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Native American veterans practice Indigenous art, connect through shared experiences

Veterans learned about block printing and shared artistic interests at the ASU West Valley campus throughout the month of November


Art pieces by Native veterans are displayed in Native Veterans Art Exhibition at the ArtSpace West Gallery on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023 in Phoenix.

Throughout Native American Heritage Month, the University, in collaboration with The Heard Museum's Native Artists Resource Group, displayed prints crafted by Native American veterans along the walls of the ArtSpace West gallery on the West Valley Campus from Nov. 8 to Nov. 22.

The concept was brought to life with two three-day workshops taught by Jacob Meders, an associate professor of interdisciplinary arts and performance. The workshop showed veterans the process of making, carving and block printing — a traditional Indigenous art form. Later, their work was displayed in the ArtSpace West gallery.

Block printing is "carving into blocks and then picking them up and printing them to the press," according to Meders.

"It's not about what you get out of it for yourself, it's about what do you do for others," Meders said. "It's more meaningful."

The Native Veterans Print Exhibition was created by Marcus Monenerkit, the director of community management at the Heard Museum.

"The Native veterans have been healing through the arts for generations," Monenerkit said. "As you know, the past warriors would come home and take part in ceremonies, and that ceremony is art."

For this project, Monenerkit wanted to provide a safe space to "create and to be free and to be with other veterans." 

The printing workshop was not only about the art itself but also the effect it can have on others. 

"Instead, it is focused on the purpose of art. Art is a purposeful activity for us all, and so there's always something behind it," Monenerkit said. "I know that for doing these projects, it is critical for growth and expansion."

Native veterans from varying tribes and branches of the military traveled to Phoenix to attend the two workshops held — one in April and one in October.

David Haff, a U.S. Navy veteran and member of the Lenape Tribe attended both workshop sessions.

"About halfway through, everybody's laughing and joking, and Jacob (Meders) seems to have a way of bringing that energy to the class," Haff said. "And at the same time, you are taught a valuable skill."

For Haff, as an abstract artist known by the name of Ahchipaptunhe, the workshop presents a new art medium.

"It opened a new kind of parallel for my art practice," he said. "And I think what was most impactful was Jacob talking about using printmaking as a way to record history."

For other attendees, the art was a way to channel their emotions and culture.

Keith Anna, a fellow U.S. Navy veteran and member of Lenape Tribe, works with clay forms and prints. Much of his art consists of the Lenape tribal history. 

"I try to do what was in our tribal history and put it into my art," Anna said. 

Within the Lenape Tribe, also called the Delaware Tribe of Indians, there is a helper called Mesingw, who is also known as the hunter spirit. Mesingw helps the three clans by gathering food and teaching children goodness, according to Anna.

"One of the things I have done is I have taken our hunter spirit, the Mesingw, and put him into play," Anna said.

Others, like Fernando SIivers, a Navajo Tribe member and former Marine, draw their inspiration from personal memories. 

"The white butterfly, to my wife and I, is very special to some of the things we had experienced that were heartbreaking," Slivers said, speaking about the block print design he created. "And that white butterfly has become a representation of something good to us."

"I consider it medicine now," he added.

Slivers used abstract figures from Navajo sand painting ideas and Great Plains parfleche styles to represent his wife, who is from the Dakota tribe, and himself in his print.

Sand paintings are used in Navajo tribes as an element in healing ceremonies. A person, known as the Medicine Man, performs these ceremonies by creating sand paintings to ask for help from the gods. Parfleche is a rawhide container and is used mainly by Plains and Western Native Americans.

Outside of printing, Slivers also works with photography, painting and Northern Plains style art on parfleche. 

Many cultures and communities have different ways of expressions, and The Native Veterans Print exhibition was a bonding opportunity for those who incorporate Indigenous heritage into their art and have a shared background in military service.

"Any Indigenous great people have always been artists, whether that be their writing forms or their pottery designs or even beat work and quilt work," Sliver said. "These are things we use everyday. It was all a part of our ancestors' everyday lives."

Edited by Grey Gartin, Sadie Buggle and Caera Learmonth.

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