MENDOCINO, 10/31/23 — Louis Joseph, a member of the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians, has a strategy to change the world. It’s expressed by his website and his newsletter, “I Know a Native.”
“As corny as that may sound, I actually think having a nearly impossible goal is a good thing,” Joseph said at his booth during the seventh iteration of the Native Arts Expo. “I want every person in this world to know a Native. Not because I think we’re better than everyone, but because I think the connection of all our planet’s people will transcend humanity into heights it hasn’t seen.”
Joseph’s message was echoed by a wide variety of artistic expression at Native Arts Expo 7, held at the Mendocino Art Center in Mendocino on Friday and Saturday. It was the biggest by far, said organizer and founder Eric Wilder (Kashia Band of Pomo Indians). The event is an annual opportunity to see and buy art created by Native American artists living and working in Northern California.
Throughout the month of October, the art center exhibited traditional and contemporary Native art in a special exhibition titled “Evolving Traditions.” The exhibit culminated in the Native Arts Expo, a celebration and showcase of regional Indigenous art that was held in the grassy area outside the center. The event was packed with artists exhibiting their work at booths, live performers and seminars.
The performances ranged from singers from genres as different as rap, comedy and country.
There were poetry readings, Native American-led meditations and reflections, classes and special presentations. Some booths had art for sale, while others asked people to volunteer for causes such as salmon and forest restoration. There were jewelry artists and many basket makers, along with painters, weavers, makers of parkas, fashion designers, blanket makers, a cookbook author, a farmer, a bakery, and a booth showcasing tule boat construction. All the booths were operated by Native Americans from Northern California and other parts of the country. Annual tule boat races are held in Clear Lake every July.
Joseph was having a conversation with Joe Weber (Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians), who earlier demonstrated to the crowd how a tule boat is made. The two talked about the best way for Native Americans to move forward in a time when exciting things are happening, such as the Land Back movement that restores land sovereignty to local tribal governments. There is also a renewed interest, rapidly gathering steam in this age of wildland fires, in traditional Indigenous forestry practices that involve periodic managed burns. They also discussed how at the same time, Native American communities continue to struggle with a wide range of social issues such as high rates of poverty, addiction and suicide.
Joseph’s solution is for Native Americans to get to know people outside their circle — as well as for non-Indigenous to get to know Native American people. Weber’s solution is to empower Native American communities with their rich history. Other participants at the event hope that music and visual arts can forge a way forward.
Weber said the July tule boat races in Clear Lake are worth the effort it takes to put on the event. Kids having a fun day on the water realize a cool connection to their own traditions and past. “Someday many years from now, I will be gone but those young people will remember being there to see that and will be able to pass the tradition on,” said Weber.
Joseph said many people love to learn about Native American history and unique traditions such as making tule boats. But of course, history is not for everybody. “Telling the history is so important,” Joseph said. “I am so glad we have people to do this. For me, I’m not about telling the stories of Sitting Bull. That’s important, but I’m more focused on what is going on in the world right now.”
Joseph’s newsletter touches on subjects ranging from a rapper using the word “squaw” to sports mascot controversies to his own efforts to learn the Northern Pomo language and why Native Americans might prefer that term over “Indians” or “Indigenous peoples.” Each editorial focuses on his efforts to discuss such issues with others outside the community.
His latest posting is about the movie Killers of the Flower Moon. He said that Martin Scorsese’s personal connections with Native Americans helped motivate him to make the movie.
“Anytime someone hears a story like [Killers of the Flower Moon], it has much more meaning if they know someone who connects them to it,” Joseph said. “People hear all the bad stuff going on out there and then they hear all what was done to Native people and say ‘I don’t know anything about this and really can’t care about it.’ But if they know a Native person personally and then they hear about something in the news or in history, they will be drawn in. ‘That happened to someone I know, that is being done to the people of my friend!’ They will be much more likely to learn about it and care.”
“Anytime someone hears a story like this, it has much more meaning if they know someone who connects them to it,” Joseph said. “People hear all the bad stuff going on out there and then they hear all what was done to Native people and say ‘I don’t know anything about this and really can’t care about it.’ But if they know a Native person personally and then they hear about something in the news or in history, they will be drawn in. ‘That happened to someone I know, that is being done to the people of my friend!’ They will be much more likely to learn about it and care.”
Organizer Eric Wilder, a prolific artist and member of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, said he worked with the Ford House restroom art tile project, where he made connections that led to the event being so big this year. The project brought together artists and community members throughout Mendocino to renovate and redesign a public restroom located in central Mendocino near the historic Ford House. He said he spent a lot of time promoting the expo on social media and talking about the event to tribal people all over California.
The California Indian Heritage Center had a booth at the event, and implemented surveys and collected input on plans to build a marquee center celebrating California’s many diverse tribal communities on what is now California State Parks property in Sacramento. Representatives from the center are attending events in every county in California and contacting every tribe about contributing to the center. Once built, it could rival the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii.
Natyia Whipple spent the weekend helping her mother explain a Native project on salmon restoration. “My mom handles most of this but I know there is a lot going on with dam removal, stream restoration and political work,” she said. “People of all ages are involved.” Read more about Whipple’s mother’s work as covered by The Mendocino Voice here.
The Native Arts Expo started nine years ago in Gualala with a two-year hiatus during the pandemic. Past events had about 20 booths, with 54 this time. There are plans afoot for sponsors and larger venues. Wilder has contributed to the making of Native American designs for Nike orthopedic shoes by helping them get the artists for that effort, and believes the company can be attracted to sponsor a big event for California Native artists, at a larger venue. He also said Eighth Generation, a Seattle-based art and lifestyle brand owned by the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe, would likely be interested.