Personal Essay: Native Art Stirs Passion

by Emma Jenks

Outside Tulsa’s Philbrook Museum of Art are the gardens. My friends and I had been walking through the 25 acres that provide a patch of serenity amid a world in chaos. Soon my friends had to leave and I went inside to meet my mother at a very special art exhibit.

The “Hearts of Our People” exhibition features artwork from Native women. On display are works of art from more than 100 women spanning nearly 1,000 years of history. 

I was excited for this exhibit because of my own Native American heritage. Walking into “Hearts of Our People,” I was wearing my mother’s handcrafted earrings that she had purchased from an artist at a pow-wow. I was also wearing some of my own Native-themed jewelry that I made myself.

As I entered the exhibit it was hard to focus at first amid the history and beauty on display. I was at a loss at first to soak in all the meaning behind each piece of art, each one with it’s own intrinsic and extravagant beauty. Each piece of art was like a window to see into the proud Native Women’s sole

Lost amid the paintings, sculptures, shadow art, traditional clothing, pictures, sculptures and poems, I looked up to see my family had gathered around writing on a wall. As I walked towards the group, I began to hear a voice reading the words of the poem, Extraction by Tanaya Winder.

You can read the poem on the site where it was first published by clicking here, but the poem spoke to me in a very meaningful way. In an interview with Winder, she explained some of the words spoken in her poem come from the Ute language.

“Sure! I would say that all of my inspiration just comes from life and learning….learning about my people’s history, my family’s histories and trying to render it into something that helps people heal,” Winder said.

Winder said her heart was drawn towards art and poetry for a very specific reason.

“I’d say it was a love for “love” that made me want to become a poet…. to find a way to document and help remember those I love and the experiences that taught me to love stronger.”

Extraction, Republished by permission:

My grandmother says boarding school / is where people go to die, / as she teaches me to embroider and knit, / my hands fumble over the needles. / Grandmother, when did you first learn / how to sing the songs you carry? / Before I was born they tried to silence us, / pierced our tongues with needles then taught / our then-girls-grandmothers how to sew / like machines. Even then, they saw our bodies / as land, full of resources / waiting to be extracted and exploited. / We stitch together phrases; my grandmother / patiently teaches me words, “in indian” as she says. / Mugua vi means heart–I want to learn how to unburry this, / bury, sogho’mi I want words to un-drik the drugs we loved / into our veins because for some of us this was the only way / we knew how to keep breathing. I want to say– / alcoholism is the symptom and not the disease. / Can we un-suiside, un-pipeline, / un-disappear our dear ones?there is no word / for undo but many ways to say return. / We never get to go back to before / our fathers began evaporating/ and our mothers started flooding themselves / into unglobable rivers because their mothers / were taken long ago. And, we are still searching / dragging rivers red until we find every body / that ever went missing. / For as long as I can remember, we’ve been stolen: / from reservation to industrial boarding schools / and today our girls, women, and two-spirit still go missing / and murdered. I could find no word for this. / But ya’akwi is to sink or disappear. Where is it we fall? / When did we first start vanishing? / We sewed new memories into old scars, a recorded pain / so precise like threading a needle one can barely see through. / Sometimes I want to set this world on fire, / carry the scent of smoke wherever I go / so (should I go missing) you’ll know how to find me. / Is this why our mothers grew up to be keepers of the fire? / And our fathers so guilty they shoveled ash into their mouths? / This is where my tongue stumbles over its colonized self. / Grandmother, when it comes to letting go / my hands have always failed me, / but my mouth wants to tell the story / about the songs you still sing softly ‘a’a-qa’a / because one day when we’re gone, / the only thing left to fill the space / our bodies leave will be silence.

By Tanaya Winder (southern Ute/Shoshone/Paiute, b. 1985)

“Extraction” by Tanaya Winder, from The Rumpus, National Poetry Month, Day 12, April 2018

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