The Powerful Art Of Indigenous Women - 27 East

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The Powerful Art Of Indigenous Women

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Denis Silva Dennis

Denis Silva Dennis "Land Back Butter," 2021. Acrylic painting, 16" x 20."

Denise Silva-Dennis

Denise Silva-Dennis "Not The Last Of The Tenacious Shinnecock Indians," 2021. Acrylic painting, 24" x 30."

SAC executive director Tom Dunn and

SAC executive director Tom Dunn and "Outcropping" curator Jeremy Dennis.

Denise Silva-Dennis at Ma's House.

Denise Silva-Dennis at Ma's House.

"Outcropping — Indigenous Art Now" installed at the Southampton Arts Center. RB COLLABORATIVE PHOTO

A book display is included in the Southampton Arts Center exhibition

A book display is included in the Southampton Arts Center exhibition "Outcropping — Indigenous Art Now." RB COLLABORATIVE PHOTO

"Outcropping — Indigenous Art Now" installed at the Southampton Arts Center. RB COLLABORATIVE PHOTO

"Outcropping — Indigenous Art Now" installed at the Southampton Arts Center. RB COLLABORATIVE PHOTO

"Outcropping — Indigenous Art Now" installed at the Southampton Arts Center. RB COLLABORATIVE PHOTO

"Outcropping — Indigenous Art Now" installed at the Southampton Arts Center. RB COLLABORATIVE PHOTO

Denise Silva-Dennis's painting

Denise Silva-Dennis's painting "Not The Last of the Tenacious Shinnecock Indians" is based on this photograph. The handwritten caption says "The last of the Shinnecock Indians L.I., N.Y. 1884."

Artists Lisa Bowen and Denise Silva-
Dennis at the Southampton Arts Center.   DANA SHAW

Artists Lisa Bowen and Denise Silva- Dennis at the Southampton Arts Center. DANA SHAW

Artists Lisa Bowen and Denise Silva-
Dennis at the Southampton Arts Center.   DANA SHAW

Artists Lisa Bowen and Denise Silva- Dennis at the Southampton Arts Center. DANA SHAW

Artists Lisa Bowen and Denise Silva-
Dennis at the Southampton Arts Center.   DANA SHAW

Artists Lisa Bowen and Denise Silva- Dennis at the Southampton Arts Center. DANA SHAW

Lisa Bowen with her piece

Lisa Bowen with her piece "Nowedonah's Legacy" at the Southampton Arts Center. DANA SHAW

Lisa Bowen with her piece

Lisa Bowen with her piece "Nowedonah's Legacy" at the Southampton Arts Center. DANA SHAW

Lisa Bowen's

Lisa Bowen's"Nowedonah's Legacy" at the Southampton Arts Center.

Denise Silva-Dennis with some of her work at the Southampton Arts Center.  DANA SHAW

Denise Silva-Dennis with some of her work at the Southampton Arts Center. DANA SHAW

Denise Silva-Dennis with some of her work at the Southampton Arts Center.  DANA SHAW

Denise Silva-Dennis with some of her work at the Southampton Arts Center. DANA SHAW

A QR code to hear Princess Nowedonah read

A QR code to hear Princess Nowedonah read "The Enchanted Spring: American Indian Legend."

author on Mar 1, 2022

Last fall, when Jeremy Dennis, an artist and a member of the Shinnecock Nation, was asked to curate an exhibition for Southampton Arts Center, he eagerly accepted the challenge.

That show, “Outcropping — Indigenous Art Now,” is on view through April 9 and it features work by more than 50 contemporary artists from an array of sovereign nations throughout the United States, including the Shinnecock Nation.

“I’ve known Jeremy and other members of the Shinnecock Nation all the years I’ve been out here and we’ve partnered across all SAC disciplines,” explained Tom Dunn, SAC’s executive director. “Jeremy’s been in many exhibitions and he’s a rising star in our community. I had the thought to invite him to curate a show and he gratefully said yes, and his suggestion was a show featuring exclusively indigenous artists with a focus on Shinnecock artists.

“Naturally, we were incredibly excited about that prospect and we couldn’t be more honored to host it,” he added. “There’s an incredibly high percentage of members of the Nation who characterize themselves as artists, across all disciplines.”

The title of the show — “Outcropping” — refers to the English translation of the word “Shinnecock” as “People of the Stony Shore” and it references the Nation’s historic connection to the land. While the overarching goal of the exhibit and its associated programming is to shine a light on the issues, triumphs and struggles that face Indigenous communities across the country, with March being Women’s History Month, it’s also worth noting the number of female artists who are represented in this show.

Given the important role matriarchs have long played in Indigenous communities, it’s a fact that should come as no surprise. Among the artists with work in “Outcroppings” are several that Dennis has known his entire life — including Lisa Bowen and Denise Silva-Dennis — both of whom pay tribute to ancestral Shinnecock women in their work.

Bowen, 64, is a retired Southampton School District librarian, so it is fitting that her art is a direct outgrowth of her deep interest in history and documentation. Her piece “Nowedonah’s Legacy” is a diptych created within a cigar box and adorned with memorabilia and photographs honoring the late Lois Marie Hunter, also known as Princess Nowedonah, an elder of the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church who fought for the rights of women to take part in tribal elections.

“When I was a little girl, I sat behind her at Shinnecock Presbyterian Church. I thought, ‘Who is this woman?’” Bowen recalled in a recent phone interview. “She always wore white buckskin regalia and she had a presence about her. The cigar box doesn’t even touch it.”

Hunter, who died in 1975 at the age of 71, was born on the Shinnecock Territory in 1903, and from the earliest years of the 20th century through the civil rights era and feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, she witnessed great changes in society. In addition to her work with the Presbyterian Church, she also wrote books, newspaper columns and presented programs on Native American lore and crafts at schools and colleges up and down the East Coast. She also made several audio recordings, including “The Enchanted Spring: An American Indian Legend” which can be accessed by smart phone at the SAC exhibition.

“She made the recording in the ’70s and you can hear her voice narrating an LP,” Bowen explained. “It’s a narrative poem about a place in Sag Harbor, the enchanted spring, and the story of young Indians who would meet there.”

Bowen notes that she’s always been a gatherer of information — a trait she admits she may have picked up from her stepfather, who was a tribal trustee for many years and also a great collector of materials and information.

“I worked on this piece for a while, there were so many documents and photographs I collected,” she said. “I like to consider myself a maker rather than an artist, I sew and do a lot of crafting. There are a combination of different things in that piece. I shrank some of the photos to fit the cigar box.”

There’s something about the use of cigar boxes in her work that intrigues Bowen. Perfect repositories to hold keepsakes and treasures, she finds that the boxes function as the ideal frame for paying tribute to elders like Lois Hunter.

“I’d like to think they’re permanent,” said Bowen. “Princess Nowedonah didn’t have children of her own, but she was a teacher on the reservation for many years. I’m learning so much more about her life. I’m asking people of my generation or older if they can share stories about her. She wrote about other Shinnecock people and lectured all over the island. She taught young girls dancing and embroidery and she enriched the reservation. I’m trying to get to know her more as a person and telling it to the world.

“Women definitely need to be seen and heard more and given more credit for what they do,” she added. “I think about Lois, her education, work history and what she did as a single woman during her lifetime. She was never a trustee, never got to vote in tribal elections or meetings. She had to be a powerful woman. I’m sorry I didn’t have the chance to talk to her.”

Now that she’s retired with more available free time, Bowen is hoping to honor other Shinnecock women through her artwork, including Elizabeth “Chee Chee Thunder Bird” Haile, who died at age 85 in 2015, and Harriet Gumbs, who died last year at the age of 99.

“Harriet’s another one who had seen it all. She and Lois worked together to bring voting rights to the women and they testified at the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission. They were both also entrepreneurs and had trading posts,” said Bowen, hinting at artwork yet to come. “And I have all these cigar boxes.”

For Denise Silva-Dennis, who is Jeremy Dennis’s mother, the connection to Princess Nowedonah is more than tribal — it’s also familial.

“Lois Marie Hunter was my mom’s first cousin,” Silva-Dennis said in a phone interview. “She was a historian, a writer and culture bearer and was also trying to get the rights of women to speak and vote in tribal elections.”

Silva-Dennis, 61, notes that because her parents came from two different tribes — her mother was Shinnecock while her father was from the Hassanamisco-Nipmuc tribe in Massachusetts — being able to have a say in tribal matters was personal for her.

“Growing up in the ’70s, it was women’s liberation that impacted me,” she said. “I remember being a teenager and going to tribal meetings, but we weren’t allowed to speak.

“We only really just got our voice in the early ’90s, when, finally, women could vote for trustees,” she added. “We had to convince other women that we could speak and vote. Some women were even upset, saying, ‘We don’t need to meddle in men’s realm, let them have that.’ Some would argue that if you had a brother or son or husband, they could go represent you. But my father wasn’t from Shinnecock.”

She notes that the exclusion of women’s voices from tribal matters was not a matter of Shinnecock tradition, but rather was a practice imposed upon the community in the 1790s after the arrival of the colonists.

“The white men had the money and power and wouldn’t let their own women vote,” said Silva-Dennis. “Prior to that, the women had equal or even more rights than men. We were in charge of planting and villages, the land was our domain and throughout history, men were whalers and hunters. We were clan mothers, many women signed agreements throughout history.

“This changed in the 1700s with these colonial men,” she added.

Silva-Dennis, who earned her degree in studio art from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, is a retired Southampton Elementary School special education and art teacher. She has two works in the “Outcropping” exhibition. One, titled “Land Back Butter,” is a wry take on the iconic Land O’Lakes butter label depicting a Native American woman. The second piece, titled “Not The Last of the Tenacious Shinnecock Indians,” depicts a map of the Shinnecock Nation’s original lands superimposed with a painting of 13 tribal members inspired by an 1884 photograph that Silva-Dennis found on Wikipedia.

“It references the land grab,” said Silva-Dennis, explaining that the building of the Long Island Rail Road spelled the end of the Shinnecock’s possession of ancestral lands. “The photograph is from 1884 and is supposed to be a celebration of the railroad. On the photo, it said ‘The last of the Shinnecock Indians.’ I repainted it, and made everyone in gray tones, but there’s one girl in orange representing the murdered and the missing. Those who were sent to residential schools, buried in their cemeteries with unmarked graves.

“There were people in that photograph who would have remembered what it was to be free,” she said.

Silva-Dennis credits strong family ties today for bringing so much Shinnecock history and culture back into focus. In addition to curating this SAC exhibition, Jeremy Dennis has created Ma’s House, a new artist residency program, housed in the home of her mother, the late Loretta Silva, (Silva-Dennis was a recent resident artist there). Jeremy Dennis has also been exploring and documenting ancestral stories and important East End sites in his photographic artwork. The strength of the family’s women continues with Silva-Dennis and Avery Dennis Jr.’s daughter, Kelly Dennis, a lawyer who was elected to the Council of Trustees in 2021 and also has artwork in “Outcropping,” including her 2003 piece “Medicine Wheel Large,” in which she references the boarding schools where Native American children were forbidden to acknowledge their heritage or speak their language. Depicted in the piece as a young child is her younger brother, Jeremy. In addition, niece and attorney Tela Troge was involved in the effort to persuade Southampton Town to purchase the tribe’s most sacred burial ground, Sugar Loaf Hill, using Community Preservation Fund revenue and return it to the Shinnecock people, while cousin Rebecca Genia has been very active in calling attention to a variety of important tribal issues.

It’s all a far cry from Silva-Dennis’s youth, when there was a myth circulating that there were no Indigenous populations living on the East Coast.

“When I grew up, we always heard there were no more Native Americans here — and none east of the Mississippi — they were all out west,” said Silva-Dennis. “It was detrimental to those of us who are still here.

“I was amazed when I went to SAC and dropped off my pieces — they were organizing the show in the back — at first it didn’t look like they had much. But when I went to the exhibit, I loved how it is structured. The first space is lined with books for people to do their own research. And they’re good books, too. The resources available are awesome.”

“Outcropping — Indigenous Art Now” will remain on view through April 9. In addition, Shinnecock member, artist and curatorial associate Shane Weeks has designed a full slate of programs around the exhibition, including, on March 5, a birthing workshop led by Amira Nation and Ahna Red Fox.

Southampton Arts Center is located at 25 Jobs Lane in Southampton. For information, visit southamptonartscenter.org or call 631-283-0967.

Upcoming Programs:

Wellness: Sound Meditation – Saturdays, March 5 and March 19, 10:30 a.m.

Relaxing and immersive sound meditation led by Daniel Lauter.

Talk: Indigenous Doula Teaching – Saturday, March 5, at 3 p.m.

Birth workers Amira Nation and Ahna Red Fox lead an informative traditional birth doula workshop. All are encouraged to attend, regardless of race, nationality or gender identity. Amira Nation helps empower all birthing people through every step of their journey, reclaiming tradition and guiding them through this sacred time. Ahna Red Fox runs a small birth work business and is taking on the healthcare system of Shinnecock mothers and infants as a whole. Together, they have incorporated a nonprofit organization with the mission of relearning, reclaiming, and reteaching traditional birth teachings and rites of passage.

Talk: Curator-led Exhibition Tour – Sunday, March 6, at 3 p.m.

Curator and artist Jeremy Dennis will lead a tour of the galleries, discussing various artists and works from around the country. Registration is required.

Studio @ SAC: Shinnecock Regalia Figure Drawing Workshop – Friday, March 11, at 1 p.m.

For this workshop, Shinnecock Nation member and artist Shane Weeks will pose in his traditional regalia. Regalia is the traditional and often sacred clothing, accessories, and objects worn or carried during various ceremonies, including pow wows, celebrations, and social gatherings. Weeks’s regalia is largely self-made. Artist Linda Capello will lead the workshop, exploring techniques of line, mass, gesture, proportion, and foreshortening, starting with short poses and working toward one long pose. Registration is required.

Talk: Exhibition Artist Panel – Saturday, March 12, at 3 p.m.

Exhibition artists will discuss their respective works during an intimate panel discussion, moderated by fellow artist and Shinnecock Indian Nation member Shane Weeks.

Live: Open House Community Gathering + Storytelling – Friday, March 25, at 6 p.m.

Join SAC after hours for a casual community gathering with Shinnecock Nation storytelling. Artists and local community leaders and partners will also be on hand to talk about their work. Shinnecock artists will also be selling their various wares.

Studio: Dream Catcher Workshop – Saturday, March 26, at 3 p.m.

Join Shane Weeks of the Shinnecock Indian Nation for this educational program and create your own dream catcher. This workshop will explore Native American history, and the craft and culture of Native dream catchers. Though the dream catcher has been a widespread Native American practice for centuries, few know of its beginnings. Weeks will shed light on the origins of the dream catcher while leading participants in the art of constructing their own. This program is kid-friendly.

The full list of participating artists in “Outcropping” are: Pauline Leilani Badamo, Matt Ballard, Greg Ballenger, Michael Billie, Lisa Bowen, Joe Don Brave, Tecumseh Ceaser, Leeanna Chipana, Marcus Xavier Chormicle, Mona Cliff, Selena Coverdale, Nathaniel Cummings-Lambert, Dennis Redmoon Darkeem, Jeremy Dennis, Kelly Dennis, Haley Greenfeather English, Jaida Grey Eagle, Vanessa Dion Fletcher, Kaysha Haile, Elisa Harkins, Beth Hazen, Durrell Hunter, Alex Jacobs-Blum, Margaret Jacobs, Chaz John, Jamie R. John, Matthew Kirk, Kite, Ian Kuali’i, Jay Laxton, Cannupa Hanska Luger, Ella Mahoney, David Bunn Martine, Richard Mayhew, Megan McDermott, Jenny Irene Miller, Ehren Natay, Shelley Niro, Krystyna Printup, Tricia Rainwater, Herbert Randall, Eric Roddy, Cara Romero, Denise Silva-Dennis, Skawennati, Gloria Smith, Kevin Umana, Tohanash Tarrant, Shane Weeks and Renelle White.

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