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Artists find strength, inspiration in their communities and history

Sarah Agaton Howes
Sarah Agaton Howes, Fond du Lac Anishinaabe, owner of Heart Berry in Duluth, MN
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Note: This article is part of the project: "Indigenous Impacts: How Native American communities are responding to COVID-19." We invite you to view the entire project here .

Indigenous artists of all ages lean on their communities — and the lessons of their ancestors — in continuing to create and persevere. Whether using technology in new ways or repurposing old methods, these makers are meeting the struggles of 2020 head-on. Here's what some members of our community had to say about facing the pandemic.

Sarah Agaton Howes, Fond du Lac Anishinaabe, owner of Heart Berry in Duluth, Minn.

“Like most of the world, Heart Berry’s plans shifted dramatically in March. Our cultural art classes, powwow pop up plans, and employee opportunities all had to be switched up on the fly!


"Our work revolves around community — our greatest challenge is staying connected, but it is also our greatest asset as we are rooted deeply in our communities.

"We’ve done an Instagram Live series with exciting innovators across Indian Country. We’ve shifted jobs for our employees to grow their skills from in-person pop-up to social media manager. We’ve created moccasin and beadwork classes over Zoom. In the way we have always been as Anishinaabe, we improvised. We do our best no matter the circumstances.”

Dr. Twyla Baker, Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikira Nation, president of Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College in New Town, N.D.

Twyla Baker
Dr. Twyla Baker, Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikira Nation, President of Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College in New Town, N.D.

“The pandemic has impacted Tribal colleges, and really higher ed as a whole, in ways which never could have been predicted. Tribal colleges serve a very unique population, reaching students who might not have another option for continuing their academic career if we didn’t exist. When the pandemic hit, our college had to act quickly. Connectivity on the Rez, access to technology and equipment, our rurality and infrastructure all impacted how we were able to respond.

"Our team spent the summer migrating class content for virtual delivery, and we have safeguards and protocols in place. Every day is a new challenge, a new circumstance we are coming across. All we can do is our best to respond. Our primary goal is to keep our students and our reservation safe, as we do this work.


"While we may not have direct recollection of such circumstances, we have a blood memory of it, as descendants of people who were nearly wiped out by settler-introduced diseases. I remember that and lean on that strength when I’m feeling discouraged or overwhelmed. I just try to remember that it flows in my veins."

Kevin Pourier, Oglala Lakota Nation, artist

Kevin Pourier
Artist Kevin Pourier, Oglala Lakota Nation.

"Our first major show of the year at The Heard Museum in Phoenix was a disaster. We ended up going in the hole for the first time doing that show. The collectors just didn't show because the COVID scare had just started. From that time until now, everything has been shut down. My biggest show of the year (Santa Fe Indian Market) is going on now 'virtually' for one month. I make probably 75% of my yearly income from this market. It's not only sales, it’s connections with museums, organizations, new collectors and art commissions that are not happening.

"This loss of connection with my peers has been very hard. We used to gather to talk about the Power of art, our communities, our young people and issues affecting Indian Country. Art has Power and the ability to effect change and bring about awareness. We talk by phone and text now, but it's not the same.

"I try to always put myself in my Lakota Ancestors' place and think what it must've been like for them when they were put onto reservations. The loss of their freedoms, loss of many of their friends and family. The whole world changed for them. But, they struggled on and survived. We are here today because of their willingness to survive and be strong.


"The Black Lives Matter movement and the Indigenous Solidarity has moved me and motivated me with many ideas! The whole political atmosphere has angered me and inspired me to speak out with some great ideas to come out in my art. In my conversations with my peers we are fired up and ready to confront all the injustices happening to disadvantaged Peoples today. This may be a turning point in my art — I've heard the saying before 'without struggle there is no growth.'"

James Northrup III, Fond Du Lac Anishinaabe, water protector

James Northrup, III
Water Protector James Northrup, III, Fond Du Lac Anishinaabe.

“Things are a little different these days ... everything is being thrown off, even our camps. I can’t invite the public anymore, just my friends and relatives. I want to invite the public, the youth and get the elders together. My father told me to teach what I know. This is what I’m trying to do is get our teachings to move forward.

"Every plant is medicine or food. I want people to not just look at the woods and think ‘oh that’s beautiful’, I want them to understand the elders see these woods and go shopping [in them].

"Back home, the powwows have all been shut down. The powwows honoring our veterans, our elders, all quiet. Everyone is staying alone. Even at our clinics, everyone is just staying in their cars. On the rez we’re all just waiting for things to come back. Our off-rez people are hurting pretty badly, with their rent and all. We show up at each other’s houses with a couple of bags of groceries, we set those on the table and sit down. We’re doing the best we can, when we have a little extra to share."

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