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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

The latest: A new exhibit of photos taken in the Mojave desert contrasts the past and future, an award-winning Indigenous actress lands roles in two top TV series, and six artists are awarded fellowships in upstate New York.

ART: Chemehuevi photographer shines in museum show

One of the most successful contemporary Indigenous photographers, Cara Romero, a citizen of the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, will be exhibiting new works at the San Bernardino County Museum.

Photographer, Cara Romero, a citizen of the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, will be exhibiting new works at the San Bernardino County Museum in California through Aug. 14, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Cara Romero)

“Homecoming: Works by Cara Romero,” which runs now through Aug. 14, exhibits her blend of fine art and editorial photography, shaped by a distinct approach to representing Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultural memory from a Native American female perspective.

She stages theatrical compositions, taking on the role of storyteller, to depict the dual modernity of Native peoples, with touches of the supernatural.

This comes to her naturally, as she was raised between contrasting settings: the rural Chemehuevi reservation in the Mojave Desert in California, and the urban sprawl of Houston, Texas.

“When we as Native people explore new artistic tools and techniques, such as photography, we Indigenize those media,” Romero said. “Our vision and intimate relationship to our communities are precisely what make Native photographers the people best equipped to convey the allure, strength, and complexity of contemporary Native life.

“As a Native student in the American public school system, I witnessed how our stories and cultures are purposefully omitted in our educational systems and media. Growing up, I always wanted to tell stories to counter the misrepresentation of our people, history and cultures.”

One of her more powerful images depicts Indigenous kids in loincloths running through a windmill field outside of Palm Springs. Feathers fly in their hair and they wear sunglasses to shield against the brutal desert sun.

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Museum Director Melissa Russo praised Romero’s artistic approach.

“Cara Romero’s work provides a brilliant perspective on Indigenous culture, the environment, justice, and modern society,” Russo said. “As a female producing large scale works, she establishes a fascinating variation on the genre of epic imagery, utilizing a dramatic up-tilt in many of her compositions, but incorporating an unexpected intimacy and internal complexity in her subjects.”

Romero, who keeps a studio in Santa Fe, has exhibited in Native art fairs and participated in panel discussions, and was featured in PBS’ Craft in America in 2019. One of her photos was displayed billboard-sized at Desert X in 2019, and her award-winning work is included in many public and private collections.

TV: Top Canadian actress lands roles in two series

One of the best-known Indigenous actors in Canada and the U.S. – award-winner Tamara Podemski, Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi – has been working since the age of 15 when she was cast in the indie cult hit, “Dance Me Outside.

Word is out now that she has been cast as the aunt of Elora in three pivotal episodes of the second season of “Reservation Dogs,” airing in August. She worked with producer Sterlin Harjo before in his directorial debut, “Four Sheets to the Wind,” where she earned a Special Jury Prize for Acting at the Sundance Film Festival.

She can currently be seen on Amazon Video in the trippy sci-fi Western, “Outer Range,” with Josh Brolin, as a gay Native sheriff investigating a murder in the bizarre time-traveling town of Wabang, Wyoming.

Catching up with Podemski by Zoom in her native Toronto, she talked about her unusual character, Deputy Sheriff Joy Hawk, in “Outer Range,” and how she worked with producer Heather Rae, Cherokee, (“Frozen River”, “Trudell”) to create a deeper, truer narrative.

“There's so much of it on the page and that's your job,” Podemski said, “to bring the story on the page to life. When we, as Indigenous storytellers are faced with that kind of duty, with that comes the responsibility of understanding every time we put a Native character on the screen, we have to correct a narrative that has been perpetuated for far too long. It was important for me to do my work, to make sure that she isn't just background, that she is contributing as much to the fabric of that story, and that world.”

Acclaimed actress Tamara Podemski, Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi, has been cast as an auntie in three episodes of "Reservation Dogs," airing in August 2022, and can also be seen on Amazon Video in the sci-fi Western, “Outer Range,” with Josh Brolin. (Photo by Jeff Vespa, courtesy of Kovert Creative)

Podemski says she and Rae “protected that character and every aspect of her world, whether that be her family, her home, her Native community.”

In Sheriff Hawk’s personal life, she is married to a woman and has a daughter. She wears beaded jewelry and the décor in her home, such as sweet grass in bowls, is exacting to her character and community.

“From an Indigenous lens, there is not really a gender binary aspect,” Podemski said. “These two women are making their home, their matrimonial home. It's not necessarily a place full of pride flags for them. We're being culturally authentic. Now let's get character specific. She is fully dimensional, and we are making every story better, deeper, and opening people's minds and hearts.”

They worked on a powerful powwow scene to make sure the presentations of the dancers, settings and regalia were accurate.

The sheriff, coming from a place of logic and order, is confronted with the other-worldly events happening around her, such as when she follows a trail of a mysterious black obsidian mineral in the woods and comes upon a century old valley filled with teepees and Natives charging after a herd of buffalo.

“The first time I read that scene I cried,” Podemski said. “Because just for a moment, I put myself there, I was so invested in her journey. We don’t know where she is walking to, but we do know that something crazy is happening, and it had to be believable.”

In “Reservation Dogs,” the comedy series that follows the exploits of four Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma, Podemski will be in three episodes this season.

“I play a woman who grew up with the parents of the main Rez Dog crew,” she said. “I'm of the older generation, an Auntie, but I left many years ago, and then I come back for reasons that I can't say now, but I get to stick around for a couple episodes. I get to do some really fun things, where my character gets to have her moment reconnecting with her past, her family and friends.”

ART/MUSIC/FILM: Six artists win $25K fellowships in New York

The Forge Project – a Native-led art, culture, and decolonial education initiative on the unceded homelands of the Muh-he-con-ne-ok in upstate New York – has announced the winners of its 2022 fellowships.

The winners will receive $25,000 and will have full access to the Forge Project site, libraries and collection of Indigenous art during the three-week fellowship.

At the conclusion, the fellows will present their work at on-site events, as well as online via social media and live-streamed programs.

“As we move into the second year of our Forge Fellowship, we’re thrilled to honor this incredible group of changemakers, whose practices champion those aims central to our mission at Forge,” Executive Director Candice Hopkins, Carcross/Tagish First Nation, said in a statement. “This year’s Fellows represent the breadth and complexity of contemporary Native artistic practices, activism, and culture bearing.”

The Forge Project Fellowship winners for 2022 are, top row from left: Catherine Blackburn, a Dene artist and jeweler from the English River First Nation;  Laura Ortman, White Mountain Apache, an experimental musician and vocalist; and Rainer Posselt, Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, a public and mental health worker who explores historical trauma; and on the bottom row, from left, Sara Siestreem, Hanis Coos, who combines painting, photography, printmaking, weaving, and large-scale installations; Tania Willard, Secwepemc Nation, whose examines the intersection of Indigenous practices and land-based issues; and Peter Williams, Yup’ik, a culture-bearer, artist, designer, and filmmaker. (Photo illustration courtesy of the Forge Project)

The six winners are:

—Catherine Blackburn, a Dene artist and jeweler from the English River First Nation, who uses personal narrative to speak back to colonial histories.

—Laura Ortman, White Mountain Apache, an experimental musician and vocalist working with the electric guitar, piano and the Apache violin.

—Rainer Posselt, Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, a public and mental health worker whose experience in youth work and food-sovereignty initiatives inform explorations of historical trauma.

—Sara Siestreem, Hanis Coos, who combines painting, photography, printmaking, weaving, and large-scale installation with work in education and institutional reform.

—Tania Willard, Secwepemc Nation, whose examines the intersections between Indigenous practices and land-based issues.

—Peter Williams, Yup’ik, a culture-bearer, artist, designer, and filmmaker who creates hand-sewn hides and skin from harvested traditional foods, bridging worlds of Indigenous art, fashion, and subsistence.

The Forge Project acquires art and provides space for cultural practices, participatory research, organizing models, and geographic contexts to honor Indigenous histories as well as to build Native futures. 

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