by Vee Hua 華婷婷
Founded in 2017, Seattle-based yəhaw̓ Indigenous Creatives Collective launched their inaugural event two years later, in collaboration with the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture. Featuring over 200 Indigenous creatives representing over 100 tribal affiliations and Indigenous communities from across the globe, the exhibition included on-site events at King Street Station and off-site through additional programming and publications.
yəhaw̓ has recently expanded their footprint through the acquisition of 1.5 acres of land in Seattle’s diverse, multigenerational Rainier Beach neighborhood. The parcel includes over 500 trees, access to Mapes Creek, and convenient access to public transit. Their vision for the site serves as a response to a lack of spaces owned by Indigenous communities and aims to create a “welcoming interdisciplinary hub where Indigenous creatives can connect with each other and the earth,” with programming around artmaking and ecological education.
“Creative expression is at the center of Indigenous cultures, where seeds are planted and generations of stories are told. We need land and soil to grow roots,” board member, artist, and community organizer Asia Tail (Cherokee) expressed on the yəhaw̓ website.
During the inaugural show in 2019, they invited all Indigenous creatives living in the Pacific Northwest region to apply — and all who applied were included in the final exhibition. Their inclusive open call involved a decolonized curatorial process and aimed to “empower Native artisans to retake ownership of their representation and sometimes conflicting perspectives … to unsettle assumptions and begin a critical new dialogue of what Native American art is and can be.”
“We wanted to make flat the perceived hierarchy of selection, and to acknowledge bias, and whose lens choices were made from,” says filmmaker and community organizer Tracy Rector (Black / Choctaw descent), who was one of the collective’s co-founders alongside Tail and Satpreet Kahlon, but now serves in an advisory role. “Instead of prefacing one type of artwork or one artist or another, we wanted to work towards creating relationships among all the artwork, or all of the pieces that were part of yəhaw̓.”
yəhaw̓ (pronounced ya-howt) translates from the Lushootseed language to mean “to proceed, go forward, or do it.” Drawing inspiration from a traditional narrative by Chief William Shelton (Tulalip), through a version retold by storyteller Vi taqʷšəblu Hilbert (Upper Skagit), “yəhaw̓” speaks to collaboration among diverse earth beings who overcame their greatest challenges by “lifting the sky” together. With it comes an upwards hand movement featuring two raised arms, which is an action commonly used among the region’s Coast Salish tribes.
Today, yəhaw̓ is led by an active board of directors — which includes Tail working alongside Punjabi artist and curator Kahlon, architect and artist Kimberly Corinne Deriana (Mandan and Hidatsa), and, recently added, interdisciplinary artist Paige Pettibon (Black and Salish), and Na’ah Illahee Fund Managing Director Lindsay Goes Behind (Alibamu-Koasati). The collective’s new site was secured through funding from the City of Seattle’s Economic Development Initiative (EDI) and Strategic Investment Funds, after an unpredictable eight-month process. They closed on the parcel on December 27, 2022.
“I think we all immediately felt this sort of magical sense of time travel, almost; it felt like the secret garden, it felt like this … time capsule, somehow, that was untouched,” recalled Tail of the parcel, which had been undeveloped since at least the 1930s. “It somehow had all the things that we were looking for — water and this beautiful canopy coverage and native plants and plants from all over, and set in this beautiful neighborhood where there are still many families of color.”
While yəhaw̓ have some ideas around eventually building a community center, restoring an old greenhouse, and enabling short-term installations and activations, their plans for how to approach the property are emergent. Ultimately, the effort will be collaborative and collective, dictated in large part by local tribal consultations, community needs, and a deeper understanding of the land.
“We want to take our time to really get to know the land … over multiple seasons, to see what sort of emerges once we’re in that place together with our community,” shared Tail. “We want, of course, to work on restoring the native ecology as best as we can and make sure we’re being good stewards of Mapes Creek, collaborating with tribes on what they want to see on the site or what their priorities are for those spaces is going to be really important too.”
As an architect, Deriana brings a history of experience of masterplanning and dreaming with communities to envision what they want across different landscapes.
“In Indigenous design methodology, co-creation is one of the key components, thinking about how everything is interconnected, and how the land and the people and the activities or the seasonal cycles [are] all interdependent on each other,” said Deriana. “Being intentional, thoughtful, transparent, and inclusive; those are all Indigenous values in the design process.”
When the weather improves, yəhaw̓ plans on hosting garden work parties to help clear pathways and invite the public to engage with the site. Arts, of course, are also always at the center of yəhaw̓’s work, and they plan to launch temporary art activations in the near term, including a “free library” by self-taught beadworker Cynthia Masterson (Comanche) of Blue Dot Beadwork, which will include free beading materials. Beyond that, yəhaw̓ has plans for short-term and long-term engagement with local Coast Salish Tribes.
“It’s really important to have Coast Salish peoples represented first and foremost, especially in land rematriation work,” said Tail. She noted that yəhaw̓ plans to go through formal channels of tribal consultation, especially with the Suquamish, Muckleshoot, and Duwamish tribes, who have “really close ancestral ties to the land,” in hopes of figuring out what they hope for the site to become and how their artists might best be represented.
Deriana also spoke of the need for yəhaw̓ to properly navigate the balance between different non-local tribes that are represented in the Seattle area.
“For the urban relatives, how do we honor a place that’s nestled in Coast Salish territories, but then is also a space for our global Indigenous people to thrive and feel welcome and feel a sense of identity?” she asks. “That’ll be something we’re navigating and just something that we need to be really … intentional about and thoughtful about.”
yəhaw̓ see their success as part of a bigger movement, following behind paths forged by the activism of Native organizations and tribal leaders before them. Tail noted that, from what they hear, securing such substantial amounts of funding for Indigenous land acquisition would have been difficult even 10 years ago. She hopes that their model will help to inspire BIPOC communities.
“If people witness Indigenous people successfully getting land and taking care of that land … hopefully that will also encourage other landowners on the flip side of these processes — to start giving land back to tribes and start giving land back to Indigenous people … to start prioritizing, maybe, community bids over developers, and just open up some other awareness of possibilities for people in our region,” Tail supposed. “What can really happen when land goes to community ownership?”
While land has been secured for yəhaw̓’s new home, the collective is still fundraising for programming. Visit their website at yehawshow.com for information on how to support or to follow their developments.
This article is funded in part by an Environmental Justice Fund (EJ Fund) grant through the City of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability & Environment (OSE).
Vee Hua 華婷婷 (they/them) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer with semi-nomadic tendencies. Much of their work unifies their metaphysical interests with their belief that art can positively transform the self and society. They are the interim managing editor of the South Seattle Emerald, editor-in-chief of REDEFINE, and a member of the Seattle Arts Commission. They are also a film educator at the interdisciplinary community hub, Northwest Film Forum, where they previously served as executive director and played a key role in making the space more welcoming and accessible for diverse audiences. Their latest short film, Reckless Spirits (2022), is a metaphysical, multilingual POC buddy comedy, for which they are working on a feature-length version. Follow them at @hellomynameisvee or over at veehua.com
📸 Featured Image: yəhaw̓’s 2019 King Street Station exhibition opening activities by Sunny Martini, featuring the Lummi Black Hawk Singers. (Photo courtesy of yəhaw̓.)
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