New Art Fund Amplifies Local Indigenous Voices

Nonprofit IllumiNative is helping five Minneapolis artists call for justice
Headshot of IllumiNative founder Crystal Echo Hawk
Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of IllumiNative

Courtesy IllumiNative, Native American Community Development Institute, All My Relations Arts

In the weeks following the killing of George Floyd, Minnesota has experienced a reckoning with the racial injustices, past and present, found in the fabric of everyday life.

Calls for justice have grown to include the reform or abolition of the police force. Minnesota’s racial disparities—some of the worst in the nation—have received renewed attention, and communities are finding new ways to stand in solidarity with victims of police brutality and to call for change.

IllumiNative, an Oklahoma-based nonprofit dedicated to elevating Native storytelling and artistic expression, wanted to contribute to the national conversation around race by giving Native American artists an opportunity to use their craft to reflect on racism.

The organization launched the Rapid Response Art Fund to do just that. The first grant went to five Minnesota artists who are members of the Indigenous American community. IllumiNative has partnered with the Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI), based in Minneapolis, to organize and display those artists’ works.

The brains behind this art fund is Crystal Echo Hawk, the founder and executive director of IllumiNative and a Native activist. While working on research called the Reclaiming Native Truth project from 2016 to 2018, she discovered that large majorities of Americans have almost no exposure to positive representations of Native peoples in school curriculum or in the media. Echo Hawk wanted to make a change.

“[IllumiNative] is a way to counter the constant invisibility and erasure of Native peoples in contemporary society and also to fight the ongoing bias and racism against Native peoples,” she says.

Her drive to create spaces that amplify Native voices only intensified with the COVID-19 crisis and the death of George Floyd. Both tragedies have highlighted inequalities that both the Black communities and the Indigenous communities face in the U.S.

First, Echo Hawk decided to put the spotlight on Native artists in Minneapolis.

“We really wanted to, first and foremost, support the Minneapolis Indian community,” Echo Hawk says. “Because they have, for many decades, felt the same level of police brutality and violence in their community, and I think, also, they really stand in solidarity, they have a deep commitment to really moving forward and being a part of the solution.”

For Marlena Myles, one of the five artists who is creating art in collaboration with IllumiNative and NACDI, it’s these decades of erasure and pain that inspire her to focus on positivity and education in her art.

“I understand the same sort of oppression that the system has towards Black people and applies to Native people who have lived in South Minneapolis, as well,” she says. “I think we share this equal anger and outlook about how many times we tell the government that these things happen to us, and they may not listen to it.”

Myles, who is a self-taught digital artist and a member of the Spirit Lake Dakota/Mohegan/Muscogee communities, created a poster. The black and white digital line drawing features a fist and the phrase “Become the Seeds of Change.”

Marlena Myles’ digital art, titled “Become the Seeds of Change”

Courtesy IllumiNative, Native American Community Development Institute, All My Relations Arts

“If we want things to change, we can’t just rely on the politicians—it takes every single one of us to speak up,” Myles says. “Individual actions are needed as well as political action.”

Echo Hawk wants the Rapid Response Art Fund to highlight artists like Myles in communities across the country, and hopes the art will serve both as a jumping off point for productive conversations and raise awareness about the silencing of Indigenous communities.

Myles notes, “Really, it’s just educating people from an authentic voice and opening people’s eyes—they all have stories of their own to tell.”

She and another digital artist, Jonathan Thunder, already have their completed work posted on social media for the community to see, and three other Minnesota artists have just started work on a 21-panel mural that will be on display at the Minneapolis American Indian Center. The mural’s completion date has not yet been announced, but photos of it will be featured on IllumiNative’s website.

Though the mural will be temporary, Echo Hawk hopes that someone in the community will be able to find a permanent home for it so that it can continue to spark conversations. “I think artists have this amazing way to call upon their imagination and dare us, as broader civil society, to dream and think about what’s possible. And I think that right now, we need that,” she says.

The IllumiNative Rapid Response Art Fund is looking to grow and expand its reach in helping Native artists, in Minnesota and beyond, so that they can share their experiences with racism and cultural erasure. If you’re interested in donating to the fund, you can do so here.