Erin Genia
multidisciplinary artist, educator, and organizer

Welcome back to this continuation of the interview with Elizabeth James-Perry from the last edition. 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 and the values that guide her practice, and the challenges she faces as a Native artist working in the public sphere. 

Erin Genia (EG): In my experience, Native art isn’t well understood by the dominant art world, and this is a significant barrier to more Native artists working in public space. What challenges do you see, or have you experienced, to working in public space? 

Elizabeth James-Perry (EJP): It is easy to share my art and knowledge with you, because you are another Indigenous artist.  Our tribal backgrounds aren’t identical, but we have some things in common. There's a natural humility built into Native culture. It’s about equality and respect and creating shared space so everybody can express themselves. So, there's a commonality to our approach. 

The opportunity to create public art with adequate compensation rarely presents itself. As an example, I designed a turtle mosaic for my tribal community, and the adjacent non-Native town expected me to produce one there too, without affording me the respect that should be given to professional artist and culture-bearer, whose work must be commissioned. I am often not given the same level of respect when it comes to the discussion of art, because there is so much cultural baggage in this field. I have experienced people expressing bias and misinformation about me and my work because I am Native, for example that I live in the wrong part of the country to make Native art, or that I show my work as “real” art and not craft or folk art. A curator once actually said, “How would a Native person know anything about Native art?” This sentiment negates the immersive way we learn, and that our art forms are holistic. It wrongly asserts that our teachers could not possibly impart any intelligence or sensitivity into the artforms, and suggests that my tribal mentors had never deliberately cultivated my passion for weaving, wampum, quillwork, and designing regalia used by award-winning dancers, when the opposite is true.

Aquinnah culture tends to be fairly matriarchal, so our creative expression is less focused on stone monuments of men. Art is a lot of different things. It’s that beautiful boat you made with your cousins, the lovely hand-sewn clothes you make your daughter for her first powwow, and the spiritual things you put in them, about your hopes for that new little person. It's storytelling rooted in place. Wampanoag arts are very much about the journey, encapsulating it in a story, in wampum, in a beautiful weaving, in the clothing you make to identify yourself. Each time you're around these nuanced, complicated pieces, you can learn more and more because they’re always unfolding and offering new insights, beautiful angles, or layers of the same story. 

I don’t get the same sense of gentle kindness or specific connection or reverence for Earth, or for others, from a different culture’s stone monuments that have rather rudely been set up in my homeland without anybody asking me. 

Sunlight beams down on a black and gold mosaic of a turtle.
Turtle mosaic designed by Elizabeth James-Perry; photo by Bettina Washington

EG: Systemic racism has come under scrutiny in recent months. Many organizations are proclaiming Black Lives Matter and that they're seeking to take responsibility. As we look ahead to future generations, what potential do you see in the possibilities for Indigenous people working in the field of public art in this moment? 

EJP: This is an important time, when people are acknowledging inequity. We need to address all of the ways that forces come together to push Indigenous people out of public space, public view, public thought, public consideration, and public opportunities. Erasure and discrimination keep us from contributing because others think they know us. Institutions have expropriated our culture and voices, portraying us in stereotypical ways, while simultaneously setting up walls to keep us out. This continues even though tribes are at least equal contributors to everything: music, fashion, all of the wealth, amazing food, beautiful lands. There's just something that is so calculating about treating a large portion of the North American population like that. It doesn't reflect our Native values of reciprocity, autonomy and respect. 

This is an important time for Indigenous artists to reclaim public spaces. 

-Elizabeth James-Perry

This is an important time for Indigenous artists to reclaim public spaces. We have been relegated to private spaces, homes, small powwows, and if we are lucky, museums.  Much has been done out of the public eye. I grew up surrounded by artists practicing scrimshaw or beadwork, weaving, or being performing artists. I didn’t invent wampum. Countless people who’ve worked really hard to maintain tribal communities have died and been forgotten. Colonization does not allow any room for us to leave a legacy. As an artist, I question that. I look around at the creative people now, and I think, 30 years from now, is anybody going to know who we were?  

It doesn't feel sustainable.  

This is one of those moments when we could change the course of history. Certain steps need to be taken to address the many inequities we face. For example, changing the demographics and hiring practices of educational and cultural institutions, and companies, to have Native people in leadership roles. As it currently stands, these kinds of positions aren't offered equally to Native people because the dominant culture has maintained that there aren’t enough of us to warrant it. Turtle Island is our home, yet there is currently little space for us… in a huge country.  

This is one of those moments when we could change the course of history.

-Elizabeth James-Perry

EG: I’d like to follow up on the point that there aren’t enough of us to matter statistically. I have experienced this, too. It means that Native artists are overlooked or denied opportunities to contribute, or perhaps there’s one slot for a Native American to fill a diversity quota. What are your thoughts on this and what it means in the context of justice on these lands?  

EJP: There's a lot to unpack. Regarding the Plymouth 400 Committee, a tribal member who participated in planning the 2020 events for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing told me, “I'm uncomfortable at those meetings and I can't even say why. People are being friendly, but it's just odd.” I replied, “Well, you're one Native person amongst many non-Native people. Why are those demographics the way they are? It's not just about being the one Native person in the room, it's about how it got to be just one in the room. History unfolded to leave us as minorities on our very own continent. It’s disquieting. Violence was visited upon us to create these numbers.” Those numerics are a story in and of themselves.  

There's a lot still to be acknowledged. Things are improving, but what I said to my fellow tribal member was, “Think about the demographics of 1620. It would have been a room of ninety-nine Native people with maybe one Euro-American at the planning of an event, because those were the statistics back then. It tells you about the character of the two nations and their priorities.” It says a lot about the lack of justice.  

The reality is, there are small communities throughout the Northeastern states. A lot of economic warfare still goes on against Mashpee, Aquinnah, and Nipmuc peoples. It plays out in the news, right in front of everybody every day. Does every taxpayer in Massachusetts and Rhode Island really know what they are supporting when the funds they are contributing are used to undermine tribal schools, tribal businesses and tribal land ownership? In spite of these issues, tribal members continue to be talented, creative people who have a lot to offer society.

Necklaces made with purple and white wampum and leather.
Recent projects in wampum: “Pootupah” (whale) on the left, “Time” on smoked moosehide on the right. 2020, Elizabeth James-Perry.

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.

Author Bio

Erin Genia, Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota, is a multidisciplinary artist, educator, and organizer, whose practice merges cultural imperatives, pure expression, and material exploration with the conceptual. She seeks to create a powerful presence of Indigeneity in the arts, sciences, and public realm to invoke an evolution of thought and practice that is aligned with the cycles of the natural world and the potential of humanity.

Genia earned an M.S, in Art, Culture and Technology from MIT, an M.P.A. in Tribal Governance from The Evergreen State College, and studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She was awarded the 2019 MIT Solve Indigenous Communities Fellowship. She received her first public art commission for “Resilience: Anpa O Wicahnpi” from the City of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture in 2017. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, most recently at the Urbano Project, the Venice Biennale and the International Space Station. Erin is a 2020 Artist-in-Residence for the City of Boston.