The group is silent as the poet holds them in his aural grasp.
“What does it sound like?” he asks.
After a few guesses, one person pipes up, “Water.”
“That’s correct…Water,” says the poet. “So important, especially when you look at the picture of where I’m from.”
Poet Sherwin Bitsui is a Diné (Navajo) from the Navajo Nation in White Cone, Arizona, and teacher at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Leading attendees of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship at their first convening of the year at a workshop in Boulder, Colorado, February 19-20, 2020, he helped them tap into their creativity and think about the importance of words and language in opening themselves up for their Fellowship year. He shared his own path into poetry and the different ways that Native poets have used objects and experiences to express their stories. In the opening example, he said the word Tó (which sounds like “Twa”) a word inspired by the water dripping from a seasonal creek near his childhood home. Each participant then sketched out a poem and shared it with the group one by one, using a mix of English and their Indigenous languages to share a fragment of their own story.
About the program
The Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship was created in 2019 to honor and support intellectual leaders in Native communities who are actively working to generate, perpetuate and disseminate Indigenous knowledge. The 10 Fellows, selected from over 500 applicants receive a monetary award of $50,000, access to additional resources for training and professional development, and the opportunity to apply for $25,000 in additional support for a community project after their fellowship year ends.
“Another central component of the fellowship year is to bring the Fellows together at three in-person meetings,” said Kendall Tallmadge, senior program officer at First Nations. “The in-person convenings are designed to build the Fellows as a cohort and community of practice. At these meetings, Fellows are networking and building connections with each other and with other Native leaders in their fields. We hope these meetings will help Fellows build an additional network of support and collaboration with each other as they continue their work in their respective knowledge fields.”
These convenings are organized with input provided from the Fellows regarding speakers, topics and overarching goals.
At this first meeting, Fellows were enthusiastic and ready to participate in the busy agenda before them. They came from all time zones of the United States to engage with keynote speakers, facilitators and each other to begin the work of mapping their fellowship year and coalescing as a community of practice who could rely on each other for support, guidance, and encouragement.
Each Fellow shared their background and what brought them to the specific Indigenous knowledge they hold. They are diverse and yet bound together by their passion and commitment to perpetuating the precious information and backgrounds from which they came. Some, like Corine Pearce, are the last people in their tribes who know their skills and have their special knowledge. There is honor, significance, and weight in carrying these talents.
Each of the follows were able to map and share their plans for the year, including identifying elements of success and possible challenges in their upcoming work. “Always remember who we are doing the work for – our children, our People,” shared one of the Fellows.
Sharing their stories through art
The group met Melanie Yazzie, Diné (Navajo) professor of printmaking in the Art and Art History Department at the University of Colorado-Boulder. She and her husband Clyde created a gel printmaking station, where she taught the art of printmaking using cutouts, gel squares and 10 different paints. Like the poetry exercise, Fellows were encouraged to share their stories and journies through art. After some hesitation, a few tentative prints and encouragement from Melanie, soon everyone was diving in and trying this new technique to capture meaningful symbols of their knowledge and their Nations.
At the end of the second day, the Fellows met “World Café” style to further brainstorm how they would like to connect with each other, what they would like to learn together on this journey, other speakers they would like to hear from, and other ways to incorporate spirit feeding and self-care at the next 2 convenings. They shared a sense of togetherness in their pursuits and their energy was palpable.
“It feels amazing to meet peers and colleagues who come from such a high level of skill and experience,” shared one Fellow. “I feel such validation!”
The feeling of validation is certainly shared by staff at First Nations. To be able to bring together this level of Native genius is humbling and rewarding. We look forward to sharing more from these exceptional talents in the months to come.
The 2020 Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellows are:
Clarence Cruz (Khaayay), Ohkay Owingeh – Tewa
Knowledge Field: Traditional Potter/Assistant Professor, University of New Mexico
Dorene Day, Ojibwe Anishinabe, Nett Lake, Minnesota
Knowledge Field: Activist-Indigenous Birth Revitalization, Oondaadizike Kwe
Rahekawę̀·rih Montgomery Hill, Skarù·rę (Tuscarora Indian Nation)
Knowledge Field: Speaker, Linguist, Language Activist
Lisa Yellow Luger, Standing Rock Sioux
Knowledge Field: Tribal Justice Specialist
Corine Pearce, Redwood Valley Little River Band of Pomo Indians
Knowledge Field: Basket Weaver, Artist, Environmental Steward
Hanna Sholl, (Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak, Alaska)
Knowledge Field: Contemporary Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) Artist and Culture Bearer
Lloyd Harold Kumulāʻau Sing Jr., Native Hawaiian
Knowledge Field: Traditional mixed-media artist and cultural practitioner
X’unei Lance Twitchell, Tlingit, Haida, Yupʼik, Sami
Knowledge Field: Indigenous Language Teacher
Peter Williams, Yup’ik
Knowledge Field: Artist and Activist
By First Nations staff