Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Six Indigenous artists have been awarded unrestricted $50,000 fellowships from United States Artists, a national funding organization. The six are among 60 artists who received the 2021 USA Fellowships.

“Our annual, unrestricted awards celebrate artists and cultural practitioners who have significantly contributed to the creative landscape and arts ecosystem of the country,” stated the foundation. “These awards aim to promote the work of these visionary practitioners to a broader public while allowing them to decide how to best support their lives.”

United States Artists said this is its largest cohort since its founding in 2006. It calls the 2021 cohort trailblazers and innovators, storytellers, culture bearers, movement builders… “[who] continue to inspire curiosity, empathy, and action toward building a more honest and just world… They help us envision new futures and show us that art-making of all kinds, and their cross-pollination, is critical to moving our culture forward.” 

The USA Fellowships recognize artists for both their “bold artistic vision and their contributions to the field.”

The six are: 

Cannupa Hanska Luger, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota    Craft 
Nathan P. Jackson, Tlingit    Traditional Arts 
Kawika Lum-Nelmida, Hawaiian    Traditional Arts 
Geo Soctomah Neptune, Passamaquoddy    Traditional Arts
Delina White, Anishinaabe    Traditional Arts
Emily Johnson, Yup’ik    Dance

United States Artists asked each artist how they are navigating the present moment and if they had insights to share with others. Brief bios and the artists’ responses are shown below.

Cannupa Hanska Luger, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota   Crafts

Cannupa Hanska Luger is a multidisciplinary artist and futurist who lives in Glorieta, New Mexico. He’s a “multidisciplinary artist who uses social collaboration in response to timely and site-specific issues. Raised on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, Luger is of Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, and European descent. He produces multipronged projects that take many forms,” the foundation stated.

“Through monumental installations that incorporate ceramics, video, sound, fiber, steel, and repurposed materials, he interweaves performance and political action to communicate stories about twenty-first-century Indigeneity,” the foundation wrote.

United States Artists quoted Luger as saying, “As an artist who often works in social collaboration, I have returned to my studio practice and taken active steps to protect the health of my loved ones and our Indigenous communities who are being affected by this pandemic disproportionately. The gift I see emerge from this time is that so many of us can be home with family after years of travel and engagement in the public realm,” Luger said.

Nathan P. Jackson, Tlingit     Traditional Arts

Nathan Paul Jackson is a woodcarver and sculptor based in Ketchikan, in Southeast Alaska. He carved and painted the panel shown at the top of this story.

Jackson was born into the Sockeye Clan on the Raven side of the Chilkoot-Tlingit tribe. Jackson was raised in Southeastern Alaska, spending most of his time in the Haines area. Much of his early education in his Tlingit heritage was conducted by his clan uncle and grandfather.

Nathan Jackson, Photo by Hall Anderson

His background includes military service, commercial fishing, and study of fabric design, silk screen and graphics at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. 

Since 1964, he has been teaching art and working as a freelance artist doing traditional-style woodcarving, jewelry, and design, usually on a commission basis.

By Nathan Jackson, Raven Frontlet, 2020. Red alder, exterior house paint, flicker feathers, abalone inlay, dimensions 10 × 6 inches. (Photo by Stacey Williams.)

At this point in his career, in addition to masks and smaller items, Jackson has carved more than 50 totem poles, some in international locations and museums, for both public art and private collections.

United States Artists quoted Jackson as saying, “Saxman Native Village is a special place to me as it has been a place for me to carve for the past 35 years, doing projects for the Totem Park there and the Tribal House. It’s special to me because every summer they have tours, where I can share my culture with visitors from all over the U.S., and even worldwide. This year was very different as there were no tours whatsoever, too quiet," said Jackson.

Kawika Lum-Nelmida, Hawaiian, Traditional Arts    Honolulu, HI

Kawika Lum-Nelmida is a hulu (feather) artist from Pūpūkea, Oʻahu. He started learning about lei hulu (feather adornments) from Paulette Kahalepuna in 1997 at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where he studied Natural Environment and Fiber Arts within the Hawaiian Studies program and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 2001. Since 2012, he has been an active artist participant in MAMo: Maoli Arts Movement, a program of the PAʻI Foundation. His fiber arts teacher at UH Mānoa was Maile Andrade, a 2013 MAMo awardee.

In 2013, he was awarded a Master’s Apprenticeship with Kahalepuna (recipient of 2014 MAMo and ʻŌʻō awards) through the Hawaiʻi State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. Under this apprenticeship, he studied Hawaiian feather work in the forms of lei (adornment), kāhili (feather standard), ahuʻula (cape), and mahiʻole (helmets). During this time, he also studied works from traditional materials, learning how to use, cultivate, and preserve these materials.

Kawika Lum-Nelmida, feather artist, photo by Kyle Wright

In his traditional practice, he also uses modern materials to create contemporary art pieces. He has ventured into clothing design, with his work featured in the annual MAMo Wearable Art Show. Lum-Nelmida has taken his contemporary and traditional work to cultural demonstrations and workshops all over the world.

United States Artists quoted Lum-Nelmida as saying, “During this time [of the pandemic], I have been able to give a refined focus on my cultural practice. For myself, this is the perfect time to research and experiment on techniques and skills. This time has also given me more one-on-one time with students. Use this time to refine and focus your art, and find creative ways to connect with your students," said Lum-Nelmida.

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Cape (ʻahuʻula), 2017 by Kawika Lum-Nelmida. White rooster tail and red-and-yellow-dyed goose feathers, dimensions 6 × 7.5 feet. Hulia ʻAno Exhibit, Bishop Museum, Honolulu. (Courtesy of the artist)

Geo Soctomah Neptune, Passamaquoddy, Traditional Arts

Geo Soctomah Neptune is a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe from Indian Township, Maine, and a master basketmaker, drag queen, activist, educator, and two-spirit—an Indigenous cultural, spiritual, and gender role that holds the sacred space between masculine and feminine energies.

Learning primarily under their grandmother Molly Neptune Parker, Neptune has been weaving since they were four years old. At eleven years old, they began teaching with the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance and, at twenty, became the youngest person to receive the title Master Basketmaker. 

After graduating from Dartmouth College in 2010, they returned home and began developing their individual artistic style of whimsical and historically informed basketry and woven jewelry. With their grandmother’s influence clearly visible in their work, Neptune shows the closeness that the two shared and the lifelong education they received through her teachings. Molly Neptune Parker made her journey to be with the ancestors in June.

Geo Soctomah Neptune, Passamaquoddy, Portrait photo by Sipsis Peciptaq Elamoqessik.

They have worked not only within Wabanaki communities toward cultural preservation but also statewide within Maine schools to provide content for the state’s Indigenous History educational mandate. Their activism has enabled them to travel the world to share about the contemporary issues faced by i\Indigenous peoples. Neptune’s work narrates the journey toward embracing the sacred role of the two-spirit: a keeper of tradition and teacher of Passamaquoddy and other Wabanaki youth.

United States Artists quoted Neptune as saying, "My art is so deeply connected to my relationship with [my grandmother] that it has been so difficult to pick up her tools and weave again—but I know she would want me to, so I do. She wouldn't want me to hold back, either—so I won't. I feel that the way I embody creativity has changed so much in the pandemic, and in the wake of my grandmother making her journey—I have changed. My art is changing and will blossom like it never has before.

By Geo Soctomah Neptune, Passamaquoddy, a brightly colored basket, with rainbow stripes woven through intricate patterns of black strips. A tiny woven bird rests on one edge of the basket lid. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Delina White, Anishinaabe, Traditional Arts

Delina White, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, is a Native apparel designer, beadwork artist and Indigenous materials jewelry maker. She's been making heirloom beadwork and apparel to celebrate traditional ceremonies for as long as she can remember. 

She loves all cultural arts, not only that of her people, but the cultural arts of all people from around the world, materials rich in texture, natural and handmade, including meaningful symbols that define the diversification of landscape. 

White is fascinated by color, texture, composition, and construction of fabric based in her traditional Anishinaabe heritage, made into contemporary apparel relevant to today’s modern fashion. 

She is interested in the history that surrounds clothing and accessories such as dress, bags, and footwear—the combining of functionality with decoration and global influences resulting in the fashion trends within a time, place, and culture. 

Winner of 2021 US Artists $50,000 fellowship, Delina White, Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, is a Native apparel designer, beadwork artist and Indigenous materials jewelry maker. White has been making heirloom beadwork and apparel to celebrate traditional ceremonies for as long as she can remember. She loves all cultural arts, not only that of her people, but the cultural arts of all people from around the world, materials rich in texture, natural and handmade, including meaningful symbols that define the diversification of landscape. She is fascinated by color, texture, composition, and construction of fabric based in her traditional Anishinaabe heritage, made into contemporary apparel relevant to today’s modern fashion. Photo by Nedahness Rose Greene.

White's artwork is built on the traditional philosophy of living a good life: traditional values rooted in the belief of love for oneself, human kind, and our mother earth. White approaches art as a way to wear the pride, dignity, and distinction of the original Great Lakes and Woodlands people.

United States Artists quoted White as saying,“To my surprise, connecting with people through video calls has been a new, easy process that I really appreciate. I believe it's going to be more acceptable in the future as a necessary accessibility, since being in the office is not always necessary. This new way of communicating has brought many people together and work can get done effectively and efficiently from wherever you are. I have become comfortable with the process during this time," White said.

Emily Johnson, Yup’ik, Dance

Emily Johnson, Yup’ik, is a choreographer and body-based artist and lives in New York. She is of the Yup’ik Nation and since 1998 has created work that considers the experience of sensing and seeing performance.

She makes body-based work. Johnson is a land and water protector and an activist for justice, sovereignty and well-being. A Bessie Award-winning choreographer, Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of the Doris Duke Artist Award, she is based in Lenapehoking/New York City. 

Her dances function as portals and care processions; they engage audienceship within and through space, time, and environment—interacting with a place’s architecture, peoples, history and role in building futures. She is trying to make a world where performance is part of life, where performance is an integral connection to each other, our environment, our stories, our past, present, and future.

She hosts monthly ceremonial fires on Mannahattan in partnership with Abrons Arts Center and Karyn Recollet. Johnson was a co-compiler of the document, Creating New Futures: Guidelines for Ethics and Equity in the Performing Arts and is part of an advisory group, with Reuben Roqueni, Ed Bourgeois, Lori Pourier, Ronee Penoi, and Vallejo Gantner, developing a First Nations Performing Arts Network.

United States Artists quoted Johnson as saying, “I’ve been working within a thought process called Architecture of the Overflow, which asks: How do we develop a new model of future-focused, community determined creative action that moves forward from a performed moment, into our collective futures? My goal is to craft a replicable yet locally-responsive structure that centers Indigeneity and encourages collective community self-determination for the ways this work—and the relationships it builds—can broaden, deepen and serve equity and justice,” Johnson said.

US Artists was founded by the Ford, Rockefeller, Rasmuson, and Prudential foundations who fundraise every year. A broad range of philanthropic foundations, companies and individuals contribute funds to cultivate “contemporary culture in the United States. the country’s most compelling artists and cultural practitioners.

Since its founding, United States Artists has awarded more than 600 artists and cultural practitioners with over $30 million of direct support in disciplines ranging from music, writing and architecture and design to theater and film

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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