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Knowing Native Arts, University of Nebraska Press (2020)

Cover Art: Sara Siestreem, Thanks Giving / Giving Thanks: Prayer, Unarmed, Nonviolent, Lithograph, 2016, Missoula Art Museum Collection, gift, MATRIX Press, 2016. By permission of the artist. To purchase the book: Go to University of Nebraska Press

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Knowing Native Arts brings Nancy Marie Mithlo’s Native insider perspective to understanding the significance of Indigenous arts in national and global milieus. These musings, written from the perspective of a senior academic and curator traversing a dynamic and at turns fraught era of Native self-determination, are a critical appraisal of a system that is often broken for Native peoples seeking equity in the arts. Mithlo addresses crucial issues, such as the professionalization of Native arts scholarship, disparities in philanthropy and training, ethnic fraud, and the receptive scope of Native arts in new global and digital realms. This contribution to the field of fine arts broadens the scope of discussions and offers insights that are often excluded from contemporary appraisals.

Knowing Native Arts identifies and debates the central frames of Native arts scholarship including the institution of the museum and the academy, forms of Indigenous aesthetic analysis, the receptive scope of Native arts in new global and digital realms, and models of exhibition practices in light of current American Indian Curatorial mandates. This contribution to the field of fine arts is intended to broaden the scope of discussion and to offer insights that are often not included in contemporary appraisals. While many readers may anticipate a rapprochement between established frames of Western and Native arts, this is not a task that one person or one book can accomplish. Rather, consider these musings as an extended case study of one academic traversing a dynamic and at turns fraught era of Native self-determination.


Artist Statement: THANKS GIVING / GIVING THANKS Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos and American) and Matrix Press, University of Montana

At this time, in this country, the two biggest issues are still with the people and the land.

The ecological crisis that takes the forefront are the pipelines snaking through the country, currently the one being laid through the Standing Rock Sioux territory in North Dakota. To create the pipelines, land sacred to Indigenous people is desecrated and rivers are contaminated and destroyed.

The human rights issue is violence against minorities through the militarization of the police, an unfair judicial system, and the industrialized prison complex. Each year in America, more minority citizens’ lives are destroyed and violently ended by those employed to protect us.

Racism is the long arm of the class system. It was invented and installed institutionally in order to keep people comfortable with their part in the oppression of others and exploitation of the land for monetary gain. This is a capitalist society; money is always the bottom line.

In order to combat this, I have designed the THANKS GIVING / GIVING THANKS work. It represents a militant pacifistic approach to push back against this systemic oppression suffered by the people and the land.

PRAYER: In this image I use my hands in a fists holding red cedar bark. The fist is a symbol of resistance and claiming power which I call a prayer. Red Cedar is a spiritually significant, high status plant to Indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest.

NON-VIOLENT: In this image I am using the “hands up” pose showing my open palms. In this image the cord of my huckleberry basket, also made with red cedar bark is wrapped around my hands. This represents the bondage created through birth into an oppressed people. What should only bring joy is dangerous in our society.

UNARMED: In this image my hand holds an invisible gun. This represents a non-violent, unarmed approach to resistance. The cord is again present.

Each image is coupled with a matrix of red circles. In my work these circles are included to universalize the message; they occur in all cultures and all through nature, holding varied significances. I invite all people in through this symbol. Red represents power and Indigeneity, pointing to Indigenous strategies of land management and leadership.

The field of circles is a thirteen by seven matrix. The word matrix comes from the Latin word for womb; I am referring to the female nature of this work. Here, the number thirteen represents my Euro-descent mother; she was born on the thirteenth of October and fifty four years later, died on the thirteenth of November. I am referencing my complexity, that I contain all sides and love all sides. In order for anything to change everyone must contribute. We are here now and there is no going back.

The number seven points to the Indigenous perspective that to make good decisions you must consider seven generations into the past, will the choice honor those ancestors? You must consider seven generations into the future; will that decision unfold positively that far into the foreseeable future? It is also a marker of this moment in history; we are coming into the seventh generation since our holocaust. It was though the determination and collaboration of so many that we have overcome the attempted genocide my tribe encountered in the 1850’s. We are the vision of those ancestors seven generations ago and we have the responsibility, privilege, and honor to do the most with the world and bodies we inherited.

The strategy of this work is to combine my platform in the art market and the Matrix Printmaking Residency resource to generate funds to support the Standing Rock Sioux Water Protectors legal defense fund and the Black Lives Matter group. Both are pushing back against oppression by putting their bodies and resources on the line. Through the collaboration of Matix, MAM, Augen, and you, the collector, we can contribute to the resistance through raising awareness and generating monetary support.

This work is my thanksgiving celebration, a feast I share with all of you. I am expressing gratitude to the land and our fundamental relationship to it. I am giving thanks to those who conspired all through time to put us here today. Lastly, it is a public invitation to give thanks to those who are on the front lines, pushing back for all of us.