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Conduit: Nibiiwakamigkwe on the challenges to Indigenous artists

The Madison-based artist discusses navigating different areas of the arts world and their widely varied body of work.

The Madison-based artist discusses navigating different areas of the arts world and their widely varied body of work.

Photo by Dakota Mace.

Pronunciation note: Listen here (mp3) for a brief guide to pronouncing several names and terms discussed in this episode.

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Nibiiwakamigkwe is a Métis, Onyota’a:ka, Anishinaabe, Cuban and waabishkiiwed Two-Spirit artist working in traditional Indigenous craftwork and contemporary Woodlands style to foster awareness of land protection, Indigenous cultural landscapes, and the complexity of identity. Their work brings them into contact with many different corners of the art world—inside and outside academia, settings that foreground Indigenous artists, and settings that don’t. Across those different settings, Nibiiwakamigkwe creates art with a range of different materials and techniques, from beadwork to quillwork to jingle-dress dancing. 

“A hard part about Indigenous art is that you are always educating, which is a real gift, however, it does mean that there’s often extra work involved,” Nibiiwakamigkwe says.

Nibiiwakamigkwe spoke with us on the  May 14 edition of Conduit, a livestream collaboration between Tone Madison, Communication, and UnderBelly. For each episode of Conduit, people make a small donation to join us on the call, and the money goes toward either the guest or an organization of the guest’s choosing. This time the proceeds were divided between our guest and the Ho-Chunk Nation Museum and Cultural Center in Tomah. You can sign up to join us on future episodes by filling out this Google Form.

The pandemic has only deepened the health and economic disparities that impact Indigenous people in the United States and around the world. The need to isolate and minimize travel makes it hard for Indigenous artists to gather natural materials in their work. Nibiiwakamigkwe, for instance, had to miss their window in March for gathering winter bark from birch trees, and can’t make their usual trips up to northern Wisconsin to search for porcupine quills.

COVID-19 has also created massive disruptions for Indigenous cultures that have a strong commitment to oral culture—meaning it’s not so simple as writing down traditions or taking them online.

“If they are written down, that means they are spread out, and if people are looking at these cultural experiences without the education behind them, without the community that they need to have behind them, it can have very negative effects, and it can be negative for the practice itself as well as the person who’s experiencing it,” Nibiiwakamigkwe says. They shared a wealth of perspectives on identity, adjusting to the pandemic, and Indigenous artists worth supporting in Madison and beyond.

The next Conduit conversation is scheduled for May 28, when we’ll be talking with members of the Equity for Artists advocacy group.

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