Interview by Dasha Shleyeva
The idea of one’s identity is a very complex thing. It not only changes constantly throughout our lives, but we also want to understand it, to know it, to explain it. It is one of the things I have been exploring within my art, poetry, writing and music ever since I can remember. When I first heard of Erica Lord’s approach to exploring one’s history, environment, media, images and ethnic background to learn more about the idea of identity and roots, I was immediately drawn to her art. I was truly intrigued by the way she explored the idea of ‘self’ in a hastily shape-shifting modern world. Throughout the process of this interview, I was very much inspired to continue to learn all I can about my own Russian background and culture and the current American culture I live in, but also to not feel tied down to just one, for it is always changing. I’m excited to take in all the different environments, cultures and people that have accumulated within my own personal history and truly realize that those memories and people and experiences give me my identity as much as the ones that I was born historically tied to.
Dasha Shleyeva: In your biography on the Native American Indigenous Cinema and Arts website, you state that you have various qualities that define your identity which come out or emerge depending on the environment or the company you choose. I have had similar inner conflict and feelings of oscillating between cultures being raised half my life in Moscow, Russia and half my life on the West Coast of the United States. Was there anything in particular that helped you come to this point of understanding and acceptance? Perhaps it is a work in progress at all times that constantly ebbs and flows?
Erica Lord: I guess the sort of understanding that I speak to in that statement started very young, as I was born & raised the first six years of my life in my home Native village of Nenana, AK. It was here I was referred to (teasing, but in a loving way) gissik baby, little white baby. So here it was my blue eyes and lighter skin that set me apart. So I think just as you are being told what you are, you start to figure out what you aren’t. At six, my mother and I moved to upper Michigan, a predominantly Finnish-American area of the country. Small towns. There it was my high cheeks, relatively darker skin, & eye shape that set me apart. So, same blood, same person, but as the environment and community changed around me, I was defined differently, and then came to understand myself as someone that shifted between or within races, communities,etc. I think it started out simple- race is the most obvious thing to see— I always understood I was mixed race. My family always spoke about this freely: Athabascan Indian (central Alaska), Iñupiaq (Eskimo/Inuit, northern Alaska), Finnish, Swedish, Japanese, English. The other aspects of my identity evolved and developed over time. ie. I have an identity within the city but also within these Alaskan woods. And yet in another way, the ideas of two homes, or multiple homes helped me to get to this point. Where is home? Alaska and Michigan. Which one? Both, all the time. In between. I didn’t want to choose, between any of these things. I didn’t want to feel part this & part that, incomplete. So I decided, or realized at some point, I didn’t have to be. I could be all of these things simutaneously, I am these things simutaneously. And some people, places, or situations just bring aspects to the surface where in other situations they may just get overlooked.
DS: In regards to your photography project on Josephine Baker and relation to exoticism, do you see yourself ever as exoticised, and if you do (or ever did) how does it make you feel or make you see yourself? Has it taught you any memorable mottos or lessons ?
Danse Sauvage 2005 (Larger image currently not available)
Link to full size image on Erica’s Website
EL: Yes, it was a direct response to the feeling of being seen as exotic, and other. I was interested in this idea of attraction/repulsion and how that relates to fetishes or objectification. In a country that includes a colonialism, I wondered about this attraction to the taboo, to this relationship between what is feared or repulsed, and a simutaneous feeling of attraction. …Before I get too far into that, let me get back to being called “exotic.” Yes, people call me exotic, and sometimes I don’t mind, I understand it is intended to be a compliment. And other times, in particular, when it is said in a particular way to me by men, leaves this uneasy and uncomfortable feeling for me. When I was in grad school, my advisor once said (I’m paraphrasing here): ‘Erica, people are going to always see you as exotic. There’s nothing you can do to change that, there is nothing you can do to change how people see you. You’re just going to have to accept it. So rather than trying to change other’s perceptions of you, why don’t you accept it and maybe use that knowlege to your advantage.’ I tried looking back in history, at other mixed women, or other Native women who sort of owned that power. I was thinking of Josephine Baker a lot and was reading about her. She intrigued me. The photograph sort of grew from this desire to emulate or embody that sort of force or power that she had. “Danse Sauvage” was a name of one of her dance reviews.
DS: I love that you aren’t afraid to take risks and to make bold, truthful statements in your art. Was there ever a particular time in school or with one of your own independent projects where you feared the reaction of the viewer to it? Did it feed a fire of passion in your work or was it perhaps an obstacle?
EL: I’m always scared. Still am. But I know I was looking for work out there to inspire me and speak to me. And it is always exciting, then and now, to realize that you are not a person or a voice that stands alone. And if things are difficult to speak about, then that is all the more reason it needs to be addressed. But yeah, I’m always nervous, and I’m often misunderstood, and criticized. But at the same time there has been enough people who do relate and understand, and I guess I need to remember to focus on them. And even more than that, I need to learn to listen to myself. Every day I try to trust myself more. It’s hard though. But yeah, that fear or nevousness, it never goes away. But you are right, you can use it, and it can become empowering. If you are shaking, I guess that means you got adrenaline.There’s this quote that I repeat to myself all the time, I put it on the starter slide for just about every presentation I give, and I think about it often. It’s by Audre Lorde, from her Litany for Survival:
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent we are still afraid.
So it is better to speak
remembering we were never
meant to survive.
DS: Contemplating about the general consensus of the idea of a “home,” it can be a place to some, a memory to another, a story that particularly helps one remember comfort, or a collection of stories, it truly can go on and on and its’ meaning can waver and undulate and change forms for each individual on this earth. I know you touched on the idea of home a little bit earlier, but do you remember any specific moments that helped shape that idea? Perhaps any specific experience or a person that may have helped you mold your idea of home into what it is now?
EL: I remember there being a point when I turned ten I had a crisis because I realized that soon I would have lived in Michigan as long as I had lived in Alaska (we left a month before I turned six). I always expected we would return, but I was slowly realizing we were not. I began to worry that if I lived in MI as many years as I lived in AK then I wouldn’t be allowed to call it home. Like years qualified it as home and I always believed Alaska to be home deep in my bones. It has always had a strong hold on me. I think at some point my mom calmed me down and has always said that she understood why Alaska felt like home and that it would always be my home. When I got older, I became more comfortable with realizing MI was home as well. Not in the same way, but it was a home and it was important to me. So I always said I had two homes, Alaska & Upper MI. In MI, the people, my family felt like home, in AK, the land, the culture, and my family felt home. They each held significance in different ways. I think people here understand it to an extend too, maybe because people up here are so mobile, I’m not sure… Either way, it’s always been nice when I go to the general store in Nenana or just run into someone on the street, it doesn’t matter if it’s been a week or 5 years, they’ve always said: “Welcome home.” People recognizing that and welcoming me back has been incredibly powerful, even though it’s a small little action, it feels good.
DS: In your “Artifact Piece Revisited,” there is a rooted yet fragile balance of one’s created identity (through acquired musical taste, hobbies, clothes, photographs, and one’s own stories) versus one’s “inherited” identity (which could be the history of one’s family and people, traditional and culturally set photographs, stories, clothes, art and an array of collected and respected items). Was it hard to choose what to put behind the glass display cases of those collected items?
Were there any specific places you revisit in your memory, stories, childhood, and history?
James Luna’s Original Artifact Piece (1985-87)
Artifact Piece Revisited (2008)
See Full Collection of Images Here:
George Gustav Heye Center National Museum of the American Indian
EL: I guess some things were hard to choose. I think the hardest thing for me was it was hard to part with those objects. The objects (or at least most of them) are objects that are obviously important to me, so it felt strange to have to leave them behind, on display. They felt so out of place, you know, outside of my house, out of context. It reminds me of the conversations I had with James Luna as I was planning the project, I was talking about being on display next to other objects, in a museum. And he reminded me, or noted, that it’s a strange feeling at the end of the day (that he/we experience), because we get to go home… those other objects never get to. Which is in part the commentary the projects were saying.
It was fun really though, to consider what to put in my own curated boxes. What would be interpreted (by my imaginary anthropologist who found me) to be important to me. So like I was saying, some things were really important and close to me— my great-grandfather’s cheifs necklace, my beaded dress. But other things were commentary— James Luna’s book, Obama’s Dreams for my Father. And yet other things I imagined to be misinterpreted by these “anthropologists.” For example, I included photos of my friends who are “ethnically ambiguous,” who were either part Native or others who were simply often mistaken for Native. I was playing with audience perception or assumptions. And yet other objects were simply parallels between the boxes— my favorite moccasins, my favorite heels. My beaded dress, a favorite t-shirt, etc. I was trying to think about a mix of what I found really important, and what these imaginary scientists would think was important to me.
DS: In the photo series, “Trash Totems,” they are epically portrayed silhouettes of you placing together, piece by piece, totems made out of random items such as old car tires and an array of trashed items. What is the particular story behind this project? Is it a statement having anything to do with reusing something no one would think to use for art? And in turn, maybe still tapping into one’s own tradition and history?
Documentation of Trash Totems (2005) Link to more images on Erica’s Website
EL: When I was a student at IAIA in Santa Fe, I used to wait tables. Tourists would think oh, you are Alaska Native and an artist, so “do you make totem poles & dreamcatchers?” Which I always had some awkward response to. But it got me thinking about totems in general. And what it meant to make these markers, or why we would build something like this, as welcome, or warning. So I began to think, well, we don’t have totem poles in the Interior. But if I was to make totems, what would they look like. And big trees don’t speak that directly to my contemporary life, so what does? In what way do we think about the land now? How do we relate to it? And what is on the minds of every Alaskan, American, and more is oil. So the totems are all made from petroleum products and byproducts. Oil drums, tires, etc. I would go out in the middle of the night with my cousin Milo to junkyards and tireshops and I’d stack up these discarded objects into totems— all about 12 feet tall or so. I wanted to leave these markers. And since I was more interested in the action, the ritual of making these, more than the actual object I didn’t take the object, I just took the images of the creation. The objects were left for others to discover in the following days.
DS: During the making and process of the “Native American Land reclamation project,” there are pieces of the U.S. flag, earth from various villages, reservations and tribal lands hung all around in a scattered beautiful pattern. During the making and process of this project, did you feel an essence of your ancestry present as you were surrounded by so many pieces of your history? Was it a group project or a solo one? Did you feel a bit changed after you completed this particular piece?
Native American Land Reclamation Installation (2009)
More images here from Erica’s Website
EL: This piece actually started out 10 years ago. I was a student at IAIA- the Institute of American Indian Arts, and was taking a Sculpture class from Will Wilson. Will continues to be a huge influence on my work and is an important mentor to me. We’ll be speaking on a panel discussion along with Kimowan McLain & Jolene Rickard at the Society for Photographic Education national conference. Our panel is “Visual Sovereignty.” Anyway, that’s a side note. I was a student of Will’s and he asked us to do a simple project of repitition. I started thinking about what in my culture has been repeated over and over. And it made me think of the 1998 Supreme court decision with Venetie. I wanted to create a piece that both acknowledged our history— and stressing both oppressor & survivor, Native & non-Native, it’s a shared history. So I began to gather this dirt from everywhere, New Mexico, Alaska, MI, and in between and made these prayer ties. Eventually it kept evolving, beyond that little assignment and soon grew into a full installation. I was interested in being able to control the environment, so I can guide the viewer to this position where they can reflect and consider the topic at hand. I wanted to create a space for contemplation. The action and process was a wonderful experience. The initial creation spanned several months, so it became a real journey for me and was one of the first pieces I felt really expressed what I was trying to say with my art. It was an important turning point for me and my work. The second time I got to create it, a full decade later, again in Santa Fe was another incredible journey. Because I was finally able to share this concept/space with people outside that little classroom. It’s incredible how things come around full circle. And Will, ten years later, got to see it installed at the IAIA museum where he now works. This piece is very important to me and really close to me. I’m so happy I finally got to install it as I first imagined.
DS: Your writing is very intimate often sewing parts of yourself into stories and histories-to-be. Has the inclusion of your personal self always been intentional, or do you sometimes find yourself involuntarily creating a story that perhaps helps you better understand a side of yourself or the life you’ve lived thus far?
EL: I think storytelling is very much part of the life and culture up here. And so in many ways, I think I’ve been influenced by that- whether that storytelling is told through voice, text, or image. Self-portraiture— whether through my writing or my images— began sort of by default, and grew to be more intentional over time. At first I wanted to document Native life and people, from a modern, and internal perspective. So when I began taking photos at IAIA, I had many friends around me to take photos of. Then, I moved back to Carleton College, and there, I was the only Native student. So, I started using myself as a stand in. I became more and more comfortable in front of the camera. When I took photos of other people, I worried about representation issues, and the responsibility that comes with taking and owning an image of another person. With myself, I had control over the image, I didn’t have a problem using myself as a medium to translate the concept or story through. So, whether it was photography or writing, I felt more comfortable writing from a direct first-person perspective. I felt I couldn’t speak for other people, but I could think, and process, and discuss experience through myself, through my experience. Then I was being honest, and open, and I think people can relate to that. You are right in your question, I often write, or make images to better understand myself, but my experiences. I think I have often done this in order to reflect and make sense of a particular experience, emotion, or idea. It’s a way of working it out.
DS: My understanding of blood quantum qualifications for being considered part of a federally recognized tribe is limited, especially since the standards are different for each tribe. I would like to know more about how the presence of these limitations and the amalgam of multiple backgrounds has affected you in particular. In your Blood Quantum Project (1/4+1/16=5/16), it seems like those specifications are perhaps a permanent imprint upon your identity. Can you perhaps elucidate your personal connection to this?
EL: I am very frustrated with the blood quantum definitions and requirements. I’m going to take a section from an essay, America’s Wretched, I wrote about Native photographs:
The government-regulated definition of “Indian,” combined with visual reinforcement of what Indian is supposed to look like, creates a nearly unachievable level of Indian-ness and leaves very small room for mixed-race acceptance. The blood-quantum regulations create a questioning of cultural authenticity that is always underlying. The visual example parallels the quantum issue in that it is easier to subscribe to a simple idea of Indian rather than working through the complex reality that exists. The difference exists in the levels of Indian-ness: The United States government initiated a minimum blood quantum of one-quarter to be nationally recognized as Native. Beginning in the 1990’s many tribes began to shed the U.S. government’s initial blood quantum approach, so tribal recognition may have a lower quantum requirement or use other methods such as lineal descent. Unfortunately, to be nationally recognized, one must comply with tribal, state, and national standards, despite their tribal criterion.
The issue bothers me for many reasons— primarily, I feel the quantum requirements create more anxiety than an inclusionary community. The strange and almost surreal reality is that our blood, our “pedigree” is being recorded and monitored by a government agency. It makes one conscious of blood quantum when choosing a mate, when having a child— areas of life that this issue should never enter. I guess it makes me sad that even though I will pass my culture and values on, my child-if or when I have one- will not be considered legally Native, at least not by government standards. And that bothers me on a very deep level.
DS: In “Nuchalowoyya” you discuss the effect of media and images on society (whether they’re moving images or still) and the viewer. You state a hope: “Through art and media, we can reshape cross-cultural ideas and depictions. In the end, I view my work as a process of reconciliation, a means of recognizing and responding to the worlds around me.” Have you felt yourself getting closer to that feeling of reconciliation within certain projects that you’ve done in the past or the present? Or does it continue to feel like an ideal dream at times?
EL: The Binary Selves video & installation was pretty important to me. I felt like it was a culmination of many projects coming together. However, I think that many of the projects are trying to get to that feeling of reconciliation—because it’s a process, and a very complex one at that. I see each project as a different angle or avenue of exploring those same ideas. I think they all work together, they all speak to an experience that I feel many people know— Native or non-Native, they are universal issues that affect us in different ways. Each work, each image or story, is that response to the world around me— it’s a dialogue, and I guess I just hope that eventually, it’s a conversation that we will all take part in and understand. I want to create dialogue, and with open ears and hearts, hopefully we move towards empathy, and eventually understanding. I will never know another’s experience, but I can empathize, and try to understand their perspective. Yes, of course it’s an ideal. But artists are dreamers! I think that’s where we fit in sometimes in the large community— we need dreamers, because you can never achieve something unless you first dream it, right? I’m sure there’s some inspirational quote out there somewhere that says it better than I can… but yes, it’s an ideal, one that I am willing to work towards.
DS: Do you think of yourself as a “Contemporary North American Indigenous Artist?” Do you think terms like that one are useful or not? Do you feel like there is a separation between contemporary indigenous artists and the rest of the art world as represented by mainstream art magazines, biennials, art fairs, etc.?
EL: I guess I have always sort of thought or identified myself as a mixed-race Native or Indigenous artist— that mixed-race identity is central to my identity and it is from that perspective that I make my work. I think often, when I am written about, it is easier to describe me as a Native artist, which then, we get into that blood thing again. I think that perhaps terms like that are both useful and limiting. On one hand, it helps people to understand what I do— because I do talk about Native issues and politics in my work. On the other hand, people bring a lot of assumptions and expectations with that sort of title or description. Adding contemporary in there sometimes helps, but not a lot. I think people still expect to see historic, or historically referencing images…that, or they expect to see the Santa Fe aesthetic. And yet, on another note, by being defined as a mixed-race Native artist, or a Native artist, it can help to expand ideas of what Native art is or could be. That it can be everything from those historic pieces to the work I make, and to the work that has yet to be made. I think it’s similar to how ideas of feminism change with each generation and wave. And I consider myself both. By re-defining those terms we change expectations, what is included or understood within those definitions become broken down, limitless.
I definitely think there is a separation between Native art and the “mainstream” art world. I think there’s still a large separation between artists of color and the rest of the art world—one only has to look at the recent Whitney Biennial- where there was only 3 African-American artists, no Latino artists, and certainly no Native American artists, out of 55 chosen artists. Of the art shows I have been in, there has only been a few that the word “Native” (or various synonyms) didn’t appear in the title. I refuse to believe that just because I make work from this perspective that it can only be understood by those that are also Native, or mixed Native. It’s ridiculous, and frustrating to feel like there are those limitations. And I refuse to think that we are not making work that is good enough to be included in these larger shows. I think contemporary Indigenous artists are making some of the most exciting artwork out there right now. You know, it’s funny though because I feel like contemporary Native artists are also being separated or excluded from their own community as represented by magazines, conferences, etc. I buy every issue of American Indian Art and Native Peoples, looking for articles or images of contemporary art and there are very few examples or pages dedicated to this. The Native American Art Studies Association conference has some panels on contemporary work, but the majority is still on historic art and collections. Indian Market just finally created a photography section. Contemporary Native artists need that representation from within their community as well as from the larger art market and world. We got some work to do…
DS: Can you recommend another artist that we should interview for this blog in the future?
EL: I can recommend many. Not sure if you guys have already included them, but they should be considered. I am really really in love with the work of: Rebecca Belmore, Lori Blondeau, William Wilson, Nicholas Galanin, Terrance Houle, Brian Jungen, James Luna…Kade Twist, Sarah Sense, Jason Lujan, and some more photographers: Jeffrey Thomas, and Zig Jackson.
The Search for Nuchalawoyya: Resistance and Reconciliation
Biography of Erica Lord
My culture and idea of home began in Alaska, moved and adopted Michigan, and ever since, has existed somewhere in between, amongst, and within a mixed cultural legacy. That legacy and my identity stem from many families: Athabascan, Iñupiaq, Finnish, Swedish, English, and Japanese. My origins include a lineage that I was born into, and a land I was removed from. My cultural limbo and precarious balances have molded my identity and fueled my art. Because of circumstance and chance, I became an emigrant from each home, adapting with each move. Constant moving and rootlessness are part of the American experience, but my near perpetual movement is an experience that lies within a larger history: the Native diaspora. The idea of home becomes complicated and this is reflected in my work; I have formed multiple homes throughout this diaspora, each of them holding significance and meaning to me. This repetition of displacement, making homes, leaving and returning home cyclically, leads to a feeling of leading several lives; the idea of one’s self begins to divide into multiple perspectives, like one camera capturing different angles or viewpoints. The qualities that tend to define my identity create an overlapping and blurring of borders; the multiplicity of selves becomes indivisible, not split or partial, not singular, but a flexible amalgamation of many. In order to address this multiple or mixed identity, I use art, performance, and ritual, discovering ways to find a root and affirm my position as a shifting self, understanding that in order to survive, identity and culture cannot be static. In order to sustain a genuine self, I create a world in which I can shift to become one or all of my multiple visions of self. In order to demonstrate this shifting identity, I use a variety of mediums. Photography allows me to construct new, ambiguous, or challenging representations of race. To discuss aspects of identity that are unseen, or within the body, I use sculpture, video, or performance. Sculpture or beadwork allows me to address body politics, such as blood quantum and genetics. Video and performance work to illustrate a narrative, emotion, and memory; they act as another form of storytelling. Through my work, I explore worlds in which translation is suspended—the space beyond singular identities—where worlds collide, merge, or resist each other. My work explores contemporary indigenous life and how identity and culture are affected in a world that is rapidly changing, expanding, and ever increasingly global. I want to address the merging of blood, culture, memory, and the idea of home. I investigate the relationship between the visual construction of race and the formation of cultural identity, and in turn, how that affects larger aspects of one’s cultural autonomy. With my Un/Defined self-portraits, or My First Baby Belt, I challenge ideas of cultural purity or authenticity. Definitions of race and ethnicity seem to oscillate between scientific theory and social construct, between visual construction and political circumstance. These theories, as pertaining to migration, biological, or evolutionary perspectives, create complicated identity politics. The almost arbitrary relationship between racial phenotype (what a person’s looks like) and genotype (a person’s genetic makeup) codes is perplexing; though we understand it affects what is seen or unseen, what is hidden, what passes, the known and the ignored. In other aspects, these theories may challenge our identity as tied to land; here I want to explore identities removed or indivisible from land, how one defines home, and to consider how removal, return, and reclamation affect that relationship. Finally, I am interested in how images—media, film, or photography, affect all aspects of our identities. Until recently, those outside Native communities have imposed an outsiders’ view of our world, Therefore, what is visually understood or accepted as Native tends to be rigid, absolute, and static. Archetypes are easier to understand and thus, a multifaceted identity is often rejected. It is time to redefine our representation as Native people. Native artists are changing ideas of Indians as an ancient and static people. As artists, we can affect change in that we facilitate an important shift, moving us from objects to subjects. Through art and media, we can reshape cross-cultural ideas and depictions. In the end, I view my work as a process of reconciliation, a means of recognizing and responding to the worlds around me. Mixed experiences differ with each generation; the description of one split between two worlds is a simplification of an idea that is much larger and complex. My experience may be multiple or mixed, but I am not incomplete in any location. My art explores the next wave of cultural examination, an evolution of new ways to demonstrate cultural identity beyond the polar ideas that exist within a strictly two-worlds discourse. Through my art, I hope to create dialogue that will help to redefine our selves, our communities, and our beliefs. *Rivers hold special significance for the people of Interior Alaska. For thousands of years, Athabascan leaders have gathered at a place called Nuchalawoyya “Where the two rivers meet” to discuss tribal matters. Here, the Chena and Tanana rivers meet and something beautiful happens. One river, a cloudy silty light brown, meets a clear dark brown river, and they swirl until they become one. The image and idea of two beings, each distinct in their individual qualities, meeting and becoming one, resonates within me. Nuchalawoyya is a place of both great power and great beauty.
Erica Lord 2009
Erica Lord’s Official Website
Off The Map-Landscape in the Native Imagination: Erica Lord’s Binary Selves Installation
Native American Indigenous Cinema and Arts- Erica Lord as Resident Artist
SAR (School of Advanced Research) - Artist in Residence Fellowship 2008
The Buffalo Post- a News Blog about Native People and the World We Live In
Red Ink Magazine- Student-run publication at University of Arizona publishing works of an array of Native artists and writers
The Original Artifact Revisited- Link to James Luna’s Official Website
Smithsonian Magazine Interview with James Luna