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Contemporary Native Activism and Culture in the Northwest

Native leaders, artists, poets, musicians, storytellers, political activists (usually these identities overlap and intersect) ever more often share their long perspective on our interdependency with the natural world, and the urgency to resist fossil fuel extraction as well as other climate destroying habits.

In 2015, Kayactivists initially trained by the Backbone Campaign of Vashon Island, joined Native musicians, poets and dancers to protest Shell’s Polar Pioneer, as it was being refurbished in our port.

“Break Free from Fossil Fuels,” a worldwide protest generated by in May 2016, focused in Washington State on the Anacortes Oil Refinery. The native tribes participated in large numbers with speakers, prayers, canoes paddled there from long distances by youth, and moving speeches by activists.

In the same year, Lummi put together an extensive collaboration of indigenous tribes to defeat the Cherry Point coal terminal. This summer activists led by Native groups stopped the Kinder Morgan plan to massively expand a pipeline in Vancouver BC. In Tacoma, the Puyallup Tribe has strongly resisted a giant Liquid Natural Gas facility right on their reservation.

Missing and Murdered Indigenous leading the Women’s March 2018. Image courtesy Susan Platt.

On another type of disaster, “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women of Washington” led the Women’s March in 2018. Sex trafficking, hate crimes, especially in the I-5 corridor and near casinos is on the rise. Seventy percent of perpetrators are non-native. Pending federal legislation, “Savannah’s Act,” is one initiative toward enabling prosecution: it would allow tribal access to federal crime databases.

All of these protests emphasize dances, poetry, artwork and banners to make their issues clear.

Activist Native artists have also long been creating public art in Seattle that highlights important political issues.

In Pioneer Square Edgar Heap of Birds Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds Day/Night framed the nineteenth century bronze statue of Chief Seattle with two seven-foot high enamel panels inscribed in Lushootseed, language of the Coast Salish Indians, as well as with symbols we can easily recognize, dollar signs and crosses on one sign, green leaves on the other. When English speakers walk around to the other side of the panels, they can read “Far Away Brothers and Sisters/We Still Remember You. Chief Seattle/Now the Streets are our Home.”

Edgar Heap of Birds, Day/Night, Pioneer Square. Image courtesy Susan Platt.

The title of the work draws from Chief Seattle’ speech as he addressed Isaac Stevens on the day his tribe lost its land: “Day and night cannot dwell together. The Red Man as ever fled the approach of the White Man, as the changing mist on the mountainside flees before the blazing sun.”

Also prominent to the masses streaming in for professional football and soccer games at Seattle’s Seahawk Stadium is Earth Dialogue by Bob Haozous. On the tall steel tower marking the entrance to the stadium, Haozous placed four painted steel discs, each twenty-five feet in diameter. The bottom disc is a black and white silhouette of a city; a green disc represents nature and the dispersal of our connection to nature; an orange disc refers to the sun and the laws of nature; and at the top white clouds take our eyes up to the real sky.

In addition to these two works, we can see contemporary totem poles such as that carved for John Williams, carved on the waterfront and carried by hundreds of people to its place at Seattle Center created to honor this seventh generation wood carver killed by the police in 2010.

Contemporary native artists create works that address topics such as non-natives imitating native spiritual practices, the distortion and destruction of tribal structures in Alaska by the oil industry, nuclear pollution on Native reservations, and much more. Gail Tremblay, Joe Feddersen, John Feoderov and Tanis S’eilten are four artists who have addressed these topics and others for decades. For more information and images, go to my blog:

The new generation of native curator/artists: left to right Fox Spears, Natalie Bell, Ryan Feddersen, Asia Tale with Asia Tales’ artwork Bird Heard, 2017. Image courtesy Susan Platt.

Currently, a new generation of artists is emerging, encouraging a widespread outpouring of native creativity.

On March 23 until August 3, King Street Station will host “Yəhaw̓,” the title based on the Coast Salish story of Native people from all tribes uniting around a common cause and lifting up the sky together.”

Keep your eyes and ears open as you walk around the city. Native artists, poets, musicians and climate activists are everywhere! Then join the resistance to earth destroying fossil fuel extraction and the ever-growing outcry against the abuse and murder of Native women. It is all part of the same idea: respect for our planet and ourselves.

~Susan Noyes Platt

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