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Hope Brings Plenty lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She’s seen alcoholism, unemployment, and a shadow of cultural history looming with violence and loss. And she wants you to notice her—to notice her struggle through her chosen art: rap music.

The stage lights shine down an iridescent glow as she makes her way across the stage. Behind her are a drum set, guitarists and backup singers. But, in front of her is an audience waiting for her voice to empower them. Her hips sway. Her hands pierce the air as her voice bellows across the faces looking up at her.

The reservation now the poverty row,

There’s something cooking, and the lights are low.

Somebody’s trying to save our mother earth.

I’m gonna help them,

to save it,

to sing,

and bring it,

Singing

No, No, Keshagesh

You can’t do that.

No more, no more, no more.”

“No, No, Keshagesh”, above, is a song by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree) dedicated to standing up in the face of Keshagesh, a Cree word Sainte-Marie defines as greed. Her voice has echoed for generations. Singing songs about and for her Native people. She’s often recognized for the songs she sang on the children’s TV program “Sesame Street.” Since the early 196o’s she has heralded the issues of Native people into her work. Sainte-Marie, like many other Native female artists, is a narrator of her culture.

For decades Native women artists have been historians and auditors of their past and future. They are symbols of Indigenous America’s perseverance. These female artists are a constant visual and audible reminder of cultural survival and existence. Their crafts survived the Battle of Little Big Horn, Wounded Knee one and two. Their spirits survived the Trail of Tears, the Relocation and Termination program and continued struggles against cultural annihilation.

“I think the importance of artists in the Native American community is more than just an aesthetic museum type of experience,” Valerie Red-Horse, a Cherokee/Sioux filmmaker, said. “For us, it was survival. When you think about the experiences our communities have survived, they’ve sustained through war and not just war, but persecution, annihilation, cultural annihilation . . . We’ve used art as our way of defining ourselves and expressing ourselves, religiously, spiritually, our language base, everything has gone into that expression. So our art is really an identity. It’s so important to look at the art to understand the unique culture of the Native American tribes and part of our sustainability and our survival ties directly into that art.”

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Art defines Native Americans religiously, spiritually, even its use in the language base. In this way art becomes an identity.

Cultural retention of the arts can come through the continued practice of tradition way. For Catherine Nagy Mowry (Miami), the creation of cornhusk dolls helps preserve her connection to her culture. In the early 1990’s she felt the traditional ways of doll making were being lost, so she started created the cornhusk dolls.  Traditionally, doll makers would raise their own cornhusks, but Mowry said today she can’t raise enough for all her dolls, so she keeps the traditional elements in her dolls through different ways. The dolls are dressed in traditional Miami fashion from their moccasins to the intricate ribbon work and hairpieces on the dolls. Creating a contemporary twist on a traditional form.

The individual voices of contemporary Native American artists, like Sainte-Marie, Red-Horse and Mowry, have ushered in a new understanding of the issues Native women face, both in the present and from the past. These voices showcase the worlds of their Native people’s experiences.

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In the past, Native artists were not recognized as individuals in the same ways contemporary artists are. Most artists and tribal members could and still can recognize their work and the work of others. But the recognition is not aimed at individual artists. The focus on creating pottery, weaving a basket or adorning beads on a pair of moccasins placed spotlights on the creations instead. Thus, the object created or embellished was embracing both cultural and societal purposes (North American Indian Art, Penny).

Still, the individual Native voice has emerged as a powerful one. Native women artists, like Sainte-Marie, have ushered into the contemporary Native art world a push for artists to create material and content for themselves and from their experiences. While Sainte-Marie constructs lyrics to make her audience think about the voices of Native America, Native filmmakers document visual capsules of Native history; painters coat their roles in history on paper and canvas; and potters shape their cultural roots with current and innovative techniques. Each is striving to create links to their histories and the present picture of Native life.

Some of these artists honed their skills around the kitchen table of their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. Others started their art educations in their backyards and kitchen tables and then continued at a collegiate instituted devoted to cultivating Native arts. Around the same time Sainte-Marie graduated from college to pursue a career as a Native folk singer, Linda Lomahaftewa, Hopi/Choctaw, was entering an educational program specifically for Native artists at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). And like Sainte-Marie, she used her work as a narrative for her people.

Lomahaftewa studied painting at IAIA. Her Hopi and Choctaw heritage have been her source of inspiration and a cultural offering.  “My paintings tell stories about being Hopi,” Lomahaftewa said. “Being Hopi means praying, having respect for everything, believing that everything has a purpose… I have this prayer when I’m working—not only for myself, but for all people.”

The IAIA in Santa Fe, N.M., opened in 1962 through federal funding. It was the first college to devote its curriculum to the development of Native artists. As the Institute gets closer to celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2012, more than 547 federally recognized tribes have had students attend IAIA. This school became a funnel for artists to channel how they felt about their world.

“In the spirit of Red Power and the civil rights movement,” Margaret Dubin wrote in her book Native America Collected, “IAIA’s artist-warriors used their art to express the profound anger and disappointment about the persistent discrimination against Native America.” From paintings to pottery, IAIA students have continued to challenge and redefine what it means to be Native.

To keep the spirit of individual artist’s evolution, the IAIA has created a new endeavor to define major issues within contemporary Native America through the arts. The Vision Project is a cooperative of future pan-tribal artists who ask questions about the roles of Native art in its context to the larger art world, the evolution of traditional art, and the processes of identity seen in Native art. At the conclusion of this project, the finished work is to include a film, a book, and an exhibition.

Part of the Vision Projects final product contains a medium, which could be considered on the forefront of creative Native storytelling—the production of films. The mass appeal of presenting information in film broadens the viewing audience to stretch through reservations, city and state boundaries. In recent years Valerie Red-Horse (Cherokee/Sioux) has stepped out as a prominent leader in Native film production.

“I absolutely think that art and different forms of art can express and explain a lot of who we are as Native people and the different obstacles and challenges we face,” Red-Horse said. “I also think art, especially film, film and narrative stories, storytelling whether it’s oral tradition or the written word can explain a lot from both sides. So, I don’t think we have to be stereotyped or romanticized. We’re not all good; we’re not all bad. We’re not all anything. We’re not homogeneous. It’s not all one color, we’re multicolored and multifaceted.”

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Art can express who native people are and the obstacles and challenges that they face. Valerie Red-Hourse believes that film in particular can explain a lot about who native people are. Stories can be told without stereotyping or romanticizing Native Americans that can criticize communities and situations in order to fix problems.

Her production company, Red-Horse Native Productions, Inc., has made films aimed at multifaceted Native stories. The company’s first independent film, “Naturally Native,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998. Nearly ten years later, she hasn’t slowed the pace of her productions. Her documentary, “True Whispers: The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers,” furthers the stories of the Navajo men who worked for the U.S. government in World War II. The Japanese could not decode the codes the Navajo men created; thus, the U.S. could communicate without the fear of being understood. Red-Horse’s innovative, visual story telling through in-depth interviews, historical footage and documents has led thousands of people to a better understanding of Native history and culture.

Lois Smokey, Kiowa, was also an innovator. In her lifetime, 1907-1981, she was one of a select group of Kiowa artists. Her work as a painter, along with that of several young male artists called the Kiowa Five, was featured in the first book on Native art, Kiowa Indian Art. Her paintings showcase the roles of women within her society, as mother and caregivers. In “Lullaby” a Kiowa woman, placed on a mustard background dressed in traditional clothing, stands facing her child in a cradleboard. Her body is centered to her child, raised at arms length, and the child’s eyes are directed toward its mother. The figures look flat, but the painting entices a symbiosis created between mother and child. Previous to her work, Kiowa women would create art and clothing for their people. Men did most of the painting on tepees and animal hides. Smokey was among the first Native women to be formally trained in art. Of these Kiowa painters, she was the sole female.

“Gender distinctions in Native America dictated which arts were produced,” Michael Kampen O’Riley wrote in his book Art Beyond the West. “Usually, women made pottery, basketry, and fiber arts, and undertook their decoration with porcupine quills and beads.” While gender did play a distinct role in who created what, it played no role in limiting creative intuitions.

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One Native artist who defined the image of Southwestern Native pottery was Maria Martinez, San Ildefonso Pueblo. Martinez’s pots were known for their black-on-black sheen. In an oxygen-rich clay firing process, the clay will turn red. In an oxygen-free firing, the clay will turn black. Martinez created an oxygen-free firing by smothering her pottery in the soil from her Rio Grand River Valley homeland in New Mexico. Her firing techniques were not the only innovation she brought to Native pottery.

Martinez created carving in her pots both pre and post firing. This process became known as sgraffito. The pots she created look as if multiple levels within the black sheen were present. She was also one of the first potters encouraged to sign their work. Most Native artists did not sign their work and assumed their skill or specific style was signature enough. Her encouragement came from a non-Pueblo with the intention of her signature was to familiarize collectors with her work. At first, she signed Marie, in order to present a name non-Pueblos could recognize. Later her signatures varied. She often signed both Marie and the name of any person who helped her create the pot.

Martinez reciprocated the sacred creation of pottery from her people and molded her work to forms, which enticed and intrigued the world outside of her Pueblo. Her popularity during her lifetime placed her in the position to redefine what Native pottery was in both technical and aesthetic ways.

Currently, the future of Native art is equally in a state of transformation. As the world around and within each artist develops and changes, so do the artists themselves. Pressed against a constant crux to juxtapose the Native world and an outside world, Native artists continue to merge both through traditional means while addressing current issues. This choice for each artist to make: how to express their individual ideas and how to express the ideas that define their peoples. Current issues, past issues, or a combination of a personal journey. No formula fits all. For some, their content is historical. For some, their content is emotional. Yet, for others, it is content that has been handed down for generations.

For Lakota artist Cindy White Thunder, her beadwork has been a tradition passed down to her by her grandmother and aunts. She started beading at age eight, and now at 43 she wants to make sure her art is not lost to the next generation. “A lot of ‘em [children] don’t find interest [in beading],” White Thunder said. “It’s up to adults to show ‘em. It’s part of their being, their life and their history.”

White Thunder remembers watching her grandmother bead with sinew as a child. Even as a young girl she felt beading was something she wanted to do.

“It’s [the art] like the language we’re loosing,” she said. “We’ve got to immerse them…we got to keep it going…because no one else can do it.”

Art is the future for her children, she says. It’s a positive outlet, a tool to use to relax and spend time with those you love. “I don’t care what color you are,” White Thunder said. “Wouldn’t you encourage that?”

The beadwork White Thunder was taught she teaches to her grandchildren. The work itself, White Thunder says, is an expression of her history, but also a combatant in her life. When she beads, she distresses. Sitting on her front porch she beads with the South Dakota hills at her side. While she strings beads into intricate patterns for pipe bags, she also lets go of the day’s stresses. She can relax, mediate. Her ability to copy and process through the world while beading is not unique to her or her craft.

Hope Brings Plenty, or “Lady Hope” her stage name, is a Lakota rapper and songwriter and lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Her art has been created from her life experiences and her surroundings, and her preferred medium is music: specifically rap music. Unlike Sainte-Marie, Brings Plenty has yet to receive national credit for her work. But, like White Thunder her work processes throughout her life. Her lyrics stream through her MySpace page and her message is spread through word of mouth. Since 2002, she’s been rapping and waiting for more people to notice her work. Her songs relate this struggle.

Despite the opposite ends of success, both Sainte-Marie and Brings Plenty sing, or in Brings Plenty’s case – rap, about issues close to their communities: about living in poverty, finding a place in the modern world, alcohol, preserving their culture and environment, and corporate greed. Although the way Brings Plenty expresses the world she is a part of may be different from Sainte-Marie or Smokey or Martinez or Red-Horse, the cultures in which each woman comes from will continue to be honored. The history and traditions of Native people will too. But, the reactions to the world Native woman artists put into form, how they feel about their context and content, will likely continue to evolve.

Brings Plenty’s lyrics are an example of a life peppered with strife, a life still being defined. “In this time, no world is ours,” She sings. “[The] Northern Plains remains the same.” The refrain of her “Black Hillz Storiez” melody is equally foreboding. “Whatchu know about my life, strugglin’ just to get by. This is my story,” her wispy voice echoes in the background and into the future she’s creating for herself and her people.  Smokey, Martinez, those entwined in the Vision Project and the artists passing through the IAIA doors have done it. She could too.