Native American Heritage Month: Art as Inherent Activism

By Shelby Baumgartner

Native American art holds deep meaning and purpose, especially for a community that has had its rights trampled on by the government again and again. Not only are treaties signed with Native communities ignored by the government every day, but Native Americans are also disproportionately affected by discriminatory policing and mass incarceration, poverty, and lack of access to healthcare. The art created in these communities carries on cultures that the U.S. so routinely attempts to squash.

Native American art has been an integral piece of Native culture and history for thousands of years. Each tribe weaves their unique history into a distinct style of artwork, much of which has a deep-rooted connection with spirituality and nature. There’s a deeper meaning than simply a pattern you think is pretty (and might end up buying from a designer who has stolen these traditional designs for their own profit). There are many families who make a living from sharing their artwork and skills with the world at events across the U.S. (if you are looking to buy Native artwork, make sure it is actually Native-made, not a knockoff. Here’s a site to help with that).

Honor Treaties by Ernesto Yerena

I would argue that all Native art is inherently a form of activism. By claiming and maintaining a minority culture, artists – through a variety of different mediums – are standing up against one’s oppressor. Some of this art is quite blatantly crusading against colonization. Take Jaque Fragua for example: raised on a reservation in New Mexico, Fragua states, “if you’re born a Native American, you’re automatically an activist.” He regularly creates art for different Indigenous campaigns; his preferred mediums: graffiti and neon artwork. Honor the Treaties is another example of Indigenous populations using art as explicit activism. Honor the Treaties is an organization that specifically focuses on amplifying the voices of Native communities through art and advocacy with other groups focused on Indigenous activism. It works to push Native art to the front of conversations and to highlight it within activist spaces.

Protect the Water | Defend the Land by Melanie Cervantes

As the #NoDAPL protests took shape, more and more present-day Native art has taken center stage as art of the resistance. Artwork has been used for protest signs and as rallying points for advocates, activist, and and allies on social media. It has being used to gain attention, and to wake people up to the realities of what was (and is still) happening to Native communities. And throughout it all, traditional art and clothing of Indigenous communities still continues as a form of resistance in its own right. Art is being used as an act of defiance, while at the same time, providing a kind of escape for those in the community; Native art has created a space for communities and individuals to express and release emotions that come with the never-ending fight for recognition and rights.

Mni Wichoni by Sadie Red Wing

Art always comes from a place of deep meaning – often from some personal experience or knowledge someone holds. Because of the persecution and constant oppression that Native communities face, the art created by Native Americans is naturally a form of activism. It is a form of fighting back against an oppressor, a form of maintaining a marginalized culture, and a way many Native Americans are redefining what it “means to be American”.

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