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Ginny Underwood
Special to Indian Country Today

TULSA, Okla. — Traci Sorell, author and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and Oglala Lakota performance artist Suzanne Kite join the prestigious ranks of practitioners in the 2021 Tulsa Artist Fellowship. 

More than 1,200 artists from diverse disciplines, backgrounds and career stages applied for the opportunity to live and work in Tulsa for 12 months, and 18 were selected. Previous recipients include U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, Muscogee Creek.

“Artists face extraordinary challenges to have their most adventurous work come to fruition, so we want to remove those boundaries,” said Carolyn Sickles, executive director of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. “The fellowship creates a base for financial stability, durational housing, platforms to present work and a connection to audiences in Tulsa.”

The program, which sits on the boundaries of the Cherokee, Muscogee Creek and Osage lands, provides fellows with a $20,000 stipend, fully subsidized studio space and family housing for up to two years in the Arts and Greenwood District in Tulsa. At any given time, up to 50 artist practitioners are working in the program.

Sorell and Kite stood out to the fellowship selection committee because of the great momentum they have in their careers, according to Sickles.

Sorell, a former federal Indian law attorney and Tulsa resident, writes fiction and nonfiction books, short stories and poems for children.

Traci Sorell (Photo by Kelly Downs Photography)

After her son was born, she says she could not find any books about Cherokee people in a contemporary setting.

“I thought, ‘What is my son going to be exposed to once he goes to school?’” said Sorell. “If I can’t find these books for him as a Cherokee parent, there are other Cherokee parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who must be having these same concerns.”

Seven years later, Sorell has authored a series of picture books including "We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga" (Charlesbridge, 2018), illustrated by Frané Lessac, which won a 2020 American Indian Youth Literature Award Picture Book Honor, a 2019 Sibert Honor, a 2019 Boston Globe-Horn Book Picture Book Honor and a 2019 Orbis Pictus Honor. In addition, her middle grade historical fiction novel "Indian No More" (Tu Books, 2019), with Charlene Willing McManis, which explores the impact of federal termination and relocation policies on an Umpqua family in the 1950s, won the 2020 American Indian Youth Literature Award for Middle School Book and starred reviews from School Library Journal and Booklist.

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Sorell says she plans to utilize her time in the fellowship to launch at least two nonfiction books in 2021 — "Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer" (Millbrook, March 2) and "We Are Still Here: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know" (Charlesbridge, April 20).

Kite, performance artist, visual artist and composer, is a PhD candidate at Concordia University. 

Her performances, compositions, sculptures and sound installations showcase the use of experimentation in new media and digital technologies that touch on issues such as nonhuman and human intelligence, the ethics of extractive technologies, and software design. She describes how Lakota philosophy helped her get to the root of how she defines her art ethics.

“Lakota oncology already includes a way of being in relations with non-human elements such as stones,” said Kite. “Stones are already such an important part of Lakota culture and our practices. Likewise, computers and all objects should be made ethically and thought about ethically.”

During her fellowship, she plans to work with technology and mining groups in Oklahoma and explore tech company ethics to better understand what is going on with the state and its artificial intelligence capabilities. She also plans to focus on large sculptures.

The Tulsa Art Fellowship program has had 14 Native award recipients since its inception in 2015, including Harjo. A total of 100 fellows have participated in the program.

“It has become one of the critical identities of our work how not only we are putting Native artists in conversation with others but making sure contemporary art space is doing the heavy lifting to make sure the Native community is represented,” Sickles said.

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Ginny Underwood is a communication consultant based in Yukon, Oklahoma. She is a citizen of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Traci Sorell's last name.