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The Future of Native Arts

Pete Springer/OPB

Earlier this month, the newly launched Native Arts and Cultures Foundation held its first board meeting in Portland. While still in its nascent stages, the permanently endowed national foundation, the first of its kind, will be dedicated to supporting the arts in the American Indian, Alaska native and native Hawaiian communities.

As board chairman Walter Echo-Hawk noted:

A foundation of this nature will help reverse the long history of government suppression of Native culture done as part of the United States’ assimilation program. Through gifts of this nature, Indian Country can direct its resources to protect what is closest to home to all Indian tribes—our own cultures.

But how do you define native art?

That’s a question the Portland-based foundation and many native artists are still grappling with. Pendleton artist James Lavadour, who lives on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, prefers to define himself within the mainstream of the art world, calling his work “contemporary art. period.” Meanwhile, others, like Lillian Pitt, a sculptor and artist who hails from the Warm Springs/Wasco and Yakama tribes, more explicitly draw on traditional themes in their work. Pitt’s website, for instance, prominently labels her as a “Pacific Northwest Native American Artist.”

So what’s the future for native arts? What themes and trends are shaping the current conversation within the native artistic community? How do traditional art and practices inform the contemporary scene? What disciplines should be included under the rubric of native art?


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