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Sowing the Seeds of Art, on Fertile Grounds: Native Love Medicine, Part IV

Alex Jacobs visits an erotic art show at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

The Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) held a boisterous evening reception on April 17 for Fertile Grounds, an exhibition of erotic artworks by IAIA students, staff, and alumni. It was your normal opening, food and drinks, soft music playing, people milling around the art that showed lots of skin and body parts and signs were posted that warned viewers of graphic content. There were life model drawings of nudes, posed clay women, graffiti inspired graphics, prayer flags, prints, photos, paintings, poems and lots of vaginas and penises, some made of metal, wood, glass. But what set the evening off was a reading of erotic poetry by participants. Fertile Ground is a student-organized art show, stemming from an in-class project of English 102, taught by Christina M. Castro (Jemez/Taos) with the theme of Indigenous Sexuality.

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"This show is an attempt to bring the erotic back into Indigenous arts. There has been a discernible void in images of love and passion between Indigenous people. Acknowledgment of our sexuality and the erotic is a vital step in the decolonizing process. We are creating the space for students, staff and alumni to share their erotic artwork. With IAIA being the only Tribal college devoted to Indigenous arts, we should be at the forefront of this discussion." —Christina M. Castro, Instructor.

Tania Larsson with her sculpture "Life Brand," photo by Jason Ordaz.

Tania Larsson (Gwich’in/Swedish) was a big presence in the show, as a student organizer she explained how much work it was to take it on. Most everyone involved had never put on any kind of art exhibit. "It is vital for Indigenous people to talk about and express their sexuality in a healthy way. This art show offers the platform for many artists to explore the Erotica genre through their Indigenous perspective at the IAIA." Her metal pieces were highlights, a vagina outlined in steel rods, a branding iron, a steel rebar penis and a cast glass penis with a pink woman inside.

"As a class at IAIA, we decided that incorporating art and Indigenous sexuality into an art show open to the public is timely and necessary. As the only tribal college that focuses on art, this was an area that needed attention and we are looking forward to the opening of the event." —Abra Patkotak (Inupiaq), Student Organizer.

Photo by Jason Ordaz.

Ms. Castro imagines the show as a first step toward a real community based movement, moving curriculum out of the classroom. At the intros to the erotica reading, she also declared some decolonization going on about her own body and Native women and the erotic love they share with Native men, who probably need to step up, stop acting like a metrosexual and maybe smell like fresh elk meat. Be a Native Man and you’ll get a Native Woman.

Drawings by Kendrick Begaye. Photo by Jason Ordaz.

The word now is buzz and there’s plenty of it on campus with students and staff and artists. Ms. Castro’s class is even more revealing in that the Southwest has been viewed as more conservative, more traditional. Women may rule the domestic areas but are not often viewed as political leaders. Sexuality has traditionally been left to families with tribes celebrating rites of coming into womanhood or manhood. When I taught poetry to Native students, we were told not to mention corn or corn pollen because this was part of puberty rites when the young were taught about sex, seeds, fertility and birthing. But now the young learn on their own and are not impressed by old knowledge when everything is instantly attainable over media and the Internet.

Shaun Beyale, 'Beautiful Form,' photo by Jason Ordaz.

LXJ: You teach English, but you named this class Indigenous Sexuality, so your students wrote and then made art?

Christina M. Castro: The course is English 102, the last English requirement for students, unless of course they are in the writing program. They are required to write several short essays in the course as well as a longer final essay, which will be an analysis/critique of one of the art pieces submitted into the erotic art show. 

Sculptor Kathleen Wall. Photo by Jason Ordaz.

What is taught or covered in your Indigenous Sexuality classes? And why is it important?

Over a year ago, I heard a non-Native English instructor was using the textbook Me Sexy by First Nations writer Drew Hayden Taylor. I was intrigued and frankly shocked that this white woman was teaching this to English 101 students. I couldn't believe it. Even after I purchased the book, it took me awhile to wrap my head around how I would present this information to class if given the opportunity.

This semester I requested to teach English 102, feeling this level would be a bit more appropriate, as I wouldn't get any first year college students who might not be ready for such a subject. Just this week I had a dialogue with my students, two of which were in the previous 101 class with the non-Native instructor and they said the class with me was totally different, and that having an indigenous instructor absolutely makes a difference. The first week of this class, I found the LAST copy of the "Red Erotic" poetry collection at the MoCNA and considered it a sign I was meant to teach the class.

Will Cypress, 'Wet Dreamcatcher.' Photo by Alex Jacobs.

With the readings as our guide, along with various speeches by notable artists and activists, we have discussed everything from sex work to gender variance, to two spiritedness, to traditional views of sex vs. the western binary system, to colonization and Christianization's impact on us as indigenous people and our attitudes about sex. We've discussed sexual abuse at the hands of the church, and each student is required to present on a sex related topic of their choice...today's presentation was on "the history of circumcision." The nature and intensity of the subject matter has brought on interesting class dynamics, and it has been challenging at times. It is a work in progress and I learn something new each class period, sometimes about myself and always about my students.

It is my feeling in order to truly decolonize we do need to address our sex and sexuality. We need to go to those scary and sometimes "dark" places that are seldom discussed in our homes and communities. For Native women it is imperative as we are disproportionately affected by sexual violence, have high rates of teen pregnancy and because of the history of colonization, indigenous women overwhelmingly have been denied the space to speak on our sex as it does not "jive" with the dominant power structure.

Keith Secola, 'Bare Lady,' photo by Jason Ordaz

As an educator I have been continually assessing the effectiveness of my curriculum and I notice a much better participation and engagement when I do project-based activities. Coming from an organizing and activist background as well, I am always looking at mechanisms for social change that involve youth in community based initiative... creating ways to take what we learn in classroom and turn it into something relevant. Basically, re-indigenizing education! This is exciting because it works! Students are engaged and motivated and project based curriculum offers more ways of assessment vs. the standard, by the book, percentage grading system, which honestly, doesn't work well for many indigenous students.

Patrick Morrissey, 'Venus in Vitro Fertilization,' photo by Jason Ordaz.

How do tribal communities treat sexuality these days, since all manner of information and knowledge is available in the media and on the internet?

Nothing on the internet can substitute for discussion in the home and in our communities. It is imperative we start speaking to our children about sex. We can't afford not to. We must begin to unlearn all the negative aspects of colonization and re-learn our true cultural teachings with regard to sex. Who were we before these outside impositions and how do we reclaim our bodies and begin to truly love ourselves? Especially Native women. Our literal survival depends on it.

Jamison Chaz Banks, 'Princess Paradigm,' photo by Jason Ordaz

And what’s next for this class?

The semester is nearly over. We all feel a sense of accomplishment having planned and executed an amazing art show; a first ever erotic show organized by students at IAIA. I know my students have been changed by this semester. Several of my students are two spirited and some might even self-identify as transgender, or are getting close to that point. I am humbled that they have trusted themselves and each other in the space we have created in this class. They have been honest and candid in their sharing and I am humbled and proud to have been able to help create a space for young Native people to be themselves and own their spaces. We have created something truly unique and remarkable. 

Alex Jacobs
Santa Fe NM
May 15, 2015

Alex Jacobs 'The Bathers,' photo by Jason Ordaz.

Tania Larsson, 'What's for Dinner? I Am,' photo by Jason Ordaz

Brian Jay Keith, 'Juan Looong Dong,' photo by Jason Ordaz.

Margaret Waukechan, 'Divine Serenity,' photo by Alex Jacobs

Orien Long Knife, 'Creation,' photo by Alex Jacobs.