Expanding EDI&A to Native Communities

Photograph – Lisa Levart

June 27, 2021—I have long enjoyed engaging with the Native community for various arts and cultural projects, which I believe is an integral component of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Access work. I have had the honor of working with Native communities for many years at The Public Theater and the American Indian Community House.

One of my most memorable experiences was my role as the Audience Development Director for the national tour of the play, The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry” by Marcus Gardley. The play explores spirituality, identity, education and migration through the story of a town of people who are of both African and Native American heritage. During the tour, I engaged with Native communities in four cities around the U.S. in cross-cultural dialogues. We all learned a lot from each other!

Most recently, I have become increasingly aware and sensitive to the efforts that the arts and cultural community can and must initiate to create or expand access to Native communities. This requires that we deepen our respect for the Native culture and traditions that have contributed to the betterment of all of our lives.

One of the traditions gaining more attention and action in the arts sector is Land Acknowledgement statements shared at the beginning of an arts or cultural event. While a first step in engagement, it is by no means a complete initiative. Substantial efforts are needed to create an environment of Equity and Inclusion.

For those of you not familiar with the concept, Land Acknowledgements not only provide a teachable moment about the colonization of Native lands, they offer an opportunity to share Indigenous narratives and help us see our relation to them. They also offer a chance to connect to the “Indigenous way of knowing” when it comes to the importance and sacredness of the land, as well as the sacredness of all of its inhabitants.

Rather than being the “politically correct” thing to do, Land Acknowledgements can inspire people to learn more about the world in which we live. They also offer a gateway for demonstrating respect and deeper engagement with Indigenous communities. You can learn more about Land Acknowledgements from the Native Governance Center at this link.

New York is Lenapehoking land or region, and I have had the pleasure of working with Oleana Whispering Dove, an author; Native outreach liaison; Smithsonian-trained Indigenous Lenapehoking historian, and museum curator.

I recently interviewed Oleana for Arts & Culture Connections about how arts organizations and cultural institutions can insure that EDI&A programs encompass Native communities.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: How can arts organizations and cultural institutions demonstrate support for and allyship with the Native American community?

Oleana Whispering Dove: When seeking to engage with the Native community, it would be most appropriate to include the specific Native community of that particular region in the generation of ideas; the development of programs; cultural exchanges, and public discourse. This is a way of demonstrating goodwill and long-term interest in allyship.

We are in the Lenapehoking region and the Ramapough, Nanticoke, or Lenni people have welcomed the idea of exploring innovative ways to re-connect with the public. It’s important to take into account the myriad ways of becoming involved, aside from the initiation of traditional arts programs. Perhaps other avenues could include panel discussions; Indigenous Day of Honor commemorations; a series with Native American authors, or a program about Native Cooking for wellness with herbs.

It’s essential that we all become unbound from the marginalized programming and references most often associated with outreach to the Native American community. There has been historical exploitation of Native American culture; dancing, singing or traditional Native clothing have been relegated to performances or costumes, rather than acknowledging the historic and cultural significance of these traditions. That’s why it’s important to engage in dialogue and seek from the community what it needs. They will tell you.

Donna: How can non-Native communities be more involved in supporting the Indigenous community?

Oleana: Each Native community is distinctly different from the other. First, familiarize yourself with the community nearest you. Second, I strongly encourage anyone who is a member of an arts organization or cultural institution; is a patron of events, exhibitions or performances, or anyone committed to Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Access to the arts, to ask these organizations why they haven’t reached out to their local Indigenous community? Urge them to do so.

A simple request and sincere efforts can open any door to a broader conversation. Each of us can do more by asking the arts and cultural mega centers to do their part to expand outreach to Native communities. In particular, museums can be more inclusive of Native programs, as well as staffing. At the same time, however, the public must do its part by supporting this programming wherever it is available.

Now, more than any other time, we have the opportunity to ensure that Inclusion and Diversity truly reflect the entire American landscape.

Donna: What are some of the barriers to inclusion that you see?

Oleana: A narrow mindset of what and who Native Americans are. And now is a good time to re-think that image, which is most often based on a movie or television portrayal.

It’s imperative for all to acknowledge and recognize that our local Native populations of the Northeast coast do not fit the distorted and biased imagery perpetuated by Hollywood. To combat that, it’s important to learn about the Ramapough, Nanticoke or Lenni; the Mohegan; the Pequot; the Poospatuck; the Mashpee; the Shinnecock; the Chippewa; the Potawatami; the Seneca; the Ojibwe, and the Mohawk. These are your Native neighbors.

Donna: That is very important point, especially for the arts community. How do you see the intersection of Native art with the current arts and culture landscape?

Oleana: To date, the current arts and culture landscape has not integrated its concept of Native art with European art, nor has Native art been held in the same high regard, even though there are many Native Artists who are distinguished fine artists in their genre due to their highly sophisticated and detailed skillset.

There often seems to be a distinction regarding Native Art, and that could very well be because Native Americans have, for the most part held on to their traditional forms of art. Unquestionably, however, there are many younger Native artists merging the traditional with cutting-edge or avant-garde artistry, which appears to appeal to mainstream audiences.

To this point, it’s important to note that Native Art has always been misappropriated and mass produced, which can be seen in all fashion trends from fabric patterns and tattoos to jewelry and boot designs. This is an example of consumption without the awareness of misappropriation.

At the same time, I know artists who express their talent in non-traditional ways, but they feel the weight of the public to produce something that is viewed as stereotypically Indigenous. This struggle alone could be a great panel discussion that could go a long way to help audiences shift their ideas about ancient Native art vs. contemporary Native art.

Donna: What other actions of support do you think are important?

Oleana: For those willing to act now to make a difference, Native communities across the country are fighting to stop the construction of the Line 3 Tars Sands Pipeline, which is cutting through Native lands and has the potential to seriously pollute and damage our land, air and water systems.

Here is a link to a petition urging President Joe Biden and White House Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy to stop the pipeline construction. We’re urging as many people as possible to sign, share and support this effort because all people will be impacted by this project.

Donna: Thank you, Oleana, for the opportunity to educate the readers of Arts & Culture Connections about the importance of not only supporting but making the arts relevant and accessible to our local Native American communities.

As always, I’d like to know what you think. What steps will you, your arts organization or your cultural institution, take to reach out to your local Native community? Please share your ideas or comments below.

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