I sat down with Puyallup artist, Shaun Peterson to talk about Native American Heritage Month. The interview focuses on the potential of Heritage Month, educating about Native culture, and developing the next generation of Native influencers. Each week during the month of November, you can read these interviews on the NATIVE(X) blog. (Part one of a six part series.)
Mac: What does Native American Heritage month mean to you and do you do anything differently during the month?
Shaun Peterson: I don’t really try to do anything. I think I have a lot of things going on on a pretty regular basis. It would have to be something really involved, like event wise, if I were to.
Mac: I’m curious why there aren’t more events celebrating this month?
Shaun Peterson: It’s really hard to unify as many different cultures as there are for Native America. When you look at other cultured groups, a month celebrating their history might lend more to them.
I remember somebody asked me, ‘what’s your heritage?’ and I told him I was Native, but I have Irish and Japanese in my family, and he said “well you can’t be a third of anything” and I said “well I didn’t say I was a third anything” because Native American isn’t just one thing. Saying you are Native is like saying you are European. People tend to overlook that. It would be interesting to include those stories in your blog post. I’ve got a career full of interactions like that. People have broad generalizations, they aren’t being racist, it’s just a matter of exposure and education for the most part.
Mac: How would you educate people on Native culture? Is there even an interest in exposure?
Shaun Peterson: Well I think in supporting my friends like Matika who is doing a project called 562. It’s on Kickstarter, but she’s going to travel as a photographer, as a Native person, to document the reservations and contemporary life. Currently there’s a skewed perspective out there. It’s the Edward Curtis photographs that people have to live up to, and that’s the type of photography that pushed people into the ‘oh, Indians are part of the past’.
On a side note, I just got back from Chicago where I was doing some research at the Field Museum and the most recent videos they had looked like they were from the 70’s. I’ve been doing a lot more video documentary stuff.
I’m putting some videos together for a few grants and the goal is to revisit those 70’s videos and tell our story in a current fashion rather than being observed through an antiquated perspective. The condemning part of those videos from the 70’s is well intended, but the videos are old and people buy into that concept that Indians aren’t part of the global infrastructure anymore and that they’re all wiped out. These old videos don’t help educate on current life. I want to put together the contemporary videos of our traditions.
People question showing the contemporary method, but it is beneficial because we’ll see the real life aspect. The question I most frequently get as a sculptor is “your ancestors didn’t have steel, why are you using it?” I remind them “well it’s the art-form that was based off a cultural context, we didn’t have taxes and deadlines before, and in order to make a living, I’m not playing Indian for anybody out here. When people say traditional, it makes broad generalizations to the culture without looking at the purpose rather than the means by which something is accomplished. For example in woodworking there was a time before steel was readily available, so stone tools were used, but the adoption came because of the need to be efficient. That’s more of a European concept of woodworking a lot of times (traditions regulated as time period practices). The purity aspect of how craftsmanship has to be done a certain kind of way.
Mac: Do you think Native artists or the Native community want more exposure or a platform to share their story and art?
Shaun Peterson: Yeah there’s definitely division in there. When I talk to my friends about my approach to education, I usually share a video. I saw an art21 of James Carrie Marshall, he’s an African American Artist and he made a statement that really resonated with me about their community. He said that there are artists in the African American community who considered black romantic a great thing and the other half who ran away from it because they think it’s a stereotypical depiction of black culture. He was asking himself as an artist, “well if it lacks something to people who think deeper about it, then what is black?” He is trying to do paintings that add to the traditional black romantic concept of jazz musicians or kids jump roping on the street kind of thing. These are identifiable themes and images. For Native Americans, we have this thing of our iconography and recognizable Indians on horses with feathers, people in canoes, and that type of thing. There’s an idea of more than that, and there are groups of artists who try to push away from it, and show that they are somebody else, not just this pre-defined thing. So like when you ask, how do you think the Native community feels? There is a divide. Some of us feel art needs to be this way and some people feel like we need to portray who we were once before, but that’s really impossible, pretending that there’s no change around us.
Mac: Would you say that there is a desire from the Native community for more cultural awareness, in the broadest sense?
Shaun Peterson: Well I think there’s still a lot of need and desire to reconnect cultural things that were broken, literally. You know from the two generations before, government involvement, assimilation, boarding schools, and things of that nature. Some of those traditions that were a central part of keeping our community defined are absent now and so we have to rebuild and get back on our feet.
I think in the mean time a lot of people jump into participating in things like powwows, which is okay. We have a powwow every year, even though it has no long standing tradition with our people. It’s sort of like a placeholder for Native people to come together and be Indian and just socialize more than anything. However, for the deeper parts of who we are with our ceremonies, language and cultural practices, it’s just kind of coming back together.
I’m excited about the youth center that’s being built over by my family property Tacoma, WA. We’ll have a place for our canoes. I’ll be able to teach some of the younger guys how to carve them too. These are the things deeply connected with our older culture and once we revitalize those things, we can share this contemporary aspect with people because it’s returning through a balance.
We’re really fortunate in this part of the world [the Northwest] to be so adamant about diplomacy and building an infrastructure. Not everybody has had that. I realize that when I travel.
There are other tribes with casinos and natural resource revenues, that sort of a double edge sword. People criticize the assimilation aspect of those enterprises, but at the same time it is a means to provide an infrastructure and help revitalize lost traditions and culture. We could do these things without assimilation, but at the same time we are rebuilding ourselves into an economy on our terms. We’re a global community, almost like a country within a country when you look at all of our nations. If we build our community from the ground up, determine how we can contribute, and at the same time redefine or revisit who we were and who we are now, that’s a big deal.
Mac: How does understanding the past alter someone’s perspective on the current?
Shaun Peterson: My perspective has changed as I’ve gotten older. I’m a Dad now and when I was younger, I was angry, feeling judged by people. I see that with younger men in our community who have to come up against that type of thing–“You’re an Indian why don’t you know about your culture?” And it’s really nobody’s fault, but there’s a lot of judging that goes on in general. It’s not their fault that they grew up without that knowledge because of things that came before them.
Now I’m more patient about talking to people and trying to help out with sharing where I have come from. I’ve had older male figures earlier in my life tell me the same thing, “hey, you’re angry about stuff and people don’t understand but that’s how some things are and at some point it won’t be like that forever. You’ve got to be part of helping make that difference.” With this attitude, I know that my son will grow up with our culture and not feel that same hesitation or judgment.
Mac: How do you see the younger generation participating in the cultural revitalization and overcoming the frustration with historical injustices?
Shaun Peterson: I think a lot has to do with revisiting our tradition for what they were and understand that they are going to go through some changes. One of the things that I was moved by was when our cultural leaders in Tulalip, where my grandmother grew up, started recreating the Salmon Ceremony. In the spring they bring the first salmon up to the long house and give thanks for the salmon run itself and this first salmon is caught and shared with the elders. The people come together and they more or less host the salmon itself as a spirit that goes back to the water to tell the rest of the salmon people that we are doing our part to appreciate the cycle that happens.
When the leaders said “we’re revisiting this tradition and it’s going to take a few years to get back to normal”, they were pointing out that people will say “this isn’t how it was done before”, but it’s not about how it was done before, it’s the spirit in which we view things that matter. That perspective is something that I’ve always tried to have in my work and when I speak to people. There are traditions that all people have, but it’s the intention behind those traditions that’s the purity of them.
Mac: What are your thoughts on overcoming challenges for you as an established artist and then also the challenges that younger less known artists encounter?
Shaun Peterson: Challenges, we all create them for ourselves. Some people are comfortable creating within certain mediums and not expanding out. I try to keep myself interested and challenged in general. I do things that I’m not entirely comfortable with but interested in learning about. Like in the past few years, it’s been about documenting process, what I’m willing to share, and then in what way I am. Video is so accessible now one can tell their own story and give first hand perspective rather than trust someone to convey even simple ideas which even in recent years was a big deal to instill that kind if trust to someone. So I’ve been working on that video and editing. Video is a key way to communicate with people on a much larger level. I created a design element video a few years ago and it received a lot of attention from educators in Washington and I ended up securing a two-year national endowment grant.
As far as younger artist starting out, I’ve always told people to find mentors, people that you find inspiration from. It’s because I was seeking out mentors and really wanted to learn so much as I did, that I was able to get in to the art world. Now I’m really in a different place from where I started out. I thought I would always just be a sculptor working with wood, but I’m print making and branching out into other mediums. Everything around has changed so much
I’m looking at putting together a digital show with some younger guys to show that “tradition” can transcend mediums. I think that ties together both my challenges and what younger guys are facing, but also seeing myself not necessarily just as a mentor but trying to make more things possible with my experience and influence. Communicating ideas long distances is so rapid now and with files being easy to transfer I’ve helped people look at their work as it develops using photoshop or adobe illustrator, whereas when I started out I had to drive to someone’s house to figure that out with them. Someone might say “it’s not traditional to teach someone who doesn’t come to you, but it’s a different time. Perhaps someone would have frowned on me driving my car to be mentored instead of going by a canoe, but it didn’t stop me from getting to where I was headed and those who criticize the methods by which we create will be just that. For where there are creators, there will be critics.