On Friday, Feb. 24, the Indigenous Peoples Alliance, founded by senior Lina Longtoe, hosted Director of the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association Vera Longtoe-Sheehan to talk to the community about the Decolonization of Native American Art.
Longtoe-Sheehan presented students with some of the experiences and realities she and so many other Native American artists have endured, including the issue of making and selling authentic Native American art.
Due in large part to the Indian Arts and Craft Act of 1990, indigenous communities like the Abenaki tribe, to which both Longtoe and Longtoe-Sheehan belong, couldn’t legally sell their art as authentic Native American works for decades.
From the separation of families by arbitrary lines to a state-wide eugenics program, this was just one in a long succession of abuses the two later explained. Through it all, the Abenaki people kept their pride.
“We never surrendered, we never gave up, we did, however, have to hide in plain sight,” Sheehan-Longtoe said.
This was due both in part to the persecution they faced by the non-indigenous communities around them and the issue of recognition. As both Longtoe and Longtoe-Sheehan stated, because the tribe never gave up their land or signed a treaty with the United States, they were not nationally recognized for a very long time and in the eyes of the law, their tribe didn’t exist until around 2011.
This posed a large conflict with the aforementioned Indian Arts and Craft Act of 1990. In order to sell art as a Native American, each individual had to, and still has to, have an identification card proving their heritage.
“Within the context of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, it is illegal for Native artists to self-identify as Native American and sell their work as 'Native made'. No other group in the country has to do that.” Longtoe said in an email.
Because the Abenaki tribe signed no treaty, they had no card to prove themselves a part of any indigenous community and for years faced large fines up to as much as 250,000 dollars and possible imprisonment for selling their art.
Since art is such a large part of Native American tradition, though, they fought for this right and although now they have it, the victory is both bittersweet and foreboding.
“When you look at the current political climate, and we’re talking about this registry for our Muslim citizens; this is it. People are like, ‘Oh no that would never happen’ but it’s been happening for decades.” Longtoe said.
Longtoe-Sheehan also touched on the issue of Native American museums.
“History of the United States really deals with history since Europeans arrived,” Longtoe-Sheehan said during her lecture. She demonstrated this with a description of the different type of Native American museums.
The first type includes museums that were created largely without consulting Native American people. These museums are based on guesswork and, thus, contain many inconsistencies with Native American culture.
“There are items that are there that perhaps shouldn’t be,” Longtoe-Sheehan said in reference to sacred pieces collected and kept on the dusty shelves of these museums.
The second type includes tribal-run museums which give indigenous peoples a voice in their own story allowing them to create a decolonized narrative that comes directly from their people.
Longtoe pridefully describes Longtoe-Sheehan as a “Digital Warrior” and the lecture she gave at Eckerd is only part of a traveling exhibit running from April 8, 2016, through Dec. 31, 2018.
The Indigenous Peoples Alliance has held two CPS events with a third to come. Just a few weeks ago they partnered with the EC Feminists and the Women's Center to fly in Tara Kappo from the National Collective in Canada to speak about missing and murdered indigenous women, titled "Walking with Our Sisters: on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women." In a few weeks they will show a documentary called "Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action" in collaboration with the Sustainability Office on campus.
CPS events aside, Longtoe invites all students to join the club and stop by the meetings which are hosted every Sunday at 7:30 p.m. in Forrer 100A.
“I’m proud of my culture. I want to try and help educate people for tolerance purposes. …So that people who are Native or First Nations don’t have to grow up afraid and they can grow up proud. I think that’s something everyone deserves,” Longtoe said.