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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Land Acknowledgment’: Exhibit at Gonzaga highlights works from regional Native artists

By Audrey Overstreet For The Spokesman-Review

Land acknowledgments – the practice of starting gatherings by reminding audiences that they are on lands stolen through bloody removals of Indigenous people – have become trendy in recent years, from weekly Zoom meetings to fancy art openings.

But land acknowledgments were never meant to be comfortable for the listener. Nor were they designed to appease the wronged.

“Land acknowledgments were in fact a radical statement seeking to make non-Indian America think and respond to yet another area of failure in education,” wrote Charlene Teters, guest curator of a new exhibition titled “Land Acknowledgment,” that opened Friday at the Gonzaga University Urban Arts Center. “One hardly can hear the begged question land acknowledgments ask: ‘What happened to these people?’”

According to Teters, who is a member of the Spokane Tribe, the answer resonating loud and clear from the exhibition is: “We are still here. We’ve always been here.”

“This group show is really about amplifying our Indigenous presence and our voice,” Teters added. “We are the best representation of who we are as a people.”

Inside the large gallery space of Gonzaga’s Urban Arts Center downtown, at 125 S. Stevens St., are the vibrant and varied works of 17 contemporary Indigenous artists, mostly from the Pacific Northwest, including several from the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribes. From handmade fishing tools to mixed media paintings of contemporary Indigenous people, the exhibition provides an eye-popping display of edgy artistry and cultural heritage.

“I feel the show ‘Land Acknowledgment’ is a tiny step taken to create a conversation where the dominant (white) culture can learn,” said GU fine arts professor Lenora Lopez Schindler, who helped curate the show with Teters.

“Not only is this an incredible exhibition with amazing art highlighting contemporary culture, but it’s really time that non-Native people grapple with what land we are on,” Lopez Schindler said. “This is not something we can just ignore.”

Tiffanie Irizarry, 26, traveled from her residence in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Spokane to participate in “Land Acknowledgement.” The artist is Ihanktonwan Dakota, and calls the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana her home.

Guest curator Teter, who now splits her time between Santa Fe and Spokane, was dean of the academic college at the Institute of American Indian Arts when Irizarry attended the school. Teters retired from the college by the time Irizarry graduated as valedictorian last year.

“I was honored to be asked by (Teters) to participate because Gonzaga is such a prestigious institution, and to have a voice there is really important,” Irizarry said.

One of Irizarry’s works in the show is a powerful portrait of Chief Iron White Man, who helped defeat Lt. Col.. George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

“The Army was trying to steal our land from us and force our people back onto the reservation,” Irizarry said. “Chief Iron White Man was fighting for our right just to live, for our way of life, our culture. That’s what this painting is about.

“I like to paint portraits recognizing history and that person’s legacy, especially those who fought for our rights to exist, and fought against assimilation, colonization and genocide,” Irizarry said.

Irizarry’s partner, Joeseph Arnoux, is also traveling from Albuquerque to show his works. He used to live in Spokane before moving to Santa Fe where he also attended the IAIA. His mother is local artist Diane Covington from the Sanpoil Band of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation and a descendant of the Spokane Tribe. Covington’s artwork will be displayed in “Land Acknowledgment” as well.

Arnoux’s piece in the show is a mixed media portrait called “Sp’q’n’i? Garry” (Spokane Garry), who was a chief of the Spokane Tribe in the 1800s. Chief Garry never wavered on his insistence that the Spokane people should have the rights to their native lands along the Spokane River. His own homeland was stolen by squatters, and he was forced to camp in Indian Canyon, where he lived out the rest of his life in poverty.

Arnoux’s portrait of Garry has unfinished parts to it and layers of regional maps. “I layer up information like that within the painting,” Arnoux said. “It’s speaking to the way history went down, and it speaks to ‘land acknowledgment,’ and how in the end it’s all Native land.”

Arnoux, Irizarry and Teters will hold a “Land Acknowledgment” panel discussion for the public at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 8, in the Hemmingson Ballroom at Gonzaga University .

Other works featured in “Land Acknowledgment” include several created by local artist and Spokane Tribe member Shawn Brigman. An architect and small business owner, Brigman handcrafts Salish sturgeon osne canoes and traditional tools and fishing implements as a way to recover Indigenous culture.

If land acknowledgments are meant to educate, then Brigman said he is all for them. “I want people to know that this is not 150-year-old city founded by Mr. Glover,” Brigman said. “Spokane has been a permanent, continuous fishing village for more than 10,000 years.”

For the Gonzaga Urban Arts Center show, Brigman will display a canoe he built in Santa Fe during a past residency at the IAIA where Teters served as dean. Years before meeting her, Brigman said he was a longtime admirer of Teters for her decadeslong activism that started the movement to ban the use of Native imagery for sports mascots.

In 1989, after witnessing a white student perform a pseudo-Native dance dressed as a fake Indian, Teters started a one-woman protest. Silently outside athletic events, Teters would hold a sign, “Indians are human beings.” She ended up launching a movement, and helped found the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media.

“Charlene got so much flak for that 30 years ago, trying to discredit her as a Native woman, but now that football team in Washington, D.C., actually changed its name,” Brigman said.

“It’s the same thing with land acknowledgments,” he added. “Maybe it will take 30 years for it to result in something. But we will just have to wait for the trailblazers and visionaries like Teters to do their work.”

In the meantime, perhaps a little more knowledge will spread, and more minds will open, as people take in some art.

Other Indigenous artists in “Land Acknowledgment” include: Margeaux Abeta, Brianna Bruce, Leanne Campbell, Olivia Evans, Jeff Ferguson, George Hill, Ryan! Feddersen, Ric Gendron, Sulutsu (Barry Moses), Roin Morigeau, Annette Peone and Chad “Little Coyote” Yellowjohn. The exhibition runs through Dec. 3.