Working Through the Issues with Beads and Threads
“I’m just Indian being an Indian.” Mandy Marine
Visiting with artists in our Apprenticeship Program is often a re-orienting process: It is a reminder of why we place such value in culture-based art forms, why we practice them, or why we document them. In Fresno, California, Master artist Julie Dick-Tex, who participated in our 2016 cycle of Apprenticeships, mentored her daughter, Mandy Marine, in the Native tradition of Western Mono bead work. Their creative process reminds us what it means to claim and live our cultures out loud.
The year has started with incredible contention between the nation’s highest official and communities of color, native, immigrant, and refugee communities throughout the nation. The President and the new governing cabinet have invested efforts to repeal and enhance legislative mandates that permit them to dismiss, disassemble, divide, de-territorialize, and basically disregard peoples and communities, reminding many of us how the struggles for a civil society or just basic human rights are non-ending. The executive mandate to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act; travel bans on citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen; and immigration sweeps targeting the non-violent undocumented are but a few executive actions that illuminate direct attacks on people of aggrieved communities.
Many people are outraged and the reactions to the executive orders have made evident the dismay that people feel—from scholars, activists, artists, and celebrities testifying to legislature; award shows demonstrating a collective stance; and the powerful community protests occurring throughout the nation. At the same time, cultural workers that have worked in ACTA’s Apprentice Program, like Tobaji Stewart (2012 and 2016), a master artist and elder in African American and African diaspora drumming and cultural traditions, and Stanley Rodriguez (2001) a master in Kumeyaay song cycles and advocate for language preservation, along with many others remind us that we have been here before. These cultural workers and activists draw us back to what was going on from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. Police brutality was at a peak in Black, Latino and Native communities, leading to insurgencies such as that in Watts in 1965 and Detroit in 1967, to name a few. Central societal institutions of economy, housing, education, and medicine had no issue in treating people of color as second-class citizens. The FBI was surveilling and often infiltrating organizations that emerged from communities of color. The Black Panthers, Young Lords, the American Indian Movement, and the Brown Berets, were targeted as well as non-militant organizations such as the United Farmworkers Union, Teatro Campesino, the National Lawyers Guild, and organizations against the Vietnam War, because they exhibited radical thought or action.
Oftentimes, however, included in the idea of radical thought, was action of discovery and re-discovery of ways of knowing that were always part of the genealogies and rich histories of communities of color. Folk and traditional arts played a foundational role in the formation of the emerging identities of these communities. Whether communities were centrally repositioning traditions of the griots, poets, drummers, folk instruments and music, and dance, the folk forms became integrated into radical thought thus working within the site of struggle. This happened all over the Americas as artists such as Victor Jara, Violeta Parra, Carlos Puebla, Amparo Ochoa, Agustin Lira and many more utilized folk forms to sing songs that made evident the struggles of aggrieved communities. This, unfortunately, did not fit the US cultural norms, defined by a straight, white, conservative male perspective—an ideology that today will apparently “make America great again.”
Today we return and continue with many of the same struggles of yesterday. The most apparent issue at hand is that around the government’s stance on immigration: Who gets to stay or enter the United States? Buried in the news cycles, however, are apparent attacks on Native American rights starting with land appropriation, water rights and tribal status. The executive order to revive the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline reveals the government’s disregard to the Sioux Nation and to the position of Native Americans throughout the United States. As of February 22, 2017, the protesters, who have endured incredible physical, emotional and spiritual challenges to protect this land site, were evacuated and/or arrested. Again, today’s struggles index those of the past, as ACTA was reminded by two participants of the Apprenticeship Program, master artists Julie Dick-Tex and her daughter Mandy Marine, the latter of whom—hours before a scheduled site visit—returned from Standing Rock where she provided support and stood as a witness to what was going on. The work of these two women illuminate how folk and traditional arts go hand in hand with struggles for social justice.
The apprenticeship, between Dick-Tex and Marine focused on creating a Western Mono beaded collar that is part of the women’s ceremonial regalia. According to Dick-Tex, this tradition began to fade with recent generations, so while there are still elders that have the knowledge, and as evident in Dick-Tex’s daughter Mandy, enthusiasm to learn this practice, it is extremely important to pass it on so it is not lost. The collars are composed of thread and glass beads of a variety of colors that the Western Mono group integrated into their cultural practices within the early 1800s. They are constructed in panels that are held together by a beaded leather strap, which serves as a choker. In learning the technique Marine has been careful to document the process by creating drawings of certain layouts and how to create design. She further explained that the most difficult part, however, is deciding a color scheme and the shapes desired because of the wide range of choice and having to be able to envision what the collar will ultimately look like. The investment in time and energy to make the collar is seriously deep so the maker will end up with something they will be happy with.
Throughout the site visit the two worked on their respective collars, threading beads, creating colored designs of green, burgundy and grey sections that coordinate an aesthetic of the collar, or spending a good ten minutes trying to untangle a knot in the thread. As the women worked, the discussion followed various themes including teaching leather and beadwork in prisons, growing up in California, the concept of ceremonies being quiet and very personal events (rather than grandiose spectacles), and being “weekend weavers.” One topic that ties to much of what’s going on today had to do with the historical trauma that many tribal groups endured due to the history of conquest, historical erasure, colonization, and Americanization programming. Native people have dealt with this contentious history in a variety of manners, forcing people to negotiate their social locations within a US society, which with time took on a variety of results between full acculturation and assimilation to radical processes to know Native ways. Marine shared that her generation was different from her mother’s precisely because of what her mother experienced during the late 1960s and 1970s—Julie Dick-Tex and her family members were part of the Native Americans that occupied Alcatraz from 1969 to 1971. As a result, Marine states, “my generation raised by these radical parents, we don’t know how not to be advocates. So our generational trauma is just the opposite, we were traumatized to the point in which we don’t know how to be in ‘our place’… we are not complacent. The down side is that sometimes it gets us in trouble…”
Julie continues that “beading is like a quilting circle, you come together and socialize…we are all here collectively thinking in a positive way.” It is an important space for both mother, a retired social worker who currently works in ACTA’s Arts in Corrections program along with her husband Dale Tex, and daughter, Mandy, who works as an archeologist in their local community, whose work is situated in protecting Native sacred sites and remains. The cultural work that these women engage in provides a balance to how they witness and endure exclusivity and inequitable politics of race, poverty, incarceration, as well as the politics of tribal recognition (being part of an unrecognized tribe). Their experience and the history of their family illuminates much of the conflict inherent in the spheres of politics, nonetheless, the two demonstrate knowledge beyond their years, investment in action, and incredible comfort in their identity as “Indians.” In talking about her experience working with Native men in the prison, Julie Dick-Tex mentions how these men “like the life my husband and I share.” She continued sharing that her life and that of her family, “we just live a simple humble life… there is nothing exciting about our life. We just carry on our culture and that’s what makes us happy. We like being Indian, but [the students from the prison] never had a chance ‘to be Indian’.” Fortunately, because of people like Julie Dick-Tex, Mandy Marine and their family, more Native people get the chance to be Indian—something that may prove to be highly necessary in the years to come.