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10 Queer Indigenous Artists on Where Their Inspirations Have Led Them

Though the pandemic’s grip is starting to loosen, and relief finally feels within reach, this past year has underscored our country’s long history of violence, new examples of which serve as reminders of older ones. Among them are the myriad atrocities perpetuated against Indigenous people in what we now call America (and beyond), individuals whose experiences are to this day too often distorted or left untold. Lately, though, there have been some hard-won gains on that front, from professional sports teams finally changing their names to the Metropolitan Museum of Art hiring Patricia Marroquin Norby as its first curator of Native American Art. It is not necessarily the job of the artist to shine a light where others have not, but self-expression — especially that of individuals who, whether because of their race, gender, sexuality or any other marker of identity, some might seek to deny — can be an inherently radical act, one to which attention should be paid. For this story, we asked 10 queer Indigenous talents from different parts of North America to share one of their artworks and talk about its genesis, and about their practice at large. Like the selections themselves, the conversations, which touched on materials, color schemes, gender fluidity, decolonization, oral history and more, were testaments to the strength — and beauty — of a multiplicity of voices.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

I’m a performance artist, but this photograph, “Lukas y José,” was shot as a kind of outtake from my performance piece “Réquiem Para un Alcaraván” (“Requiem for a Stone Curlew,” 2017). I appear twice in this composite image, wearing the sort of clothing traditionally worn by Zapotecan women on the Tehuantepec Isthmus, with the important distinction that the figure on the left appears bare-chested (something a Zapotecan woman would never do). This choice was meant to add to the discourse around how gender is constructed in this part of the world — being a woman in Tehuantepec is not the same as being a woman in India, or Japan, or the United States. Though whether being muxe is a third-gender identity is a complicated question. When I approach the idea in my work, I don’t want the viewer to think that what they are seeing is a man trying to appear like a woman. It’s also important to me that those who aren’t familiar with Zapotecan culture don’t think I’m trying to imitate Frida Kahlo.

As a muxe, your identity doesn’t just come from within, it’s always a social, collective fact. The image that has been exploited by the media, and by academics, too, is that of a person born with male reproductive organs who, through anything from high heels to gender-reassignment surgery, tries to appear closer to a female gender identity — but a female identity with no links to the local culture. And yet, the word “muxe” doesn’t mean anything in Castilian Spanish — it’s a local term that weaves together many threads, like a tapestry: There’s a thread that represents masculinity, a thread for femininity — and still more related to customs and usages, festivities and religion, our social systems of duty and obligation. Then there’s a thread of sexuality. When I combine the traditional garb of Zapotecan women with my bare body, I think this brings us closer to that kind of complexity.

I’m a transdisciplinary artist, and my practice is concept driven. Of course, these are Western terms taught by the art school industrial complex. But my refusal to be one thing — a visual artist, a poet or even a cosmic being — is part of an ongoing Decolonial Indigenous practice. This neon sculpture, “my ancestors will not let me forget this,” was partially commissioned for the 2019 Honolulu Biennial. The words — “EVERY AMERICAN FLAG IS A WARNING SIGN” — were lifted from an ekphrastic prose poem I wrote titled “AN INFECTED SUNSET,” which explores intergenerational ancestral trauma. Living in a colonized country, Indigenous peoples are forced to relive atrocities that are still being perpetuated today. The use of yellow in this work is a reference to Indigenous Diné color symbology, and its ties to our creation stories, but it also references the uranium extraction that has taken place on Diné land, as well as the lands of other Indigenous cultures.

There are so many ways that Indigenous peoples have been tricked into performing the so-called United States’ brand of whitewashed patriotism, even if this is only a minute part of their brilliant and complex history. Combining text and neon in this way connects my work to contemporary traditions in “American” society, like the nostalgia of driving along Route 66. To this day, when you’re on the route — which passes through my hometown, Gallup, N.M. — you can see neon signs in the windows of white-owned businesses that read “Indian jewelry” and “Indian rugs.” These signs promote the exploitation of Indigenous peoples, with shop owners grossly marking up prices and profiting off Indigenous art objects without giving back to the community. I want my sign to disrupt that narrative, and stand as a defiant refusal to accept such exploitation, while simultaneously holding the settler colonial nation state and its cheerleaders accountable.

Part of my practice revolves around the tension between the handmade and perfectly measured geometry. I love formal abstraction and what appears to be controlled. Pieces of vintage beadwork and textiles counter this because of their materiality and the presence of a previous history. The materials and color in my work position viewers to see it through the lens of Native American histories and aesthetics. In pow wow culture, some dancers are meant to be highly visible in the arena, and I apply a similar kind of thinking to my practice. I opt for fluorescence or really high contrasts. But there are plenty of other references, too, everything from punk rock, disco, R&B, Op Art, the Pattern and Decoration movement and various fashion histories. I’m creating a hybrid aesthetic that reflects my own narrative.

I made this painting last year as part of a larger body of work recently shown at Roberts Projects in Los Angeles. The idea of a chosen family is often referred to in the L.G.B.T.Q.Q.I.P.2S.A.A. community — and it’s also very personal to me. My husband and I have two amazing children whom we adopted, and that experience has radically shaped our perspective on family and extended family. Another important element of the work is its focus on pronoun usage as it relates to gender and to queerness. Culturally, the popular acceptance of self-identified pronouns is really one of the biggest changes we’ve made in a long time. It allows people to be more open and fluid, but also more specific, which relates to how I think about Indigenous communities. We’re often referred to as one collective Native American group, but in reality there are hundreds of tribes — I’m both Choctaw and Cherokee. The perceptions about Indigenous individuals and communities would broaden and be more supportive if each of us were able to identify more specifically, to self-identify.

This piece, “Mana Māhū,” combines handmade plant dyes and earth pigment paints on hand-beaten kapa bark cloth. It’s about how the spirit and the energy (or mana) of being māhū — a nonbinary third-gender identity in Native Hawaiian culture — is closely tied to one’s relationship with the land. Kapa is very ingrained in our culture. Before the arrival of textiles like linen or cotton, it was used for clothing, bedding, ceremonial burial purposes and, later, as paper. In this new series I’m exploring a hybrid use of kapa as both textile and paper. You can see this in the patterns, which are very important in my culture — we use them as a way of telling stories.

The materials come from lands I’ve either visited or that are close to my heart. All of the bark that I have was gifted to me or collected in person with my teacher, Wesley Sen. I’m the first kapa maker in my family in seven generations. In the past, there were entire kapa-making houses that men were banned from entering. So, customarily, this is a woman’s craft, but since I don’t identify as a woman, and since I also make all my own tools — something historically done by men — my work exists in a sort of middle ground. And yet having this strong connection to the materials and processes has only helped me realize my identity more fully.

I work through music, installation, creative writing, poetry, video and dance, and I see these media as tools for expressing my traditional values and worldview. “Ancestor From the Future” is a rap song I wrote, and this is a photo of the regalia that I wear when I perform it. In the work, I’m channeling the character of an elder who comes so far from the past that it’s the future — in this character’s story, which I created, time is a circle, and there’s the hyper-future and the hyper-past, and at some point they loop around and almost touch each other. A lot of our prophecies — not just in my culture, the Iñupiaq, but in many other Indigenous cultures, too — say that we’re going to go back to the old ways: We’re living with all this modernity and technology, but we’re going to return to the ways our ancestors lived on the land.

She’s very funny, this elder, and very sweet. Her song is basically: “I’m here to send you a message from your people. Love yourself, follow your dreams, be who you are.” And everybody has ancestors, so she’s also saying, “No matter who you are, you have a connection to this wisdom.” I believe that all humans are connected to something greater than themselves, especially to their own ancestral lines. The Iñupiaqs have an inherently inclusive culture, so my work is for everyone.

My work is an attempt to decolonize art history and challenge preconceived ideas about Indigenous people and our sexuality, and to create paintings that explore the missing narratives that were never depicted in the art history of this continent. In “The Deluge,” my alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, is lifting two children to safety and about to place them into the arms of their ancestors. I’m a representational painter, an observer of Western art history, so when I created the Miss Chief persona about 15 years ago, I was looking at the art made by white settlers on the subjects of the American West and Indigenous peoples. Many of these pieces focused on the land, and artists like George Catlin were making so-called documentary paintings of Indigenous people. I wanted Miss Chief to look back at the European settlers and turn them into her subjects — to reverse the gaze. And I wanted her to represent an Indigenous understanding — a broader understanding — of gender and sexuality that didn’t exist in European thought: the third gender, or someone who lives in the opposite gender. We refer to this type of person as being Two Spirit. I’m Cree, and I think of Miss Chief, in cosmological terms, as having come from the stars and existing in this parallel universe with the other legendary beings from Cree cosmology — like wîsahêcâhk and the mîmîkwîsiwak — who have all been present since the beginning of time, and witness to all periods of history.

This image is about connecting the past with the future, and keeping our cultures alive through the knowledge passed on by our elders. It’s based on a painting I love by Anne-Louis Girodet — an apocalyptic image depicting the biblical flood in which a family clings to a cliff while the waters rise. My version was born out of a visit to Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas a couple of years ago. The first question I asked the staff was “Who are the Indigenous people of this territory?” They said, “We don’t have Indigenous people — they were pushed out of the state.” That, of course, was because of ethnic cleansing. This image speaks to the deluge of settlers that displaced Indigenous peoples on this continent, threatening our futures and lives. In Canada, Indigenous peoples have been pushed onto 0.2 percent of the land that we once occupied. The settlers have told their version of history, which is the dominant version, and the one we see in our museums, so I look at my work as challenging those institutions as well as the art they continue to uphold as authoritative.

I tend to work site specifically, and this piece came out of the fact that AS2 Gallery, where I was asked to show last June, is really close to a sacred ancestral site, known as Stluputqu, or “swift water,” which is a naturally occurring falls along the Spokane River. We used to gather there once a year, in June or in July, to fish and trade, but the Chinook — a type of salmon, and a big deity for the Salish people (I’m a descendant of the Flathead Salish Tribe of Montana, and I’m also Red River Métis) — don’t run through there anymore because the river is dammed. So now we all gather in August for one of the last pow wows of the year, called the Gathering at the Falls. When I made this piece, I knew the pow wow was going to be canceled because of Covid-19, which was a huge loss: People work all year to sew, bead and mend their regalia, and to practice their dancing and singing. So I made this work and another, “pow wow songs No. 1” — both are part of a series I plan to continue — from gouache as a way of processing that loss. I’m a self-taught artist, and this work consists of symbols: I think of it as a sort of cryptosymbology. The little stars represent the drumming — most songs start out with a series of beats — and the circles are the voices, while the dashes are pauses. So the image as a whole, read from left to right, is a visual translation of a pow wow song. This one is specifically for the jingle dress category. The two pieces in this series remind me of the vibration of the drumming and singing that can be felt in your body. There’s something so deeply healing about being Indigenous and hearing your own music.

This performance, “dah ‘iistł’ǫ́ [loomz], weaving dance (fig.1),” which took place at the Sanitary Tortilla Factory in New Mexico in January 2018, was about three hours long and marked the beginning of how I’ve come to think of my entire practice, in which nothing is static — nothing lives on the wall — or is ever really finished. Instead, everything is unmade and then remade into new forms. For instance, as I perform, there are all these new sounds that the regalia sings to me. I’ll record them and that’ll become a score for another performance, and then the images of that subsequent performance will become a collage. It’s also crucial that my work always be activated through my body in some way — everything from the regalia to the physical objects I make is either worn or carried. It’s a gesture I return to again and again, and it’s probably the most intimate thing we can do for another human, like carrying a lover to bed or carrying a baby. As with those acts, feeling the weight of my work allows me to radiate strength.

With “dah ‘iistł’ǫ́ [loomz], weaving dance (fig.1),” I wanted to celebrate the process of carding wool — shearing, washing, carding, spinning, warping the loom — and then weaving. My body acted as the fiber, interacting with the looms, the regalia and the installation. I’m someone who shares stories that have been passed on orally, and it’s the tactile quality of my work that allows that history to come flooding back. So much of my memory, and the collective memory of Diné people, lives in objects and clothes and fiber and jewelry: It’s how our holy people recognize us and view us from the plane they’re living on.

I am a photographer living in the ancestral, unceded and occupied territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. The name “Vancouver,” as it’s commonly referred to, is one I wholeheartedly reject, as it derives from a long history of colonialism and violence. My father is Kaska Dena from Daylu, and my mother is Jewish from Transylvania. My work revolves around uplifting BIPOC community members, focusing on femme, nonbinary and trans people. This image, of Audrey Siegl, is a tintype photograph that was commissioned by the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art in honor of Audrey, who is such an important part of the Musqueam community. She spends much of her time on the front lines, fighting for our land and our people, especially for missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, trans and queer folks. So often these communities have been misrepresented or portrayed inappropriately: The medium of photography has been a particularly violent tool in the history of colonialism, so part of my process is about creating safe spaces. I’m careful with the language I use — for example, I don’t use the word “subject,” or ask if I can take someone’s photo. Instead, I’ll ask someone if they want to make a photo with me. I view everything in my practice as a collaboration, to the point of going into the darkroom and developing the images together. I’m trying to achieve honesty and truth.

For this piece, I made my own versions of toys out of found plastic collected from Dead Horse Bay, which sits just south of Brooklyn’s Barren Island, once home to fish oil and glue factories. In the 1950s, Robert Moses decided to expand the peninsula to create an airfield. The site is currently part of the national park system, but it remains an uncapped landfill. You can see the roots of the trees growing into glass bottles, with shoes, clothing and housewares on the shore. It’s a beautiful nightmare, where nature and garbage intersect. “Toy Stories” is about eight feet tall and 10 feet long and wide (we’re looking at two details of the exterior of the work here). It’s shaped like an octagon, and you can walk around the perimeter or step inside the structure. The interior is my fantasy version of a toy collection, with all these toys encased in white, looking as though they’ve never been touched. But when you walk along the outside, it’s clear they are made from remnants of discarded plastic. The work itself is about our relationship with toys, and uses plastic toy parts collected from our past to envision a future where plastic has been replaced by more sustainable alternatives, making it a rare and almost valuable commodity.

As an artist, I love materials for the stories they tell us, and a lot of that comes from my ancestors. Kānaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiians, were excellent storytellers. They lived simply and found the most inventive ways to use what was available to them. Everything was made of natural materials and had a purpose — and would then be repurposed. So a gourd wasn’t just a gourd. It could be a musical instrument, a cup or a container. When I came to New York City for graduate school, the thing that struck me was how much garbage there was: Every day, it would pile up to be taller than I am. Since then, I’ve wanted to find new uses for it, and have made it my mission to use trash as a primary material in my work. If my Kānaka Maoli ancestors were here now, this would be their new normal. So in my own way, I’m paying homage to them.

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