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6 Urban Natives in the Arts

As more and more Natives move to cities, artists urge merging identities and reject the ‘urban’ label

(From top left) Louie Gong, Anthony

(From top left) Louie Gong, Anthony "Thosh" Collins, Lynda Teller-Pete, Dyani White Hawk, Debra Yepa-Pappan and Brent Learned are just six of many artists making a difference in urban centers across the country.

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A Phoenix photographer who shoots fashion and Native culture. A Navajo weaver in Denver leading workshops across the country. And a Twin Cities painter who runs a nonprofit gallery where local Natives can find reflections of their cultures.

Across the country, Native artists are making inroads and making a difference in urban centers, where Native populations have grown exponentially in the span of just a generation.

The vast majority of Natives now live in cities, despite tribal members generally being associated with a rural lifestyle. That’s according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which released figures last year showing nearly 80 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives live away from reservations and their tribal communities. Four decades ago, less than half of us lived in cities; it was just 8 percent in 1940.

Assimilation policies, including government boarding schools and relocation programs of the early to mid-1900s, encouraged—and often forced—Natives to adopt American culture, language and lifestyle, and to leave reservations for big-city hubs like Oklahoma City, Minneapolis and Denver. These policies continue to have a profound impact on Native identity.

Yet the work of our six featured urban artists suggests a new trajectory.

From Phoenix-based photographer Anthony “Thosh” Collins to the Minneapolis artist Dyani White Hawk, the work of the six urban creatives whose perspectives are reflected in this story represents the innovative ways art can help heal or enhance Native identity—whether on the reservation or off.

For their part, each of the artists dismissed the idea of the reservation-urban binary, saying more than anything it acts as a divisive wedge among Natives. Indigenous people, they say, have always adapted and evolved, and art has always played a role in keeping traditions and culture strong through the generations.

“Art reflects current situations, in addition to being able to capture the past,” says White Hawk, some of whose paintings use a transitional moccasin motif to explore what makes something traditional. “Natives were always trading and using the influence of other cultures—look at the jingle dress.”

From left: “Journey” by Brent Learned. Acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12 in., 2014. “Kicking Bird” by Brent Learned. Acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 in., 2014. “The Doctor’s Companion” by Debra Yepa Pappan, 2014, and another mixed media painting by Yepa Pappan.

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Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota) is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. She is a freelance journalist who lives in the Colorado Springs area. She can be reached at www.jtatewalker.com.