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Tewa artist opens Native Writers Series

WASHINGTON - The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian kicked off its fourth annual Native Writers Series, now titled the Vine Deloria Jr. Native Writers Series, Sept. 19 with an appearance by Nora Naranjo-Morse.

Naranjo-Morse, Tewa from Santa Clara Pueblo, is an acclaimed writer, sculptor and filmmaker. Her presentation explored the question of how to be both a contemporary artist and a Native artist.

''Some people don't understand the harsh reality of market-driven Southwest art,'' NMAI moderator Anya Montiel, Tohono O'odham and Mexican, remarked.

Naranjo-Morse read from her book, ''Mud Woman: Poems from the Clay.'' Her poem, ''The Living Exhibit under the Museum's Portal,'' tells of the experience of selling recognizably Indian art to tourists in Santa Fe, N.M., who want to purchase mementos from the ''curiously silent Indians, just like in the postcards.''

''When I wrote of the experience of selling to people, I started to realize that I was really what was on display,'' Naranjo-Morse explained. She would sell items from a blanket on the ground, which gave her ''the perspective of people's knees. Even that perspective changed how I saw things. People never bent down; there was always that separation. And when people were talking to us, they were talking louder.

''It was apparent that there was a certain relationship, and in order to sell, I had to follow unspoken rules,'' Naranjo-Morse said. She spoke of how she became resentful of that relationship and eventually decided that if she were to break those rules, she would need to find a way to support herself.

What actually broke her away from that environment was her artwork itself.

''I began to shift from small, affordable, identifiable pieces; and boy was that scary, because people stopped buying my work.''

It was a question of how to define herself as a contemporary Native artist, she said.

''The experience under the portal did affect change of how I viewed things,'' Naranjo-Morse explained. ''Being a pueblo potter couldn't articulate what I was feeling. I began to look at other ways of creating. That was really scary, but very good. It pushed me out of my comfort zone. If you are going to create anything, you need to be pushed out of that comfort zone.''

After reflecting on Naranjo-Morse's work, Montiel said that her ''art over time does get bigger and stranger.''

Naranjo-Morse agreed that it became ''more experimental'' and then said that evolution was necessary. ''We should be changing as people, whether we are artists or not.''

Montiel and Naranjo-Morse then discussed how the market doesn't support the shift from traditional, recognizable art.

''This is why it is so important for museums like us to support contemporary Native artists,'' said Montiel, who was the assistant to the NMAI curator of contemporary art in 2002.

This summer, the NMAI commissioned Naranjo-Morse to create outdoor sculptures, titled ''Always Becoming.'' These will be the first outdoor sculptures by an American Indian woman in Washington, D.C.

Naranjo-Morse discussed her role as both a sculptor and a writer. She called it a ''creative volley'' in which she would ''make something and then be compelled to write about it and then write something and need to make it tangible'' through sculpture. The back-and-forth of this process is exciting, Naranjo-Morse articulated. ''After working outside in the summer, writing is a great release and put things in perspective.''

Her poem, ''Always Becoming,'' was written for the dedication ceremony of her sculpture. ''When I was a finalist for the commission, I was brought out by the museum to consider the space,'' Naranjo-Morse stated. She spoke of how she looked at the rocks, the trees, and tasted the air. ''When I was asked to write the poem, I went back to those sensations.''

Her poem mirrors her own creations and development as a contemporary Native artist when it stated ''You are becoming something new. Embrace this beginning without fear.''

''For those of us who have watched [the outdoor sculpture] grow from the ground, it is perfect,'' Montiel commented on the poem.

''This museum wants to be a Native place,'' Montiel said. ''We want it to go beyond pretty things in cases. It is a way of life ... to be a Native American living in Washington, D.C.''

Montiel also explained the importance of the Native Writers Series. ''If you ask someone to name a Native writer, they might say Tony Hillerman, who is not Native,'' she laughed.

There are so many Native writers who are poets, playwrights, authors of children's books and academic writers, not just creators of ''folklore,'' she continued. ''I want to educate the public.''

As this year's coordinator for the Native Writers Series, Montiel wanted to ''push for diversities in nations represented'' and for writers in a variety of disciplines.

Montiel said that you would be exposed to these writers if you took an aboriginal literature class, and then asked why that body of work is kept separate from other literature courses. ''I want Native writers to be read, not just by Natives, but by everyone.''

The next speaker in the series will be Frances Washburn, Lakota/Anishinabe, who will present on Oct. 17.