by Denise Emerson
Since time immemorial, Indigenous people have celebrated storytelling as a way to connect the present to past lessons and future dreaming. Narrative sovereignty is a form of land guardianship, and Nia Tero supports this work through its storytelling initiatives, including the Seedcast podcast, as well as in this monthly column for media partner the South Seattle Emerald.
I grew up as an artist. My parents made it so. When I was 6 or 7 years old, my teacher would give us what we called “ditto sheets.” They were copies of pictures for us to color on, and we had Christmas ditto sheets, Easter ditto sheets, ditto sheets for seasons, dittos for animals, dittos for everything. We were supposed to color the pictures with crayons or colored pencils, but to me, the pictures on the dittos alone looked so bare. So, I started drawing outside of the lines on my sheets. As my teacher walked around, she saw what I was doing. She bent down and asked me, “Denise, what made you think of doing that?” I couldn’t really explain it to her and said that it was just something I knew needed to be done. She was the first person who noticed that I was different and gave me room to make my art.
At home, I was surrounded by my father’s Native American art magazines and I fell in love with them. Around 10 years old I studied them and started drawing with colored pencils, making my own designs. No one taught me to do it: It was in my body. Luckily, my parents, like my teacher, gave me permission and space to do this.
Even now, my art is in my body. I create beadwork and prints inspired by Native designs and ancestral photos, and even though I use modern technology in my pattern making, it’s my gut that tells me when my pieces are finished. I once heard Karuk artist Fox Spears say that his art form was his medicine. That spoke to me. I realized art is my medicine, too.
My father worked at Boeing for 40 years to support our family, but his real love was oil painting and sketching with charcoal. Although he painted many beautiful things, including the Seattle skyline, a lot of his artwork was based on his childhood growing up on a Navajo reservation in Sanostee, New Mexico, where he rode horses and herded sheep and goats. Many of his pieces were from his perspective as a young boy, sitting on a cliff and looking down at the sheep. After he passed away, I realized that his art was telling the story of how he missed his home. Being Navajo was everything to my father, and it shows up in every sketch and painting I inherited as the oldest of his five children.
My mother sewed, did beadwork, and taught me how to do both, but her real art form was cooking. She was always trying new foods in restaurants that we went to, talking to the cooks, then recreating those meals in our home, on a tight budget. My mom said that food had a story of its own, and you had to listen to it, touch it, hear what it was saying. Anyone who’s ever been around while I am making fried potatoes knows how serious I take listening to my food. Growing up on the Skokomish Reservation here in Washington, my mother learned to bake bread around age 10. Later, she learned how to make Navajo fry bread from my father, so she could give him a taste of where he grew up.
My parents met at Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon. The experience greatly impacted their lives and thus the lives of myself and my siblings. The circumstances of their schooling and the compulsory religion that was a part of it could be seen in both the way my father chose not to raise us in a church and also in how he could not, at first, accept that I was gay. It also influenced his reliance on rules and schedules, which is something he passed on to me. I’ve been with my partner Jeanette for 30 years now. She is Niimiipuu (Nez Perce), so we share the fact of our Nativeness. However, we differ in that her parents were not taken to boarding school, and the ways we were raised show up in how we approach life and time. While I tend toward detailed, long-term planning, Jeanette is more free. She is more apt to suggest spontaneous adventures and less attached to clocks and calendars. A friend once said that I’m down to earth and Jeanette likes to fly up into the sky. We balance each other out.
When I was little, my family would often visit the Skokomish Reservation, or Skok (rhymes with smoke), where my mother grew up. She would take us for walks around the lands and teach about the plants we could eat. She said, “If you ever get lost, this is how you find wild onions, this is how you find food.” She taught us how to find sweet water in the end of a blade of grass by pulling it through our front teeth. Later, when I did this on a softball field in front of my teammates, they were amazed. “How did you know to do that?” They didn’t know what was literally underneath their feet.
My father always said he married a rich woman, which confused me when I was young, because things were very tight, but he didn’t mean money. When he first started dating my mother, my father would stand at the door of her house and find fruits and vegetables in one direction, water and seafood in another, land animals for meat and more in another direction. Of course, when he said “rich,” he never meant money. He meant sustenance and survival. He meant appreciation for the past, a good life in the present, and strong planning for the future.
We would visit my father’s family, too, in New Mexico, but not as often. My father missed his homelands. He always talked about being in relationship with the land. He taught me that I belong to Skokomish and that they belong to me. At the same time, I belong to Navajo, and they belong to me. He was teaching me that I would always have a place with both tribes, always family to go to. The older I’ve gotten, the more true I’ve found this to be.
My connection to land, plants, and animals is in every cell of my body. It reaches back through my parents to my ancestors on Navajo and Skokomish lands, and it roots down into the soil of the earth I grew up on and the waters I live near today. Whether I’m picking ripe fruit off trees and bushes on city walks with friends, teaching someone new how to get that sweet water from a blade of grass, or giving a photo of ancestors new life through my beadwork or digital artwork, I am here as a reminder of what our homelands have always had to offer and the responsibility we have to care for them in return. I am a part of this land, and the land is part of me.
This piece was written with the support of Julie Keck, a consulting producer with Nia Tero.
Denise Emerson was born in Shelton, Washington. She is the eldest child of Bertha Allen, who was an enrolled Twana (Skokomish) Tribal Member, and Danny Emerson, Sr., who was an enrolled Diné (Navajo) Tribal Member from Sanostee, New Mexico. Denise is a visual artist who combines digital technology and historical photos to create flat beaded bags and prints, including her much celebrated piece “Moss Babies.” You can view and buy her prints, beadwork, and other art on her Etsy Shop and follow her achievements on Instagram @dineskok. Denise is two spirit and lives in Seattle with her partner of 30 years, Jeanette.
📸 Featured Image: Denise Emerson views her work on display at Gallery 110 in Pioneer Square. (Photo: Felipe Contreras)
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