If you walk away with anything after visiting the Native American art exhibit on UNC Charlotte’s campus, the artists hope it’s the understanding that Native Americans are a diverse people who can cling to the traditions of their past while still embracing the offerings of the present.
“Four Directions: A Journey Through Native American Art” is a blend of traditional and contemporary pieces by both professional and student artists.
Sponsored by the Native American Student Organization, also known as Niner Natives, the exhibit runs through the end of the month inside UNCC’s Student Union Art Gallery.
November is Native American Heritage month, a designation created in 1990 to celebrate the cultures and traditions of Native American tribes across the nation.
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North Carolina recognizes eight tribes in the state – Coharie, Waccamaw Siouan, Lumbee, Meherrin, Haliwa-Saponi, Sappony, the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee is the state’s only federally recognized tribe, allowing it certain benefits and protections, and the right to self-govern.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 122,110 American Indians reside in North Carolina.
“North Carolina has a thriving population of native people,” said Brandie Macdonald, president of Niner Natives. “It has the largest population of Native American people east of the Mississippi.”
Macdonald, 29, an applied anthropology and museum studies major at UNCC, is Chickasaw and Choctaw on her mother’s side, and Scottish on her father’s side.
Her artwork, made from mainly recycled bicycle parts is titled “Assimilation,” and conveys her feelings toward the Native Americans’ gradual swap from traditional culture to more Colonial identities.
“You see the whiskey, and the snake, which is sacred, and broken glass, which is supposed to represent the Indian behind glass. The Indian on display,” said Macdonald, of the piece.
In the exhibit, the old mixes with the new. Above “Assimilation” hangs traditional Apache burden baskets.
“You put your burdens in and you forget about them,” said Evan Mathis, 20, a descendant of the Eastern band of Cherokee Indian. “I remember hearing the story when I was little.”
Mathis, an anthropology and history major, has studied Cherokee history and culture in detail.
His display of Cherokee basketry shows how baskets were made then and now, from walnut tree bark and bloodroot used during the dying process, to the kinds of river cane used to weave.
Macdonald estimates that 100 students on campus identify themselves as Native American. Niner Natives has 12 members and meets once a month to discuss issues facing Native Americans, and to celebrate the culture of the people.
Having Native American lineage isn’t required for membership.
“We have a lot of students who attend that are not native, but that’s what we want,” said Macdonald. “We want to be able to educate who Native American people are, that we’re still here, and that we can be traditional and contemporary at the same time. We’re working for the benefit of our future.”