Mel Carter's work of carved bears on a glass shelf.

yəhaw̓ Indigenous Creatives Collective is Here to Lift the Sky and Make a Space for Indigenous Art

by Kamna Shastri

There is a Coast Salish story about a number of neighboring villages, each speaking a different language but sharing the same land. While they did not understand one another, they had a shared challenge: When the Creator had made the world, he had left the sky a little too low. The village communities realized that though they spoke different languages, they had a shared word that could help them change the situation.

yəhaw̓ — a Lushootseed word meaning “to proceed” or “move forward.” Together they called out synchronously. Each time the word escaped their lips, a collective sound powerful and potent, the sky moved up just a little more.

This is the story behind yəhaw̓ Indigenous Creatives Collective, a newly birthed nonprofit which became a larger movement after beginning as a one-time art show at King Street Station in 2019.

“We felt like that was a really beautiful story in terms of art and the power of art and culture to unite communities and become a source of shared empowerment,” said Asia Tail, one of the collective’s three founders.

yəhaw̓ Indigenous Creatives Collective is dedicated to carving out space and opportunities for Indigenous artists and creative-minded peoples. The collective has worked with over 200 artists across the Coast Salish territories, in Oregon, British Columbia, and across the West Coast.

Tail says that “creatives” in this context is by no means limited to fine arts. Their programming includes everything from exhibitions, artist residencies, fashion shows, zine publications, art markets and special commissions. Exhibitions have included everyone from mixed-media artists to chefs and architects.

But yəhaw̓ fills a very specific gap — the intersection of a global Indigenous community and cultural power through art. While the collective is solely for creatives of Indigenous heritage and background, Tail says the definition of “Indigenous reaches beyond the Coast Salish, or even United States geographies.”

“Borders crossed us, we didn’t cross borders, so we try to have a pan-Indigenous approach,” said Tail. “There is a huge amount of diaspora of Indigenous people across the world living away from their tribal homelands. We always want to root our practices in the recognition that we are on Coast Salish territories and honoring the First Peoples of this place or whatever place our programs are happening.”

yəhaw̓’s creative community includes Urban Native peoples, Indigenous people from global background, Coast Salish artists, and Afro-Indigenous artists among others. Eventually, Tail says the hope is to expand this framework of who is Indigenous even further, recognizing that Black people, immigrants, and communities of color are also Indigenous. The common value system, Tail says, “is rooted in land acknowledgement as a starting place.”

What makes yəhaw̓ unique are three things: connecting Indigenous artists to opportunities, decolonizing arts culture, and the intersection of art and a broadening “land back” movement.

Connecting Indigenous Artists to Opportunities

In the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the national reckoning with race and activism calling out white supremacy across industries has made it clear that we are in a time of shift. Tail says that in the wake of a broader movement to elevate diverse voices, yəhaw̓ works to be a responsible liaison between organizations who don’t know how to find Indigenous artists, and the artists themselves. That can lead to some tension.

It’s a good thing that organizations are starting to look internally to confront their systemic inequities and consider whose voices have not been featured in an exhibit, or been included at the decision-making table. As an Indigenous organization, yəhaw̓ does consider the nature of the opportunities that they connect artists with.

Some opportunities, Tail says, can toe the line of exploitation, or being almost a token for reparations work that an organization may be taking part in to assuage guilt. That kind of work though is not part of yəhaw̓’s mission. 

“With arts in particular [it] is to try to create room for artists, BIPOC artists and Indigenous artists, to make the work that they want to make without this … white gaze,” said Tail.

In some ways, yəhaw̓, with its long roster of talented artists, is a filter to identify the best commissions and projects are available. Tail says Indigenous individuals are coming from a lived experience of being pushed to the margins again and again. Artists already carry with them a generational history that intersects painfully with the often mainstream white culture they may be interacting with. They are applying to shows and facing systems “that are not designed by people like us,” said Tail. The result is what feels like intentional barriers to access opportunities and platforms to showcase the creative universe of modern Indigenous artists.

“So coming from that experience, we have tried to eliminate barriers [and] try to make things more successful, try to make things as true to our Indigenous values and practices,” said Tail. This ethic shows up in all parts of the process — from correspondence with artists, to setting up actual exhibitions, yəhaw̓ is decolonizing the process of what it means to even be an artist.

Decolonizing Art Culture

Tail says yəhaw̓’s founders and curators make sure that artists are held and nurtured throughout the process of submitting to a gallery show or opportunity made possible through the collective. Take their debut show at King Street Station in 2019 for example: Everything from how yəhaw̓ staff framed emails to and how they compensated participants were decisions made with the goal of respecting and valuing each artist as a whole person, and not just another point of comparison.

yəhaw̓ put this into practice with their first exhibit at King Street station. Tail wanted to make sure that anyone who wanted to share their art in this exhibition space would be able to. That was the only eligibility requirement.

“I think that kind of radical inclusivity is unusual,” said Tail.

More recently, yəhaw̓ has been curating online exhibitions. During this process, it was important to honor the time each applicant took to collect and submit their work. yəhaw̓  provided a submission stipend to everyone who applied, regardless of whether their artwork was chosen.

“I remember somebody once didn’t get something they had applied to but wrote us back that they felt they had a really human experience, that they felt they were talking to a human and it wasn’t this sensation of constant rejection,” said Tail.

yəhaw̓ wants to disrupt the competitive culture of the art world, and the scarcity mentality that assumes creativity and artistic expression is a rare commodity that artists must prove their talent. Tail says it’s about making processes less draining and less about being compared to others.

yəhaw̓’s rosters — numbering 200 artists and counting — Tail says, are a “collective of people with many different gifts and skills.” The question then becomes: “How can we do better to pair people with opportunities thoughtfully that alleviate the strain of applying and constantly having to come up with new ways of pitching themselves and … helping … make those relationships happen in a way that feels less exploitative.”

Art as a Means of Transformation

The past year made it very clear that art — and artists — are integral to cultivating a sense of mental, physical and spiritual wellness, hope, and grounding.  “They have a lot of power in how we see ourselves in the world, how political movements take shape, how we communicate with each other,” said Tail.

In 2020, the pandemic and a continuing racial reckoning made it clear that not only were Indigenous creatives in need of relief funds, food, and other resources as their means of income and opportunities dried up — but they also had important perspectives and experiences to bring to public view through creative means.

Through a Neighbor to Neighbor (N2N) grant from the Seattle Foundation, yəhaw̓ was able to provide a COVID relief fund for the creative community. In addition, the organization began talking with their curators — some of whom are of mixed Afro-Indigenous backgrounds — about using art as a medium in the current political movement.

Community curator Britt Reed, an Afro-Indigenous creative, helped put together a series of protest posters and a Black and Indigenous Art Show featuring the work of youth ages 14–18. The results are moving, thoughtful, and beautiful designs that come from the lived experiences and expressions of yəhaw̓’s diverse Indigenous community.

A Place to Be Free

yəhaw̓ is currently focusing on a series of online exhibitions and is continuing to plan for in-person programming as the pandemic ebbs. But Tail says there is a much larger dream on the horizon: reclaiming the very land that settlers and colonizers stole from Coast Salish tribes over a century ago — at least in a small, meaningful way.

Tail hopes that in the future, yəhaw̓ can own an area of land in an urban center, like Seattle, where Native peoples have always been and activate the place with the intention of specifically nourishing Indigenous and BIPOC community and relationships. The space would allow these communities whose ties to the land have been damaged over a legacy of exploitation and genocide to connect back specifically through creative practice.

This is far in the future, but Tail says it would be wonderful to have a community studio site that might also serve as a gathering space, and because yəhaw̓ has been doing quite a lot of public art consultations this past year, a place for artists to test and experiment their 3D installations too.

“There is a really important healing, art as medicine aspect of our work, that feels very present in this long-term goal too,” said Tail. She says the organization sees a physical space where someone trying art for the first time can work alongside a more seasoned artist who might have already experienced the success of the art world but is ready “to come back and heal in a different kind of space too.”

In the future, yəhaw̓ hopes to bring into fruition this multipurpose community space by and for Indigenous creatives who can have sovereignty over their space, their processes, and freedom of creation.

This is the first of a series of articles sponsored by the Seattle Foundation in celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Neighbor to Neighbor program investing in grassroots organizations working for racial equity in South Seattle, White Center and Kent. For more information, please visit the N2N webpage.

Kamna Shastri is a Seattle-based writer and media creative with a love for place-based community storytelling and journalism that centers personal narrative, identity, and social justice. Her print work has appeared in The Seattle Globalist, Real Change, The International Examiner and her audio work on KUOW, KEXP, and KBCS. More of her stuff at Twitter: @KShastri2, IG: ms_kamna.

📸 Featured Image: Work by Mel Carter at the Friends of Seattle Waterfront Event. (Photo: Asia Tail)

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