Steph Littlebird is a Kalapuyan visual artist, writer and curator from Portland. She recently completed a year-long writing project of 10 articles for Oregon ArtsWatch called “Indigenous Resilience in Oregon.” The series looks at different aspects of Oregon’s contemporary tribal culture and explores how traditional ways of life have continued throughout colonization and settlement of Oregon. We have Littlebird on to discuss what she’s learned about Indigenous Resilience.
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Dave Miller: The Kalapuyan visual artist, writer and curator Steph Littlebird has focused on what she calls, “Indigenous Resilience in Oregon.” She has written a series of 10 articles for the website Oregon Arts Watch that all looked at different aspects of Oregon’s contemporary tribal culture, with an emphasis on the ways that traditional ways of life have been maintained throughout European colonization and settlement. Littlebird finished the series recently and joins us now to talk about her work. Welcome back.
Steph Littlebird: Thanks so much for having me, Dave. It’s an honor to be here.
Miller: It’s a pleasure to have you back on. What prompted this particular series?
Littlebird: I have been writing as a freelancer for Arts Watch prior to this series and basically it was just kind of conceived by my editor Laurel Reed Pavik as well as Laura Grimes and Bob Hicks from Oregon Arts Watch. We all just came to this idea of creating a series that focuses on how arts education and how the arts are shaping that resiliency that is the theme throughout all of those articles.
Miller: If I’d asked you what resilience or resiliency meant when you started this series, what would you have said?
Littlebird: Oh, I think initially I probably would have said strength and diligence and something along the lines were just pure brute force, I think.
Miller: And now has it changed?
Littlebird: I feel like there’s a lot of nuance to that idea of resilience and the ways in which it sort of plays out in the Indigenous Community, in particular.
Miller: How is resilience different from survival?
Littlebird: Well, resilience is survival but it goes beyond that, right? And resilience is about not only being able to survive in your environment but also to thrive. This idea I think a lot about when I think of my plant relatives but is also applicable to my tribal relatives which is this idea of seasonality and that we take care of our environment in order for it to come back stronger next year. So resilience is a long term thing as well. It’s not just about being strong in the moment necessarily, it’s about long term planning and cultivating a future that’s stronger than the present.
Miller: In one of your first pieces for this series, you wrote that you had become an artist fellow for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) working with scientists at NOAA’s Sacramento office. What did that work entail?
Littlebird: Oh, it was such an amazing opportunity. I got to work with scientists at the Sacramento office for NOAA and they are specifically focused on educating the California public about, unfortunately, the coming extinction of the winter run Chinook salmon. So, through that project I got to learn a lot about the differences between Oregon’s salmon culture and California’s salmon culture, and the approaches in which each of these states have taken to protect the salmon populations. Unfortunately, California just has not done a great job. Through that project, I learned a lot about it and basically got to create a bunch of art for them that they are using to educate California citizens about protecting the salmon and how other people can be involved in that.
Miller: Was your overall goal simply to help educate the California public or did you also want to somehow affect the work or the approach that these scientists or bureaucrats were taking?
Littlebird: Oh yes, absolutely. I think, in all of my work, there’s always a bit of wanting to help change the system, and what was cool about working with the two sciences that I did work with, they were really open to the ideas that I had and I have actually worked with scientists in the past on projects. So, interdisciplinary collaboration is really interesting to me because I believe the artists can help scientists translate their work into stuff that’s actually digestible to the rest of the world. Through that collaboration, they learned a lot about how art could help them get their job done. So, it was really amazing. I spent a year working with them, and at the end of that year I did a couple of lectures with NOAA people from across the country and talking about the ways that art can help science communicate really important stuff to the public, and how even just stuff in journals where they’re trying to illustrate an idea about climate change, those sorts of things, artists can help them. Because when I got there, the scientists were just using powerpoint and they were creating really crude representations through powerpoints. So, I was able to help them sort of evolve those things.
Miller: In that first essay you wrote, “I’ve developed a fuller understanding of how the indigenous relationship to the past is fundamentally different from the non native one.” In that part, you weren’t just talking about having different pasts, you’re talking about having a different relationship to the past. What were you getting at?
Littlebird: Well, when I think about what that means, it’s kind of this abstract thing that I’m still trying to really articulate beautifully, but what it comes down to is our perception of time. It also is related to how we view the role of our ancestors in our daily lives. As an Indigenous person, when I’m making my work, I’m thinking not only about myself as an individual. I’m thinking about my broader community as an Indigenous person and how I represent them in the world, but I’m also thinking about how the work that I do honors the people who came before me, those who are here, but also those who have walked on. I know that it is consistent for most Native people are making work or doing stuff within the community is that we’re very much thinking about things that are happening now, but we are also thinking about righting the wrongs of the past in many ways.
Miller: This gets to a tension you explored later on when you interviewed the artist Anthony Hudson. At one point, you wrote in that profile or interview of them, you wrote, “We are constantly wondering how do we make work as native people in a capitalist world while still honoring our ancestors?” It made me wonder what doing work that didn’t honor or dishonor your ancestors would look like, what’s the fear that you’re dealing with?
Littlebird: I think that most Natives who are making work like me or Anthony because it is related to our community, we have a lot of responsibility to make sure that we represent not only ourselves, but our communities and our cultures in respectful ways. And that actually goes to a broader theme that for me was important in this series, which was that my articles were not published without having been shared with the Indigenous person that I wrote them about before they were published because Natives have historically one not been in control of their representation, and so we don’t actually get to say how we’re represented. Also when we are misrepresented, nobody really checks with us to get the right story. So it was really important for me that I give that safety and that space to Indigenous people to tell their stories, because historically we haven’t had that. That sort of flows throughout in this way of, like, I’m trying to offer respect not only to my community, but to the individuals that I interviewed because we have so often not been offered that respect.
Miller: When you would do that, and you would say here is a draft of what I’ve been working on, what kinds of responses would you get?
Littlebird: I was lucky that I don’t think that I was ever too far off of base, but I have said this in some of my other interviews about this series, which is that no one who is not a part of the native community and a native writer, could really have gotten these stories. It does take a certain amount of time to build trust and rapport with the person that you’re interviewing in order to get these stories. So there is something that’s very special about them because it did take a little bit of me proving that I was a trusted source in order to actually even be able to tell these stories.
Miller: At one point, you profiled a woman who does traditional woodcarving among other arts, and she talked to you about her mother’s traumatic experiences at the Chemawa Indian Boarding School in Salem. What did you learn about how reclaiming culture and traditions can help people address intergenerational trauma?
Littlebird: Yeah, I think that Beejee is her name. Beejee is such an amazing part of our community and this inspiring person. To hear about her story and the story of her mom is really sort of gut wrenching, but it’s important to hear about where people are coming from in terms of trauma and the things that our ancestors experienced, the things that we have experienced, but then the way that we can work through those things is through learning about tradition, connecting with our culture, connecting with our community. And I say this all the time is that community and culture actually save lives. When you come from intergenerational trauma, life can feel quite hopeless. But if you begin to learn about tradition … like in the case of one of my first articles about Greg Archuleta. He’s teaching people how to do traditional art that our ancestors did and keeping this art alive in a new generation is how we go about healing some of that trauma, working through it and reclaiming a culture that, unfortunately, was attempted to be decimated. So we’re still kind of doing the work that our ancestors left off. It circles back to the past and comes into the future.
Miller: In another interview, that one with Anthony Hudson, you wrote about the distance there can be between Indigenous artists and non Indigenous audiences and essentially what you and Anthony talked about was that there could be this thing where if white people do something it’s more likely to be seen as art; if native people do something, it’s more likely to be seen as craft or as a cultural artifact. I think that’s something that Anthony Hudson said that I’m paraphrasing. What do you see as the repercussions of that as an artist yourself?
Littlebird: Oh it’s something that we’re constantly having to grapple with in different ways and Anthony has articulated that beautifully. We’re trying to work through intergenerational trauma, talk about our culture and sometimes the ways in which we have to interact with people who are not from our community can be kind of harmful. So it’s very difficult and sometimes projects that you really are passionate about can actually turn out to just be really dangerous because white supremacy is the reason why we are not considered fine art. So we are having to sort of legitimize ourselves constantly through our work. It’s kind of like when you asked me earlier about needing the word professional in my bio and I thought, oh, that’s because I have never been taken seriously. When I tell people I’m an artist or a writer, they don’t think that I actually do that for my job. They think that’s like a hobby.
Miller: I should just say when you say earlier, before we went live, I ran your bio by you and I said, hey, do I need to say professional writer? And you’re saying that that’s why you put in there, it was after over and over having questions about how legitimate you are as a professional.
Littlebird: Yes, exactly. And it’s something that I do subconsciously and that, just when you said it, made that connection for me. I’m like, oh that’s why I do that, is because I’m used to people thinking I’m not actually a professional artist. They think I do it as a pastime.
Miller: We have just less than a minute left, but this gets to a question of burnout, which you address in some of the articles. How do you think about that right now, just for yourself?
Littlebird: I am currently grappling with burnout personally and having to just come to the realization that I have to prioritize my own health and happiness right now in order to continue to do that work. To produce this kind of work I also have to prioritize my own needs. That’s not easy to do in a world that demands you work constantly. But we’re all, I think, learning to do that right now because we’ve sort of been forced to.
Miller: Steph Littlebird, thanks so much.
Littlebird: Likewise, thank you.