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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

For Native American Heritage Month, one of the largest banking firms in the U.S. is offering its first credit and debit card dedicated to Native American customers. The Wells Fargo Working for Generations card is one of several bank initiatives aimed at American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Wells Fargo said the campaign stems from its commitment to future generations, and is in keeping with its Indigenous Peoples Statement on relations with Native communities.

The Wells Fargo campaign also comes a few years after it underwent turmoil -- protests, lawsuits, and a Senate investigation -- over alleged predatory practices and financing of a controversial pipeline. In 2017, Seattle became the first of several cities to cut ties with Wells Fargo, which handled its $3 billion operating budget.

Pictured: Olivia One Feather, right, of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and Paul Cheoketen, of the Wagner Saanich First Nations, at the Feb. 7, 2017 meeting when the Seattle City Council voted to sever ties with Wells Fargo. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The company fired thousands of employees, and in February paid $3 billion in fines and reimbursements. It paid $6.5 million to settle a 2017 lawsuit over shady sales tactics used on the Navajo reservation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Protesters had also targeted the bank for financing the Dakota Access Pipeline, which opponents say threatens the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s drinking water. Wells Fargo said it put in less than 5 percent of the total and was one of 17 banks involved.

Wells Fargo managers also met with Standing Rock leaders and the nonprofit First Peoples Worldwide. It highlighted financing to tribes and tribal nonprofits, instituted staff training on racism, and funded scholarships for Native Americans.

And now people getting a credit or debit card can take their pick of five designs based on Native works of art.

The five artists selected from 400 submittals were asked to depict concepts and strengths they want to pass on to future generations. In prepared statements, they described the traditional techniques and lessons from past generations that inspired their designs.

Steph Littlebird Fogel, Grand Ronde Confederation, of Portland, Oregon, said this work of art depicts a hand, an ancient symbol recognized across many cultures in the Middle East, and used in traditional carvings of Pacific Northwest tribes. It was created as part of the Wells Fargo Working for Generations credit card art project (Courtesy of Wells Fargo)

Steph Littlebird Fogel, Grand Ronde Confederation, said she mixed forms used by her ancestors with a contemporary palette. She lives in Portland, Oregon and brought together ancient formline designs that reflect Pacific Northwest Indigenous life and regalia with “an aesthetic that represents the complexity of urban Native identities.”

She said the Hamsa Hand, the Hand of Fatima or the Hand of the Goddess, is an ancient symbol recognized across both Islamic and Jewish cultures in the Middle East. “This archetype can also be found in the traditional carvings of Pacific Northwest tribes like my own. This hand represents protection and prosperity for people across the globe,” Fogel said.

This beaded work of art is by Elias Jade Not Afraid, Apsaalooke (Crow). It merges traditional geometric designs traditionally etched in Crow rawhide traveling cases with floral motifs based on wild flowers in the Crow homelands. (Courtesy of Wells Fargo)

Elias Jade Not Afraid, Apsaalooke, of Arizona, said he combines traditional and contemporary colors. In this piece for Wells Fargo, most of the beads are antique cut-glass seed beads. His design merges geometric shapes historically etched into rawhide traveling cases, and beadwork designs depicting flowers in Crow homelands.

“The design I chose for this is a floral motif off of my great grandmother’s beaded moccasins with my added ‘twist and style’ to it,” he said. “The geometric ‘hourglass’ design is a very common design for Crow beadwork so I wanted to incorporate it by adding it as the base design with my own geometric patterns inside.”

Pictured: Karok woman's ceremonial cap, c. 1937, with a "People sitting around a fire" design, which was the inspiration for a piece by Fox Anthony Spears, Karok. Wells Fargo is offering credit, debit, and pre-paid cards with art by five American Indian and Alaska Native artists, including Spears. (Photo courtesy of Fox Spears).
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Fox Spears, Karuk, said his design (at top) symbolizing people sitting around a fire was inspired by a 1937 basketry woman’s cap made by Dora Davis. Among the Karuk of California, basketry represents and is closely linked with their world view, language, family and community, identity, and ecology.

Spears said the ideas of inclusiveness, coming together and community felt relevant. “The two triangles [in the center] that are touching points ...hold multiple meanings to me, one being symbolic of where the past and future meet in the present moment.

“Another meaning comes from our traditional Karuk worldview as ‘fix the earth’ people where dances are held annually to renew the earth and bring it into balance,” Spears said.

Pictured here is a textile work of art by Maya Stewart, Chickasaw, of Muscogee (Creek) and Choctaw descent, created for the Wells Fargo 2020 Working for Generations art project. (Photo courtesy of Wells Fargo)

Maya Stewart, Chickasaw, of Creek and Choctaw descent, said “My Mvskoke (Creek) grandfather once shared with my family that as long as we have our Native land and access to fresh water, we will be able to provide for future generations until the end of time.” She said he emphasized the need to do everything in one’s power to protect and nourish the land and water.

The Los Angeles artist said for this project she chose several fabrics and textures to show the simplicity and richness of the land and trees passed down by previous generations.

“The threads represent the wisdom and consistency of my ancestors. Over time, there is a very real danger of the threads unraveling. 

"The goal of this piece is to be mindful that heritage and beauty should never be taken for granted but to fight for [them], no matter what it takes. This preserves who we once were, who we are, and what we want to leave for our loved ones,” Stewart said.

This formline design is by Crystal Worl, Athabascan and Tlingit, of Juneau, Alaska. It symbolizes the importance of balance, which underpins Tlingit kinship and society. It was created for the Wells Fargo 2020 Working for Generations credit card art project (Photo courtesy of Wells Fargo)

Crystal Worl, Athabascan Tlingit, said her design is based on designs that adorn clothing worn at clan meetings, dances, and ceremonial events in southeast Alaska. “Designs on our regalia depict our clan crests and who our family is.”

She used a style called formline, which is used by tribes throughout the Pacific Northwest. She said mentors taught her to use it with an awareness of the two spaces created when one line is drawn. 

“Mentors who have taught me about the art have taught me to be intuitive in the creation of design and the process of becoming creative. The masters of formline art know about the importance of balance just as all our society does. In Tlingit kinship, we are all bound to each other by seeking balance between opposite clans,” Worl said.

The five featured artists were chosen by Wells Fargo employees from Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian backgrounds

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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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