In Our Own Words: Native Impressions
Lucy Ganje, Professor, Art/Graphic Design, University of North Dakota
Kim Fink, Professor, Art/Printmaking, University of North Dakota
Daniel Heyman, Professor, Painting/Printmaking, Rhode Island School of Design & Princeton University.
Three artists combined oral history with social justice art to create the project, “In Our Own Words: Native Impressions.” The hope was that this series of prints would serve as a restorative narrative, combining the cultural importance of oral traditions, and the power of sociopolitical art. Created to challenge stereotypes and give individual Native people a platform to describe their lives and experiences, Native Impressions utilizes both text and image to communicate stories of tragedy, resilience and restoration. Art and design are used as a vehicle for a community-driven narrative to promote a broader understanding of contemporary American Indian individuals living within the tribal nations of North Dakota, and the issues they face.
Many societies have rich oral traditions in which accounts are shared about how things were and how they are today. These narratives are culturally and academically respected and help chronicle the history of individuals, families and communities.
Social justice art has been described as art that seeks to raise awareness of critical issues, build community and promote change.
Racial stereotyping of Indigenous people continue to impact our society, undermining (according to the American Psychology Association) “the ability of American Indian Nations to portray accurate and respectful images of their culture, spirituality, and traditions.” Uninformed and uneducated beliefs about contemporary American Indian people, their history, their communities and the issues they face, threatens our ability to sustain long term, positive relationships on personal and national levels.
A collaborative and interdisciplinary venture, the project included faculty members at the University of North Dakota’s Departments of Art and Design and American Indian Studies; a faculty member at Princeton and the Rhode Island School of Design; the director of American Indian Student Services Office at UND; and the presidents and staff at four North Dakota tribal colleges (Cankdeska Cikana Community College at Spirit Lake, Turtle Mountain Community College at Turtle Mountain, Sitting Bull College at Standing Rock and Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College at Ft. Berthold).
Prior to the beginning of the project the artists traveled to each reservation to meet with tribal college personnel to discuss and gain approval for the project and to make certain tribal nations’ research protocols were followed.
Tribal college presidents and staff were asked to identify three people on each North Dakota reservation who they felt had a unique perspective to share. Following the individuals’ agreement to participate we spent two weeks traveling to each reservation where we worked at the tribal colleges to create the portraits and record their stories.
The 19×26-inch portraits were created using a woodblock printing process. The letterpress broadsides (also 19×26 inches) were created using 500-year old printing technology in which each word is set by hand, letter-by-letter. While their portraits were being drawn, each individual discussed their perspective on cultural, social and political issues of the day, including what they felt were the important issues facing their communities. The letterpress pieces document parts of this conversation and were created to accompany, contextualize, and supplement the portraits. Each person was a full participant in this process and each was given final approval on the content of their printed text.
The final portfolio includes 12 portraits (participant’s image), 12 letterpress broadsides (participant’s words), a title page and a colophon. Each tribal college will be presented with a full set of prints and each individual will received a signed portrait and broadside. In addition, this project will be exhibited at venues throughout the United States beginning with an opening exhibition at the North Dakota Museum of Art in 2016.
A community-based project, In Our Own Words: Native Impressions communicates universally and contributes a multidimensional view of issues faced by North Dakota Native people and their communities.
Lucy A. Ganje