Erin Genia
multidisciplinary artist, educator, and organizer

As part of the Centering Justice: Indigenous Artists Perspectives on Public Art initiative, artist Erin Genia, Dakota, interviewed artist Elizabeth James-Perry, Aquinnah Wampanoag, on her art work, approaches to making, art in the public sphere and the values that guide her practice. 

Erin Genia (EG): Where are you from and what kind of artwork do you create? 

Elizbaeth James-Perry (EJP): My name is Elizabeth James-Perry and I am enrolled in the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, a community on Martha's Vineyard, or Noepe. To experience our homeland from the water is quite different than being land-bound, where the landscape has changed into 21st-century suburbs/ cityscapes. Out on the water, far enough away, those changes become less distinct. Instead, I get an overall impression of the character of that part of Turtle Island. There’s a different sense of distance; and the flow of energy is distinct on the water. I am a traditional and contemporary artist, working primarily as a shell carver, and in naturally-dyed textiles, as well as illustration. My work is informed by more of a 360-degree view because I continue to relate to my Atlantic homeland. 

EG: What kind of media do you work in? 

EJP: I weave substantial wampum belts incorporating soft handspun dyed milkweed and design unique jewelry. Through art, I communicate a love of the rich Northeast, and how it relates to my identity as a Wampanoag woman whose nation has been sustained by ocean resources for millennia. There are patterns within a purple matrix. I feel honored to continue the Wampanoag traditional ecological knowledge encompassed in our arts.  

Wampum necklaces with varying stones.
Sculpted wampum pendants-blue whale, inscribed pendant, square shield, moon disc inscribed ear of corn, killer whale, inscribe tag. Necklaces are made of hand spun and naturally dyed milkweed. Photo courtesy of the artist: Elizabeth James-Perry.

EG: You mentioned that you consider yourself to be a traditional artist and a contemporary artist. Can you talk about the perception of Native artwork as being in a binary of either traditional or contemporary? 

EJP: I’m a Native person experiencing modern life, compounded by the stressors of being Native: economic hardship, sovereignty challenges, distractions from culture, environmental degradation, global warming. The latter is happening at an accelerated rate here in Massachusetts. I don't like to think of my homeland and Nation in multiple time periods as being ground zero for disaster, but we really do seem to get hit a lot. It’s disturbing. Around 1620, a plague hit our territory, and ironically, now we’re experiencing another plague, just about 400 years later. The ocean’s warming here at the fastest rate in the world. Time is arbitrary; I don't think it’s linear, the way it's portrayed. In our Algonquian worldview, time is cyclical. Connections are made across time. As a descendant of the Wampanoag who dealt with the English separatists 400 years ago, I don’t think much has changed in the descendants of the folks who came to colonize us, and much hasn't changed in the Indigenous people of this land, who are, even now, working to preserve our unique lifeways.  

With regard to Native art, expressions and mediums change, influences come in. There’s also resource loss to contend with. I see Native art as adaptation and shapeshifting, from ochre to acrylic, from wampum to glass, and back again. Sometimes there’s a concession, but I don’t believe in discontinuity. I don’t buy into death and decline tropes. I am employing the same techniques as my ancestors to celebrate what inspires: the suppleness of seals, ospreys hunting, the warm energetic sense of being in a pod of whales. Wampum has strong social connotations, and it has recorded alliances between Native nations in the Northeast and Great Lakes. Wampum belts also record our stories with a seasonal specificity to the white or purple background. That is just one example of how art holds keys to a complex worldview. Those stories are pretty timeless. Particular anecdotes that my wampum visually communicates might be very much in the now. But I don't think that means the pieces wouldn’t have been resonant a few hundred years ago or won't be relevant to Native people years from now; the cultural basis is still the same. They are woven by a Native person with a creative spirit nurtured by tribal family and the surrounding geology and waterways.

A stone and leather collar, or necklace.
Alliance Collar, in the collection at the Haffenraffer Museum, Elizabeth James-Perry

EG: As we consider public art and artworks in public space, what does public space mean to you in the context of 400 years of settler colonialism in this area? 

EJP: That's a really interesting question and challenge for me because I try to prioritize a Native perspective and privilege Native audiences. In terms of the colonial-settler presence, Native artworks facilitates cross-cultural communication and affords tribal artists healthy self-expression after lifetimes of oppression. Even within our tribal homelands here in Massachusetts, Native artists and culture bearers have long been marginalized and treated as interlopers. This phenomenon prevents us from leaving a legacy and severely limiting the impacts of our work. Public art can surprise, dismay, or provoke a smile, ultimately deepening non-Native people’s understanding of this place and Indigenous people, our values and priorities. Art is one’s soul speaking to another, expressing our humanity and humor. 

Public art can surprise, dismay, or provoke a smile, ultimately deepening non-Native people’s understanding of this place and Indigenous people, our values and priorities. Art is one’s soul speaking to another, expressing our humanity and humor.

 – Elizabeth James-Perry

EG: I agree. There's a lot of potential in working in public space. How do you approach an understanding of public art within your own cultural context? 

EJP: Visual communication was achieved in regalia design and pervasive body tattooing and adornment. Having tattoo designs that relate to one’s tribe and clan refers to a system of common traditions throughout Algonquian tribes. Northeastern art features distinctive textures, color and dense geometry. It is grounding to express our interconnectedness through art, whether that be in wampum, painted clothing, tattooing or stone effigy piles, but having our cultural expression nearly eradicated by a foreign, exploitive mindset does the opposite. It is through art that we can restate our purpose.  

My hope for the next generation is that Native art in public places can signal what is important, who was here, what has transpired. It can express new possibilities, as well as provide a sense of continuity in the visual record here. Public Native art engenders more creativity and supports resilience and hope, giving insights into human and natural conditions.  

My hope for the next generation is that Native art in public places can signal what is important, who was here, what has transpired.

– Elizabeth James-Perry


This interview continues with View from Noepe: Interview with Elizabeth James-Perry, Part 2.

This blog post is part collaborative series: Centering Justice: Indigenous Artists Perspectives on Public Art

About Elizabeth James-Perry

Elizabeth wears earrings and long hair.
photo courtesy of Daniel Jacob

Elizabeth James-Perry is an enrolled member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe on the island of Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard).  Her fine art work focuses on Northeastern Woodlands Algonquian artistic expressions: Wampum carving, weaving and natural dyeing. As a member of a Nation that has long lived on and harvested the sea, Elizabeth’s is a perspective that combines art and an appreciation for Native storytelling and traditional environmental knowledge in her ways of relating to coastal North Atlantic life. With a degree in Marine Science from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth 2001, she has off-shore commercial fisheries research experience, and published independent Native research projects. Elizabeth was honored to be a 38th Voyager onboard the historic Charles W. Morgan whaling vessel, as a descendant of the Gay Head crewmembers.  Her work has appeared in Native People’s Magazine, Native Fashion Now, and First American Art magazine. She was a recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Councils 2014 Traditional Arts Fellowship from Massachusetts Cultural Council, resides in South Coast Massachusetts and worked in her communities Tribal Historic Preservation Office.