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Native Feminisms and Contemporary Art: Indigeneity, Gender, and Diné Resurgence in the Work of Natani Notah and Jolene Nenibah Yazzie

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Abstract

This chapter provides an overview of Native feminisms and the ways contemporary artists have taken up attendant concerns in their works. It explores some of the early tensions between Indigenous rights movements and feminism and outlines some of the conceptual shifts that have led to a more widespread acceptance of Native feminisms, connects Native feminisms to theories of Indigenous resurgence, and argues that works by Natani Notah (Diné) and Jolene “Bean” Nenibah Yazzie (Diné/Comanche/White Mountain Apache) should be viewed within a framework of Diné (Navajo) feminist resurgence. Notah’s found object sculptures emphasize how Indigenous women and gender-fluid peoples have been subject to disproportionately high rates of violence, historically and today, and she connects violence enacted against their bodies to harms done to the Earth. Her pieces push for a reclamation of respect and veneration for women and land in line with Native worldviews. Yazzie’s punchy, graphic images of women warriors remind us that Diné customs of gender fluidity predate the heteropatriarchal gender binary enforced by colonizers, yet the colonial influence lingers to this day. The artists’ mediums, styles, and the specific issues they address vary, but both decolonize canons of contemporary art and feminisms by underscoring the detrimental effects that heteropatriarchal, colonialist frameworks have had on Indigenous peoples’ lived experiences while making space for the aesthetic and political power of Native women’s epistemologies.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Of course, there were significant Native feminists in earlier decades—including Paula Gunn Allen, Kate Shanley, and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith—just as there are Native women today who do not identify as feminists.

  2. 2.

    The term Navajo is of Spanish origin. Members of this community call themselves the Diné, which translates to The People, and this is the term I have elected to use. On terminology, see Jennifer Nez Denetdale, Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007), 10.

  3. 3.

    Lorelei DeCora Means, talk delivered during International Women’s Week, the University of Colorado at Boulder, April 1985, cited in M. Annette James with Theresa Halsey, “American Indian Women: At the Center of Indigenous Resistance in Contemporary North America,” in Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives, eds. Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 300.

  4. 4.

    On gender roles, sexism, and attitudes toward feminism in AIM, see Devon Abbott Mihesuah, Indigenous American Women: Decolonization, Empowerment, Activism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 163–171.

  5. 5.

    Means, in James with Halsey, 300.

  6. 6.

    Maile Arvin, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill, “Decolonizing Feminism: Challenging Connections between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy,” Feminist Formations 25, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 15.

  7. 7.

    Arvin, Tuck, and Morrill, 15, 9.

  8. 8.

    Joyce Green, “Taking More Account of Indigenous Feminism: An Introduction,” in Making Space for Indigenous Feminism, ed. Joyce Green (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2017), 15.

  9. 9.

    Means, in James with Halsey, 301.

  10. 10.

    Laura Tohe, “There Is No Word for Feminism in My Language,” Wicazo Sa Review, 15, no. 2 (Autumn, 2000): 109.

  11. 11.

    Arvin, Tuck, and Morrill, 14.

  12. 12.

    Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 209. Allen’s work demonstrates that Indigenous attitudes toward gender do not fit neatly into generational categories; just as there were some Native feminists in the 1970s and 1980s, there are Native women who reject the term today.

  13. 13.

    Verna St. Denis, “Feminism Is for Everybody: Aboriginal Women, Feminism and Diversity,” in Making Space for Indigenous Feminism, 59.

  14. 14.

    Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Indigenous Resurgence and Co-resistance,” Critical Ethnic Studies 2, no. 2 (Fall 2016), 26–28.

  15. 15.

    Gina Starblanket, “Being Indigenous Feminists: Resurgences Against Contemporary Patriarchy,” in Making Space for Indigenous Feminism, 38.

  16. 16.

    Jennifer Nez Denetdale, Reclaiming Diné History, 49.

  17. 17.

    Denetdale, 6; Mishuana R. Goeman and Jennifer Nez Denetdale, “Native Feminisms: Legacies, Interventions, and Indigenous Sovereignties,” Wicazo Sa Review 24, no. 2 (2009): 10.

  18. 18.

    Natani Notah, conversation with the author, December 16, 2020. Unless otherwise noted, all citations of Notah come from this conversation. Portions of the artist’s responses to my questions were published as an Artist Video in conjunction with Native Feminisms, available online: https://apexart.org/hawley.php#natani.

  19. 19.

    Natani Notah, email correspondence with the author, December 15, 2021; conversation with the author, December 16, 2020.

  20. 20.

    Tohe, “There is No Word,” 105.

  21. 21.

    Notah, email correspondence with the author, December 15, 2021.

  22. 22.

    Tohe, “There is No Word,” 105; Lloyd L. Lee, “Diné Masculinities, Relationships, Colonization, and Regenerating an Egalitarian Way of Life,” in Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration, eds. Warren Cariou, Daniel Heath Justice, and Gregory Scofield (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2015), 214–226.

  23. 23.

    On complementarity, see Leah Sneider, “Complementary Relationships: A Review of Indigenous Gender Studies,” in Indigenous Men and Masculinities, 62–79.

  24. 24.

    Carrie A. Martell and Sarah Deer, “Heeding the Voice of Native Women: Toward an Ethic of Decolonization,” North Dakota Law Review 81, no. 4 (January 2005): 811.

  25. 25.

    Mary Shepardson, “The Gender Status of Navajo Women,” in Women and Power in Native North America, eds. Laura F. Klein and Lillian A. Ackerman (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 166.

  26. 26.

    Lloyd L. Lee, “Decolonizing the Navajo Nation: The Lessons of the Naabaahii,” Paper presented at the 42nd Annual National Indian Education Association (NIEA) Convention & Tradeshow (Albuquerque, NM, Oct 27–30, 2011).

  27. 27.

    Jennifer Nez Denetdale, “Chairmen, Presidents, and Princesses: The Navajo Nation, Gender, and the Politics of Tradition,” Wicazo Sa Review 21, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 9–28. Lloyd L. Lee, “Gender, Navajo Leadership, and ‘Retrospective Falsification,’” AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples 8, no. 3 (September 1, 2012): 277–289. Two further Presidents have been elected since Lee’s article was published, both of them men.

  28. 28.

    Valerie Volcovici, “Trump advisors aim to privatize oil-rich Indian reservations,” Reuters (December 5, 2016), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-tribes-insight/trump-advisors-aim-to-privatize-oil-rich-indian-reservations-idUSKBN13U1B1.

  29. 29.

    Simpson, “Indigenous Resurgence and Co-resistance,” 23.

  30. 30.

    Green, “Taking More Account,” 4.

  31. 31.

    Violence against the Earth is thereby linked to violence against Indigenous women, who suffer disproportionately high rates of assault, particularly sexual. I unpack this connection further in a forthcoming article on Notah’s practice.

  32. 32.

    Rebecca Tsosie, “Changing Women: The Cross-Currents of American Indian Feminine Identity,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 12, no. 1 (1988): 7.

  33. 33.

    Tsosie, “Changing Women,” 7.

  34. 34.

    Denetdale, Reclaiming Diné History, 137.

  35. 35.

    Veronica Holyfield, “Intricate Intersections: Native, Two-Spirit, and Queer Identities,” Out Front Magazine (August 18, 2020), https://www.outfrontmagazine.com/intricate-intersections-native-two-spirit-and-queer-identities/. Two-spirit is a contemporary term for non-binary Indigenous gender variants.

  36. 36.

    Jolene Yazzie, “Why are Diné LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit people being denied access to ceremony?” High Country News (January 7, 2020), https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.2/indigenous-affairs-why-are-Diné-lgbtq-and-two-spirit-people-being-denied-access-to-ceremony.

  37. 37.

    Maureen Trudelle Schwarz, Molded in the Image of Changing Woman: Navajo Views on the Human Body and Personhood (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997), 20–23.

  38. 38.

    Denetdale, Reclaiming Diné History, 6.

  39. 39.

    Natasha Kaye Johnson, “Navajo artist creates skateboards featuring female warrior images,” Indian Country News (September 7, 2007), https://www.indiancountrynews.com/index.php/news/indian-and-first-nations/1328-navajo-artist-creates-skateboards-featuring-female-warrior-images.

  40. 40.

    Jolene Nenibah Yazzie, conversation with the author, January 21, 2021. Portions of the artist’s responses to my questions were published as an Artist Video in conjunction with Native Feminisms, available online: https://apexart.org/hawley.php#jolene.

  41. 41.

    Jolene Nenibah Yazzie, “Artist Statement,” Beat Nation: Hip Hop as Indigenous Culture, accessed August 12, 2021, https://www.beatnation.org/jolene-nenibah-yazzie.html#null.

  42. 42.

    Sarah Deer, “Knowing through Numbers?: The Benefits and Drawbacks of Data,” in The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 1–15.

  43. 43.

    Renya Ramirez, “Healing, Violence, and Native American Women,” Social Justice 31, no. 4 (2004): 105; Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995), 23.

  44. 44.

    Deer, “Knowing through Numbers,” xvii.

  45. 45.

    Yazzie also connects her red, white, and black palette to the colors of Diné basketry, a reference to women’s labor that deserves further analysis. Yazzie, conversation with the author, January 21, 2021.

  46. 46.

    Sneider, “Complementary Relationships,” 67–68.

  47. 47.

    Denetdale, “Chairmen, Presidents, and Princesses,” 21.

  48. 48.

    Yazzie, conversation with the author, January 21, 2021.

  49. 49.

    Yazzie quoted in Megan Gambino, “Q&A: Comic Artist Jolene Nenibah Yazzie,” Smithsonian Magazine (March 16, 2009), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/qa-comic-artist-jolene-nenibah-yazzie-180941844/.

  50. 50.

    Yazzie quoted in Holyfield.

  51. 51.

    Yazzie quoted in Virginia L. Clark, “Wonder Woman redux: The indigenous heroes of Jolene Nenibah Yazzie emerging at the Harwood Museum,” Taos News (January 18, 2018; updated July 10, 2020), https://www.taosnews.com/tempo/arts/wonder-woman-redux/article_aa3d0725-6917-5104-bfea-545bc0362a3b.html.

  52. 52.

    Yazzie, conversation with the author, September 3, 2021.

  53. 53.

    Yazzie quoted in Holyfield.

  54. 54.

    Yazzie quoted in Natasha Vizcarra, “Taking the Native American narrative beyond reservations,” Landscape News (June 17, 2019), https://news.globallandscapesforum.org/36391/taking-the-native-american-narrative-beyond-reservations/.

  55. 55.

    Lloyd L. Lee, “Decolonizing the Navajo Nation: The Lessons of the Naabaahii,” Paper presented at the 42nd Annual National Indian Education Association (NIEA) Convention & Tradeshow (Albuquerque, NM, Oct 27–30, 2011).

  56. 56.

    Yazzie, email correspondence with the author, September 27, 2021.

  57. 57.

    On Diné war paint, see Lee.

  58. 58.

    Yazzie quoted in Vizcarra.

  59. 59.

    Lee, Denetdale, “Securing Navajo National Boundaries,” 140.

  60. 60.

    Yazzie, email correspondence with the author, September 27, 2021.

  61. 61.

    Yazzie quoted in Holyfield.

  62. 62.

    On Northern powwows, see Tara Browner, Heartbeat of the People: Music and Dance of the Northern Pow-wow (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004).

  63. 63.

    Yazzie quoted in Holyfield.

  64. 64.

    Yazzie, “Why are Diné LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit people being denied access to ceremony?”; Jennifer Nez Denetdale, “Securing Navajo National Boundaries: War, Patriotism, Tradition, and the Diné Marriage Act of 2005” Wicazo Sa Review 24, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 131–148.

  65. 65.

    Wesley Thomas, “Navajo Cultural Constructions of Gender and Sexuality,” in Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality, eds. Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 157.

  66. 66.

    Brendan Hokowhithu, “Taxonomies of Indigeneity: Indigenous Heterosexual Patriarchal Masculinity,” in Indigenous Men and Masculinities, 91–92.

  67. 67.

    Yazzie, email correspondence with the author, December 7, 2020.

  68. 68.

    Yazzie, email correspondence with the author, December 7, 2020.

  69. 69.

    Holyfield, “Intricate Intersections.”

  70. 70.

    Yazzie, “Why are Diné LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit people being denied access to ceremony?”

  71. 71.

    Yazzie, email correspondence with the author, December 7, 2020. See also David Begay and Nancy C. Maryboy, Sharing the Skies: Navajo Astronomy (Tucson: Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2010).

  72. 72.

    Yazzie, conversation with the author, January 21, 2021.

  73. 73.

    Yazzie quoted in Clark.

Acknowledgement

I am grateful to the artists for our many conversations and their generosity in reviewing drafts of this chapter. Co-fellows in the Lunder Institute for American Art 2021–22 Research Fellowship also provided feedback; thanks to Jessica L. Horton, Caroline Jean Fernald, Hadley Jenson, Patricia Marroquin Norby, Sascha Scott, and especially Jill Ahlberg Yohe, whose suggestions greatly strengthened this project.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth S. Hawley .

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Hawley, E.S. (2023). Native Feminisms and Contemporary Art: Indigeneity, Gender, and Diné Resurgence in the Work of Natani Notah and Jolene Nenibah Yazzie. In: Hannum, G., Pyun, K. (eds) Expanding the Parameters of Feminist Artivism. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-09378-4_2

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