Celebrating Native American Heritage Month: Five Artists You Should Know

By GiGi Buddie

Welcome to another installment in my Indigenous Voices series, and happy Native American Heritage Month! 

In 1990, President George H. W. Bush declared the month of November as Native American Heritage Month, and since then it has been a month of celebration and remembrance for Indigenous peoples in the United States. To mark the occasion, I have decided to profile Indigenous artists I feel you should know, and up-and-coming student artists working to create waves of their own. 

Throughout this month, and beyond, I encourage you to research influential Indigenous figures in American history, explore the artists I introduce more deeply, find out whose land you’re on, and search for ways to celebrate the Native people of this land. November also includes the American tradition of “Thanksgiving.” Learn about the true history of this holiday and Native American Heritage Day, which is observed and celebrated the day after Thanksgiving. This nation was founded at great cost to the first peoples of this land, and I implore you to remember, recognize, support, and educate yourself on the past, present, and future cultures, struggles, and accomplishments of American Indians. 

To jumpstart that acknowledgment and education, here are profiles of influential Indigenous artists you should know! Each of these artists has made a name for themselves and used their platform to talk seriously about issues that pertain heavily to American Indian communities. While not all of these artists address climate change directly, much of the work they do is built from a foundation that challenges a white-dominated society. These artists have had to tirelessly work against the colonized world that brought about assimilation, genocide, racial injustice, and the building blocks of the climate crisis. 

XIUHTEZCATL MARTINEZ

Starting off our list is 20-year-old Indigenous climate activist, artist, and author Xiuhtezcatl (shoe-tez-caht) Martinez. Inspired by his mother’s activism, since the age of six Xiuhtezcatl has been working to create sustainable dialogue and change for our planet. Initially speaking at local rallies in his home state of Colorado, he has since been propelled to the international stage. He has stood before the representatives of the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Summit in Rio de Janeiro and spoken boldly about the urgency of climate change, emphasizing that “this is a struggle of cultural survival for my people, for Indigenous folks specifically, who are on the frontlines everywhere.” He is the youth director of Earth Guardians where he “uses art, music, storytelling, and civic action to inspire and mobilize young people in the fight to protect our planet.” He has created a name for himself as an eco hip-hop artist, a powerful and influential young activist, a plaintiff in a climate crisis lawsuit against the Obama administration, and a voice of hope for both Indigenous communities and our planet.

To learn more about Xiuhtezcatl and his accomplishments, check out this article published by Cultural Survival. You can also listen to his music, and find all of his social media handles on his website.

RADMILLA CODY

Next up we have the Navajo award-winning singer, model, and anti-domestic violence activist Radmilla Cody. With her GRAMMY nomination and multiple wins at the Native American Music Awards, Radmilla’s musical talent is undeniable. But her accomplishments don’t stop there. She was named one of NPR’s 50 great voices, a Black History Maker Honoree, and uses her platform, and her personal experiences as a survivor, to advocate against domestic abuse and violence.* Her platform is one that is built off of her own experiences growing up in America as a biracial woman. She attempts to communicate positive messages about her dual identity to underrepresented minority groups in similar situations. Radmilla’s voice is one of power and resilience and her music, sung in her Native tongue, is reminiscent of the power of Native storytelling. Be sure to listen to her music and follow her on social media


*According to a study by the National Institute of Justice, more than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women and men have experienced violence in their lifetime, and more than one in three experienced violence in the past year.

SACHEEN LITTLEFEATHER

Third on my list of big-name artists you should know is actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather. Sacheen gained attention in 1973 when she was chosen by actor Marlon Brando to deny his Oscar for his portrayal of Don Corleone in The Godfather. Brando wanted to bring national attention to the treatment of American Indians following the siege at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. I was fortunate enough to learn about Sacheen’s life at the Native Women in Film Festival where One Bowl Productions was screening their documentary of her life, SACHEEN, Breaking the Silence. It was there that I learned about her career, activism, and extraordinary life recounted in a profound, artistic, and beautiful way. Sacheen has always been very active in the American Indian Bay Area community, even being one of the original occupiers on Alcatraz Island to protest civil rights violations against American Indians. 

In an interview with KQED, she voiced her views on our white-dominated society saying, “We [American Indians] have been oppressed so much from dominant society that we have internalized that oppression. The more that Native American Indian people like myself speak out, the more understanding that there becomes. The truth has got to win out above all the lies that have been told about us by the dominant society.” You can watch her speech at the 1973 Oscars.

KINSALE HUESTON (YALE UNIVERSITY)

On my list of up-and-coming artists you should know is artist, scholar, and activist Kinsale Hueston. At just 20-years-old, Kinsale’s list of accomplishments is impressive and inspiring. She has been recognized as a National Student Poet, is the recipient of the Yale Young Native Storytellers Award for Spoken Word, has been named one of Time Magazine’s “34 People Changing How We See the World,” and has published a collection of poetry titled Where I’m From: Poems from Sherman Indian School. An enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and a student at Yale University, Kinsale’s work centers around Diné stories, personal histories, and contemporary issues affecting her tribe. Much of her work focuses on issues relating to violence against Native women, settler-colonial violence, resource extraction, and land/body relationships. She is a powerful young activist in a time when such voices are desperately needed. You can read more about her on her website, shop for her merch, and even request to book her for readings or events. 

COCO PERCIVAL (POMONA COLLEGE)

A relatively unknown, up-and-coming artist you should know is 21-year-old Chickasaw Fox Clan and Pomona College student Coco Percival. Coco grew up in a small, conservative town in Missouri, and often felt like she lacked the space for her traditional Indigenous practices. After she left that restrictive environment for Pomona College in southern California, she realized that she now had the space she had been longing for and other Indigenous students to share it with. Going to college expanded her ideas of what being Indigenous means, and soon she was ready to get back in touch with her Indigeneity. 

“My beading and art is my resistance”

Coco Percival

When she was young, her aunt taught her to bead and she has worked off those foundational beading skills to teach herself traditional Loom beading. Another student at Pomona taught her to make earrings, and now she puts her talents and skills into creating her art. Percival takes commissions for her beadwork and you can find her beading on Instagram (@nakbatiipoli_oksop means rainbow beads in the Chickasaw language). You can reach out to her through direct messages or the contact on her Instagram profile to purchase her work.

If you would like to get to know more Indigenous artists, here are a few more names to research: Maria TallchiefIrene Bedard, and Forrest Goodluck.

While you sit with your family this Thanksgiving and reflect on the parts of your life that bring you joy and gratitude, consider giving thanks for the land you reside on, and honoring those who lost their lives, culture, and stories under the colonization of North America and the expansion of “the New World.” Keeping these traditions and cultures alive requires us to deepen our knowledge of these people and land, and constantly challenge how American Indians are portrayed in entertainment and the media. History is written by the victors, but American Indians are still here, present, fighting, and proud. Our history deserves to be heard and our heritage deserves to be celebrated. Aheeiyeh, and Happy Native American Heritage Month. 

(Top image: Chief Sitting Bull by GiGi Buddie)

This article is part of the Indigenous Voices series.

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GiGi Buddie is an American Indian artist and student studying theatre, with an emphasis in acting, at Pomona College. Whether it be through acting or working in tech, GiGi has dedicated much of her life to the theatre. In the summer of 2019, her passion for art and environmental justice took her to the Baram River in Malaysian Borneo where she, alongside Pomona professors, researched the environmental crisis and how it has been affecting the Indigenous groups that live along the river. As a result of her experience researching and traveling, she student-produced the Pomona College event for Climate Change Theatre Action during the fall 2019 semester.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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