To fill all those demographics means you’re in triple jeopardy, which means you’re at a higher risk of dying or sexual assault. Reading that was a big eye opener because I take a lot of things for granted. I tend to think I was raised very safely. But the world’s not very safe.”

Since she’s uncovered these stats, however, Shaggy has owned the numbers to spread awareness, calling her art company Triple Jeopardy Productions.

“Rather then despair over it, I thought, ‘Why don’t I reclaim that and call myself that.’ Yes, this is me, and this is what my artwork concentrates on. Also, it kind of sounds cool.”

Shaggy’s comic books can be found at her website, at Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, and at Tales of Tomorrow in Farmington.

Edd sistersThe four Edd sisters – Ruthie, Sierra, Chamisa, and Santana – aren’t shy about applying activism to their canvases or creating messages of empowerment for Native people.

“We get inspired from each other and our culture and everything around us,” said Santana, an Ignacio High School student.

With parents who are both artists – Esther Belin, a poet, printmaker, and jewelry maker, and Don Edd, a painter, jewelry maker, and sculptor – each of the Navajo sisters were encouraged to try and experiment with a variety of mediums and develop far-ranging styles.

“Because our parents are both artists they encouraged us, like when we were very young, to do art. We were always with them when they were selling their art, so it just was really natural,” said Ruthie, a Fort Lewis College graduate. “They told us to do printmaking, painting, drawing, watercolor – every type of medium that we could try and experiment with, they told us about it and we would try it. … I remember our dad, he said, ‘You guys never have an excuse to go hungry because you can always make something. You can always sell it.’”

Starting off at young ages with inspirations like Lisa Frank and Pokemon, they began to branch and explore their Native side as they got older.

“I remember a really big point … there was the Desert Rock happening, so a lot of our art was pretty politically charged, and it talked about the environment and really being Native. Our art was a way for us to tell our experience and our stories as Native people without having to articulate it in an academic or verbal sense. You could just get a feeling for what we were feeling,” Ruthie said.

When they were young, art gave them the means to express themselves when they didn’t have the scholarly language to describe their experiences, even when they didn’t realize it.

“When we were young, we really didn’t have the words to say it. I went to school for Native American and Indigenous studies, so now I can talk about these things in an intellectual and academic sense of what we were doing back then,” Ruthie said. “I didn’t even realize it back then, but I think my mom and my dad did, and they gave that to us to help us process our lives, because a lot of the negatives and positives we had of being Native, we were able to give voice to that.”

“For me, I really like music, and one of my favorite bands is a Korean pop group called BTS, and they finished a mini-series called “Love Yourself.” Right now, a lot of my sketches are about basically loving yourself and accepting who you are, especially as a Native woman. It’s hard, I feel, to live in this world right now, because there’s so many obstacles you have to go through,” Santana said. “A lot of people my age think that it’s easier to give up and to not push through, especially people of color and women – that combination is very hard to live with in this society right now. So I just wanted my artwork to show that there is hope and you can do this.”

As the sisters have gotten older, however, they’re leaving the Durango area for school. Chamisa is attending the University of New Mexico, while Sierra is at the University of California Berkeley. They’re having to figure out where that leaves them as both a collective of artists and individual creatives, Ruthie said.

“I think all my sisters are going different directions which is really nice because I think we’re at a point where we’ve had time to develop and figure out who we are as artists.”

A.J. NequatewaA.J. Nequatewa isn’t interested in being put in a box, so much so that when asked what her artistic style is, she’s hesitant to slap a label on her work.

“I don’t like boundaries on things,” the Durango artist said. “The first time that I brought my jewelry to one of the jury exhibitions, especially my silver work, they were like, ‘It’s nice, but it’s not Indian jewelry. It’s not what we’re looking for. It’s not old looking.’ Or, you know, ‘It’s not in that box,’ basically is what they were telling me. So I was like, ‘OK, if you don’t want it, there’s someone else out there who will.’”

Nequatewa – whose mother is Navajo and father is Hopi – is a first-generation college student at Fort Lewis College and comes from a long line of artists, from kachina doll carvers to sash belt makers. She’s versed in and loves to experiment with multiple mediums, including sash belt weaving, jewelry making, and painting – skills that were passed down to her by family members from when she was a young child.

“Traditionally, the men were the ones who made sash belts. I’m one of, I think, (a few) women who make sash belts. … A lot of people are real traditional and adhere to those protocols. I wanted to try to learn, because there wasn’t a whole lot of people who knew how to make it when I took that class. It was the first class that they ever offered on the belts. So I took it and I had to ask the teacher if he was OK with teaching a girl, and he was like, ‘Yes.’ And I got that chance.”

During high school, however, she took a break from art – focusing on sports instead. A little over a year ago, though, she found herself feeling emotionally overwhelmed and started searching for an artistic outlet to express herself.

“I got to a point where I was like, ‘I need to paint. I need to put something on paper.’ It was this need to go back to it and express myself again.”

While she loved the medium, painting took up a lot of time – something she did not have the luxury of. During a Native arts class one day, they were doing porcupine quillwork. During that class, she decided to create earrings for her sister-in-law and her daughter.

“It felt really good to do a little piece and put that much effort into something, and I was like, ‘I’ll make another pair of earrings.’”

From there, she began to post the earrings she made on social media and her friends began to ask if they could buy them. For Nequatewa, the process of making the small pieces was both therapeutic and didn’t take up a large amount of time.

“I kept exploring more and more and more, and I didn’t want to limit myself.”

Despite not having a specific style she prescribes to, Nequatewa places a lot of emphasis on the colors and symbolism she incorporates into her work.

“I like color and symbolism a lot. So I think maybe my work leans more toward symbolism as opposed to like realism because I use a lot of a lot of Hopi imagery and Hopi symbols that I feel connected to. And then the colors that I use are either associated with the cultural aspect, or that color means something to me.”

One such example is of a pair of earrings and necklace set she made in honor of missing and murdered Indigenous women – an issue she feels strongly about and tries to spread awareness of through her art. It’s one of the most personally meaningful pieces she’s created. In this set are three Native women – one woman on each piece – wearing red dresses. When placed next to each other, their hands are joined so that wherever they are, they are united again and not alone. Also on each piece is half the symbol of a prayer feather, so that when the pieces are lined up, the prayer feathers are complete. Above them are gold prayers rising from the prayer feathers. On their dresses are stars because, just as we don’t know how many stars are in the night sky, we don’t know how many missing and murdered Indigenous women are out there.

“That’s something that’s really near and dear to my heart, because I
#x2019;ve seen girls go missing and I’ve had friends who have been sexually assaulted. I’ve been close to it all my life and it’s a big part of me.”

Nequatewa – who prays while working – didn’t sit down missing and murdered Native women piece. She started with the red dress, and once she stopped thinking about the composition and started focusing on her prayer, the piece began to form as she worked through her tears.

“My initial thought was, if I draw the red dress, people will ask, ‘Why did you draw the red dress?’ (and) then I can tell them. But it ended up turning into something totally different. It took on a life of its own, really.”


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