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Native Artists Use Works to Spark Environmental Awareness

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Dance, photography, film and artwork may not immediately bring to mind the concept of environmentalism. But a number of indigenous artists and performers may very well change that.

Four incredibly talented Native multi-media artists and performers, representing different communities, use their contemporary art forms to create narratives and interpretations meant to usher an awareness of environmental and social issues into their performances.

These artists came together to create a dialogue about this concept at the Bioneers 24th Annual Conference in November 2013. Reuben Tomas Roqueni (Yaqui/Mexican), program director of the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation, fostered dialogues with dancer/choreographer Rulan Tangen (Métis), photographer William Wilson (Navajo), multidisciplinary artist Kade Twist (Cherokee), and filmmaker and producer Tracy Rector (Seminole/Choctaw).

“The arts stimulate civic dialogue and become focal points for community conversation, providing insight and context, and encouraging healthy exchange of ideas,” Roqueni told Indian Country Today Media Network. “Native artists act as translators and go betweens, providing a safe arena for exchange. Native artists act as nonconformists, revealing the complexities around Native natural resources, sovereignty, and historical injustice.”

Rulan Tangen, recipient of the first Native Arts & Cultures Foundation Dance Fellowship discussed her newest work as director of Dancing Earth, called “Walking at the Edge of Water.” It represents water’s vital element as a primal force of the earth and its life forms, from an indigenous perspective on ancient and current water issues. Each dancer speaks their languages word for water on stage.

Tangen’s dedication to environmental issues began seven years ago at the prodding of Native American grandmothers.

“With the sort of relevant issues happening right now for native peoples on their land, it’s important to get those out there as part of the score,” Tangen told ICTMN. “Dance has always been at the core of Indigenous Peoples’ culture.”

At their recent performances in New Zealand, “our water issues really touched their hearts,” Tangen said. “When they see it danced is when they can really feel it.”

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Photographer William (Will) Wilson’s work focuses on the Navajo and their relation to the land. His large-scale photographs illustrate the vexed relationship between Native Americans and an environment torn apart by industrial intrusion. The work earned Wilson the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Artistic Innovation award in 2010.

“Since 2005, I have been creating a series of artworks entitled Auto Immune Response, which takes as its subject the quixotic relationship between a post-apocalyptic Diné [Navajo] man and the devastatingly beautiful, but toxic environment he inhabits,” Wilson told ICTMN.

“The series is an allegorical investigation of the extraordinarily rapid transformation of indigenous lifeways, the dis-ease it has caused, and strategies of response that enable cultural survival,” Wilson said. “The latest iteration of the Auto Immune Response series features an installation of a hogan greenhouse, titled Auto Immune Response Research Facility, in which indigenous food plants are grown. This facility will be accompanied by a set of large-scale photographs illustrating the botany and cultivation of vital resources. My hope is that this project will serve as a pollinator, creating formats for exchange and production that question and challenge the social, cultural and environmental systems that surround us.”

Modern filmmaker Tracy Rector describes her childhood home as traumatic.

“I lost myself in TV, and film,” said Rector. She developed PTSD from her work in a women’s shelter. Those experiences inspired her to take up filmmaking, a career she began 10 years ago as a PBS intern. Today she is the executive director of Longhouse Media.

Rector produced the groundbreaking documentary March Point, collaborating with three young at risk Native Americans then attending alternative school. The film was featured on PBS’ renowned program, Independent Lens, and Rector said the Swinomish successfully used the film to raise federal funds to clean their waterways.

Kade Twist is the driving force behind the Native artist collective Post Commodity. Twist contends that when indigenous people see the land, they see the land, whereas colonizers see financial and hegemonic potential. Twist described a project of his that integrated technology into culture, using wireless technology to create a song rising from beneath the floor, “opening up the Earth.” Visit Native Labs to learn more about Twist’s creative multi-discipline art forms.

Bioneers Indigeneity program director Cara Romero (Chemehuevi) hosted the panel, Native Artist’s Voice: A Commentary on Social and Environmental Issues as part of their Indigenous Forum, a sovereign space dedicated to indigenous programming at Bioneers annual conferences in San Rafael, California.

The forum “is designed to include in-depth discussions on the most pressing issues facing indigenous communities locally and globally, and includes exchanges concerning policy, reform and best practices in native arts, environmental issues, and cultural preservation by leaders from diverse Native backgrounds,” Romero told ICTMN. “Native leaders invited to the Indigenous Forum offer the world uniquely valuable indigenous perspectives promoting bio-cultural diversity conservation, the protection of Native lands, indigenous human rights, and the leadership of Indigenous Peoples.”