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Dakota Mace

September 30 / 2021

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Dakota Mace is a Diné (Navajo) photographer and textile artist who focuses on translating the language of Diné weaving history and beliefs through photography, weaving, beadwork, and papermaking. She has also worked with numerous institutions and programmes to develop dialogue and workshops on the importance of cultural appropriation concerning Indigenous design work.

 

Q >Tell us about moments in your life that helped define or change your identity.

A >My grandmother played a tremendous role in my work as an artist today. Unfortunately, she passed at a very young age, and while other Diné youth had the chance to learn their matrilineal heritage through their másání’s, I never was given that opportunity. The only memories that I hold of my grandmother exist within the few photographs, the photocopies of images, or the candid photos of her existing within the background, giving me a small glimpse into her world. I’d often listen intently to the stories told about her through our family and would imagine myself within those scenarios, close by her side.

The few fleeting photographs of her that I am fortunate to come across every few years show the resiliency of a strong Diné woman; her features are striking and powerful. However, what stands out to me each time is visualising her strength as a mother, wife, sister, and grandmother existing within these tangible markers of history. Through her short lifetime, she inspired all her children and grandchildren; her memories live on within us. She can be seen in how we speak, our laughs, our smiles, and within the land she called home.

Like our ancestors before us, she was the lifeline to our culture, allowing us to reclaim our narratives through our family photographs and challenge the traditional notions of the colonial power that surrounds the reading of Indigenous photographic imagery. This moment in our history defined a new era of sovereignty, one of resilience and survival, and reminds us how our stories open opportunities to see our history as a continuum of our traditions and culture.

Q >In what period/location have you learnt the most?

A >The vastness of Dinétah (the Diné homeland) is rich with the narratives that exist within the landscape. The Diné hold a close relationship to our home, and each area has sacred significance and places of stories. Diné visit these places to connect to our ancestors and connect with the powers of the land. Through these interrelated places, we never forget that we exist within a larger story, one that is part of a much larger living system that includes the water, earth, canyons, and plants. It is through these places that healing can begin.

Q >Tell us about your Diné (Navajo) weaving projects — your material choices, your use of traditional and non-traditional techniques, and other symbolic elements that you explore in your work such as colour. What are you hoping to evoke or uncover through your work?

A >My artistic research explores Diné (Navajo) traditions and history through its relationship to memory and land. Diné beliefs are built upon narratives and symbols that teach us Hózhó (balance), the balance within ourselves. Within Diné culture, there is a symmetry that exists within fours; four sacred mountains, four cardinal directions, four sacred colours, and the Na’ashjéii Asdzáá (Spiderwoman) motif with four points. The importance of Kinetáh (land) relies on a grid to weave a sacred intersection of threads that connects Dinétah (Navajo people) through Naalyéhé (materials) and Dį́į́ʼ(four). Through my work, I explore the past, present, and future with forms inspired by Kinétah (land). The materials I use, both traditional and non-traditional, are connected to the places they reside, the memories that they hold, and the complexities that they share with our lineage.

Na’ashjéii Asdzáá (Spiderwoman) is the sacred origin of forms and symbols that exist within the process of working materials. The symmetrical designs of my work are physical representations of Hózhó (balance). This is a reminder of the way our mind and Níłch’i (spirit) weave a connection to the land that the Naalyéhé (materials) emerge from. The essence of Na’ashjéii Asdzáá (Spiderwoman) exists within each piece as it focuses on abstracting Dį́į́ʼ(four) and reinterpreting the physical representation of land itself. For the Dinétah (Navajo people), there is a special relationship to the land and the natural materials that it provides. Through the process of making, I focus on the importance of natural materials by mimicking the tones, vegetation, animal hides, and stones found within the land. Through materials, a visual language is expressed through the calm resonance of Hózhó Nahasdlii (living within balance).

Q >How would you define ‘cultural appropriation’, and why do you think it is an issue that should be discussed and potentially even redefined?

A >Cultural appropriation is difficult to define as there are many layers to the subject and how it affects many minority cultures. Through my research, I focus on the appropriation of Indigenous design work and providing opportunities to teach others about this ongoing issue as well as continue to build upon as well as generate new research on cultural appropriation. There is little research on how appropriation has affected Indigenous communities and changes made to gain intellectual and cultural property rights to their designs. I hope to build upon the intersections of material, visual, and Indigenous cultures, using my research as my foundation.

My objective with this work is to look into the influence and interconnectedness of visual traditions such as weaving, photography and art etc. from across North America to Central and South America. Indigenous art shares familiar narratives of the interactions and exchange in design and process. Some of these interactions came by way of trade routes and exchanges that took place before European contact. Indigenous art in the Americas has long traditions of practice in many communities, while some are reclaiming natural materials as cultural revitalisation efforts progress in Indigenous communities. There is a need to investigate the significance of art-making that connects not only Indigenous peoples but also the value of the process itself in relation to culture. This exploration focuses on looking at the process, structure, and development of artistic traditions and design concepts within the study of textiles, baskets, ceramics, and contemporary art that have helped shape Indigenous art’s influence throughout history.

My own culture, the Diné (Navajo), is one that many have drawn inspiration from and studied because of the unethical usage of traditional design-work on western apparel. There is a need to place historical context into cultural appropriation through design and material culture to understand the importance of objects and design. A crucial first step into understanding cultural appropriation concerning design and art is how to accurately implement it into higher institutions while introducing the concept of appreciation versus appropriation. It will provide the opportunity to open up to broader issues on the ethics of trade, design, and marketplaces for Indigenous communities.

As an Indigenous woman, this hybridity of working conceptually with diverse cultures and my own brings into the perception that everything is connected through cultural expression. This research has led me to acknowledge that there is a lack of awareness about cultural appropriation and a need to understand why these designs hold significance to these cultures.

Q >Native Americans have a strong connection to the land: nature and Mother Earth — through ancestors’ willingness to practise and preserve traditional beliefs, contemporary communities are now able to hold on to and celebrate those practices. What more could be done to keep the culture alive? What other social causes do you fight for? Which topics should we be discussing more?

A >There are many social causes that I believe in and some that are currently ongoing now are the Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and the Line 3 pipeline. These two social causes have historically affected many Indigenous peoples within the Americas and are rooted within colonialism. What many people often don’t engage with is the historical trauma associated with the forced removal of our ancestors and how that affects our current climate within Indigenous communities.

The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is the fight to end the legacy of violence against Indigenous women and children. This is heavily connected to the violent history of Indigenous people being removed from their homelands and the influences of settler colonialism. Today, there are more than 5,000 cases of missing Indigenous women and children and there is only a small number that is reported to the US missing persons database. Most of these cases lack communication between state, local, federal, and tribal law enforcement and very little has been done to fight this.

The Line 3 is a proposed pipeline that goes from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin. This pipeline is intended to bring nearly a million barrels of tar sands per day through Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline company. Enbridge is seeking to build this pipeline through wetlands and treaty territory of the Anishinaabe people through the Mississippi Rivers headwaters to the shore of Lake Superior. The opposition of this pipeline is the contributing effects of climate change as well as violating treaty rights of the Anishinaabe peoples and other Indigenous nations. Many of their traditional foods and medicines grow within this region and it is an ongoing fight to end the destruction of these lands.

Q >Do you have any other specific projects you are working on these days?

A >My current project focuses on Diné historical trauma and my own relationship to my homelands. This project stems from my own fight to bring more awareness on Indigenous histories through art and is informed by my own community. Hwéeldi (Bosque Redondo) is the site that was the final stop in what was known as the Long Walk for the Diné, a painful removal of my ancestors from their home. Hwéeldi is the Diné name for Fort Sumner, located in central New Mexico. It is a place of extreme hardship where many of my Diné ancestors were imprisoned from 1864 to 1868. During this period, many Diné perished and were unable to return to their home, and the only existing photographs erased our identity, romanticising our pain. The stories remembered come from the elders, where each story was passed on from one generation to the next. Many of these stories and the history of Hwéeldi were omitted from U.S. history books, furthering the effects of colonialism. While the stories existed, many

elders choose not to tell these stories, believing that further harm can come from these memories. This project provides the platform for carefully using photography and oral narratives to offer healing for those who came before us and future generations.

While the stories of Hwéeldi are withheld, and responses to such death and violence are not to be taken lightly, there is a need to carry these stories of resilience. Each photograph represents the lost stories of our ancestors who don’t exist in the minimal records kept within Fort Sumner. Like the effects of Covid, many of the individuals lost are only represented by numbers. Our stories open up opportunities to see our history as a continuum of our traditions and culture. While the Long Walk to Hwéeldi happened more than a hundred years ago, it is still with us, and we must remember what happened. This has held true to our current situation of Covid and the second most significant loss of Diné life. Through the memories of our home, we were able to persevere and continue our traditions and stories. This moment in our history defined a new era of sovereignty, one of resilience and survival, and reminds us of the struggles for the rights of our land, natural resources, and freedom.

It wasn’t until the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978 that my own people were allowed the freedom to practise our ceremonies, collect sacred materials, and visit our sacred sites that have existed long before the birth of our nation. This is just one reminder of how very recently the freedom of spiritual practices of the Americas’ Indigenous people were allowed and the trauma that resulted from it. Through the camera, traditionally seen as an oppressive weapon, I challenge documentation of Indigenous people by decolonising the violent visual history of colonialism. Through my work, I provide the opportunity to heal and allow the land and its natural materials to tell our stories.

 

Mace received her MA and MFA degrees in Photography and Textile Design at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her BFA in Photography from the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is currently a lecturer in photography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a photographer for the Center of Design and Material Culture. 

Her work as an artist and scholar has been exhibited nationally and internationally at various conferences and galleries. She has received numerous awards, including the 2020 Fellowship Art Recipient, 2019 Wisconsin Triennial Recipient, Madison Magazine M List 2018 Awardee, and the Alice Brown Memorial Scholarship.

 

Images courtesy of the artist © Dakota Mace

Sǫʼ (Stars) — Chemigram (Open Series), 2019

Tó (Water) I-IV — Scanned Cyanotype, 2021. "Tó éí iiná translates to 'water is life', an essential aspect for all Indigenous people. It encompasses the importance of nature and recognizing Indigenous people as the original caretakers of the land that they reside on. Water is an essential part of understanding the land and preserving the history & memory it carries. Nothing can exist without water and many Indigenous communities today still struggle for access to water. This series focuses on understanding the changes happening to waterways here in the United States and the many Indigenous people who continue to fight for its protection. Current situations such as the Enbridge Energy Line 3 oil pipeline and access to clean water for over 30 tribes in the southwest are just a few examples of the ongoing fight to protect water and land. Water is an essential part of many Indigenous practices, and respect is needed for what it continues to provide for all. Each piece is a dedication to our ancestors, the land we reside on, and the memories that exist within."

Łichíí I (Red) — Digital Archival Print of a Chemigram, 2019. "Łichíí (Red) Series is in the dedication of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women. Their stories continue to exist within the landscape and impact our relationship to these sacred places. Through their memories, may we never forget who they were: mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, nieces, and daughters."

Dootłʼizh — Handmade Abaca Paper, Seeds, Indigo Dyed, 2018

Náhookos Biko’ (Northern Fire), Náhookos Bi’áadii (The Northern Female), & Náhookos Bika’ii (The Northern Male) — Natural Cotton & Wool, Glass Beadwork, 2017

Kéyah I — Glass Beads, Cotton, 2018

Na’ashch’ąą’ (Design) I-IV — Digital Archival Print of Scanned Cyanotypes, 2018

Helen Nez-Diné Elder / Dahodiyinii (Sacred Places) — Digital Archival Print, Scanned Cyanotype dyed with Cochineal, 2021