A week from the election, this poster harnesses the power of Native voting rights
A young Native woman smiles softly, wearing a teal T-shirt paired with dentalium earrings.
“Voting is one way we fight for our future,” the poster reads. “Together we have power!”
This design, titled “Our Future,” evokes Shepard Fairey’s 2008 Obama “Hope” poster. That makes sense given that the artist behind it, Ernesto Yerena, just collaborated with Fairey on a “Stop Fascism” screen print.
The photographer who took the portrait of the poster’s model has ties to Fairey too. Arlene Mejorado co-created the “Defend Dignity” graphic with the designer in 2017.
IllumiNative, a Tulsa, Okla.-based nonprofit that works to increase Native visibility, collaborated with Yerena, Mejorado and the model for the poster, Shalene Joseph, who hails from the Gros Ventre and Athabascan peoples. Together, they released “Our Future” for Indigenous Peoples Day earlier this month.
“Really, Indigenous Peoples Day for us is every day,” Joseph said, referring to the October holiday. “This is our everyday lives. And this is other people’s opportunity to take a peek, but also to continue forward in understanding: Whose land do we occupy? And whose territories are we voting on? And what do we benefit from it?”
For Joseph, who coordinates projects at the Native Wellness Institute, that means Chinook territory where she lives in Portland, Ore. Although the artwork celebrates Indigenous Peoples Day, its message extends much further — at least until the election next month.
“Voting is just one way for our voice to be heard in halls that necessarily haven’t always upheld our voices or the treaties that we have made over time,” Joseph said. “I think voting isn’t the end all, but it is a piece of the puzzle to helping create the communities that we know are sustainable and empowering the voices of all people.”
Crystal Echo Hawk, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, is also the founder and chief executive of IllumiNative. To her, voting represents one way Indigenous peoples can achieve transformational change for their communities — it’s one of “many tools in our tool belt,” she said.
“Our electorate is pretty engaged, but we also found that young voters are really questioning: Does their vote matter?” Echo Hawk said. “And there’s a really high degree of distrust in the U.S. government based on their treatment of Native peoples.”
IllumiNative and Echo Hawk just conducted the largest survey ever done among Native Americans: the Indigenous Futures Survey, which reached more than 6,400 Native peoples, representing 401 tribes from 50 states.
“Over 70% of our people surveyed voted in the last election, and we are going to be decisive,” Echo Hawk said. “The Native vote is going to be really decisive in battleground states. … We’re not a population that should be ignored.”
Native Americans, of course, are everywhere. They made up an estimated 5.7 million Americans in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That number increased 39% between 2000 and 2018 — their numbers are only growing.
And yet, Echo Hawk said, there remains a “significant percentage” of Americans who aren’t even sure if Indigenous peoples exist on the continent anymore. The Reclaiming Native Truth project of 2016-2018 found that 87% of K-12 state history standards do not mention Native American history after 1900.
“I think in centering this beautiful, powerful Indigenous woman on that poster with a message that is universal, I mean, that speaks to the core of our mission,” Echo Hawk said.
IllumiNative’s mission channels the power of pop culture to effect change. In a world where Native women are often being sexualized in the sliver of inclusion they do have (0% to .04% in TV and film, according to a “Journal of Social Issues” study), representation matters.
“This powerful representation of a young woman who is organizing in her community, who’s a leader in her own right, and the power of that tells a different story of our women,” Echo Hawk said.
“Typically, this time of year too, around Halloween, it’s usually when you see some of the most egregious cultural appropriation or Native women being oversexualized in these ‘PocaHottie’ costumes.”
Yerena, the artist, thought of Joseph right off the bat for the “Our Future” artwork. The young activist strives to help Indigenous people rise and surrounds herself with strong women.
“I have been very privileged to be born into a community where I can say I know where I’m from, and to have been to that place,” Joseph said. “I come from a matriarchy of just amazing women who have taught me what it means to be a Native woman in today’s time and the power and strength that has been passed down.”
She looks at her grandmother and her sisters, she said, and sees resiliency, strength and beauty. They empower her to follow their lead: to work toward healing in their communities.
“I think visibility is such an important thing for not only Indigenous people, but people of color at large,” Joseph said. “There’s so many stories that we hold, and that we have ready to tell. And they’re important stories, and they need to be heard on any level, whether that’s through filmmaking, through photography, through art or through voting.”
For Indigenous women, in particular, visibility can be a matter of life and death. The Indigenous Futures Survey found that, among concerns like access to mental health care and caring for elders, protecting Native women and girls ranks high as an urgent issue for Native American people.
In 2016, the National Crime Information Center reported 5,712 missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls. Only 116 of those cases were logged in the U.S. Department of Justice federal missing persons database.
“The invisibility of contemporary Native peoples today is profound,” Echo Hawk said. “What that invisibility does in itself is it creates its own implicit bias. Native Americans today are out of sight, out of mind.”
The “Our Futures” poster, with its vibrant turquoise, salmon and mustard, aims to change that.
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