The Myth of the Native Arts Renaissance

Native artists have always found ways to transmit these ancient Indigenous values. Maybe folks are ready to listen now.

Survival. Sustainability. The value of future generations. Native artists have always found ways to transmit these ancient Indigenous values. Maybe folks are ready to listen now.

My album, Isskootsik (Before Here Was Here), carries on that tradition. I previously wrote two books of Native stories, but Isskootsik is different; it focuses on using modern means to convey ancient teachings and Native languages—think Native language/history over dope beats. It’s doing well on college radio and getting mainstream love—rare for any Native project and unheard of when the project is basically a Native Manifesto.

For example, the song “Marlon Brando,” featuring Sacred Water Canoe Family, is about activist Billy Frank, Jr.’s fight for sustainable salmon harvesting for Nisqually natives in Tacoma. Billy Frank’s life was dedicated to preserving salmon resources for future generations. He set off a dispute known as the Fish

Wars that ended with treaty rights being reinstated by the Federal Government. That song, complete with traditional Native singing, is killing college radio stations nationwide!

I’m not the only Native artist adapting ancient lessons into contemporary mediums. Nick Galanin’s work examines the destruction of the environment as well as non-Natives’ fascination with Native art as artifact. Danielle Morsette creates beautiful weaving work, bringing ancient and functional patterns into the 21st century. Preston Singletary breathes new life into the formline tradition by working with glass; his medium is partially a comment about diminishing resources.

Every one of these artists is getting mainstream shine and reiterating those ancient values of survival and sustain-ability. And with these new mediums and this new attention, it’s tempting to think we as artists are doing something new. But Native art has always addressed themes of survival and sustainability.

We come from harsh conditions. We’ve always had to balance taking enough resources to survive in those harsh conditions while leaving enough for future generations. The U.S. desperately needs the values that have been hardwired into Native DNA for thousands of years. Perhaps the reason for the mainstream love is that folks are realizing that they have something to learn from us.

Kinda reminds me of a lesson my mom taught me as I was getting ready to leave for law school. I had completed a pre-law program for Native students and we were about to set the world on fire. Using law degrees and new millennium resourcefulness, we were going to get back all of the land that the government stole from Native people, vindicate centuries of unjust policy and give both Scalia’s and Clarence Thomas’ busta asses wedgies!

Then my mom gave a history lesson that simultaneously humbled me and made me proud. And like most Indigenous lessons, it started with a chuckle. To paraphrase:

“[chuckle] Baby…I’m proud of you. You’re very smart—but you ain’t the first smart Indians. You come from a long line of brilliant people who somehow managed to survive in spite of genocide, starvation and racist hate. You’re smart because they were smart first.”

We were feeling ourselves, believing our generation was different. Special. So she schooled me. Her history was dead-on; I come from people who acclimated to abrupt interruptions in environments that would have rendered less adaptive peoples extinct. Homelands snatched away at the end of a gun; locally, the Seattle Board of Trustees in 1865 passed laws that kicked all Natives out of Seattle, the city named after a Native man! “No Indian or Indians shall be permitted to reside or locate their residences…in the town of Seattle.”

Mom, you were right. We ain’t the first smart Indians. We’ve been “The Vanishing Indian” fighting a losing battle for clean air and water on Turtle Island for 500 years. Yet, by constant adaptation our ancestors ensured that we were still here to fight for values that help all humans.

Packaging changes. We now work in hip-hop or film or glass or plastic to teach these values. But the lessons remain the same, carrying on the tradition of Native artists who taught humanity about survival and sustainability before us—Buffy Sainte-Marie, Marvin Oliver, Vi Hilbert, Jimmy Durham, Floyd Westerman, Blacklodge, John Trudell…. The list goes on.

We’re not doing anything new. Which doesn’t detract from what’s happening—it’s an incredible moment and I’m thankful to be a part of it. Social media has made Native art more accessible and perhaps that means more people will see the urgency of our message, that sustainable living and an eye on future generations benefits all human beings, not only Natives. But the consciousness and spirituality that teaches the importance of survival, sustainability and future generations has been here for as long as Natives have been.

Since before here was here.