Traveling trunks possess a kind of charged energy that can carry a wealth of information. Like our bodies, they tell stories and hold intangible power. Traveling trunks, also known by the French word, parfleche, were used by many nomadic groups in the United States, including my people, the Lakota. There are many different shapes of rawhide containers to carry a variety of items such as food, medicines, clothing, and other personal items. The containers are made from raw hides of either buffalo or deer and painted with intricate designs. Collectively, the lines, forms, and colors can identify tribal affiliation and whom the trunk belongs to; it is also a record for mapping the land. I use this travel technology to think about how vessels hold knowledge and are keepers of ancient connections. The traveling trunk is the foundation of my work.
I come from a spiritual people who are known as Oglala (Scatter Their Own). The Lakota-speaking people bear a network of data older than our existence on earth. How do I place myself within this context? I grew up with Lakota elders repetitively letting me know that I have responsibilities to my people and that our movements affect the next generations. But generational trauma, erasure, and internal settler limitations play a different tune within my life. Navigating contemporary existence is unpacking, unlearning, and reconnecting in order to heal.
My upbringing began on the Reservation of Pine Ridge in so-called South Dakota where my family lived next to the Cheyenne Creek. My grandma kept a junk drawer in her kitchen where I would find and make tools to play with in the dirt. I think this is where my interest in collecting and making comes from. After high school, I attended an Indigenous arts college, the only one of its kind in the country where Indigenous art practices, histories, and knowledge are the center of our learning. Between semesters, I had the privilege of working at my local heritage center on the reservation. I learned how to care for and store cultural objects. These objects held importance and knowledge for my body. Being in a room filled with charged materials gave me a sense of peace and protection while connecting me to my relatives and culture.
There are Indigenous cultural practices that require the actions of labor to diligently be present in your body. As a printmaker, I was drawn to papermaking because of its ability to repurpose accessible materials like copy paper, and because paper can be fragile, easy to break, and consumed by any element. I was introduced to a DIY papermaking method that involves a smoothie blender, water, used screens, and a couple of boards. Papermaking requires my entire body and strength. I collect, tear, pulp, strain, press, then air dry. This routine calls for my back, legs, arms, and hands to be fully engaged in labor. I have learned that my work has aspects of record keeping, storing a moment, memory, and action through caretaking from start to finish. Repurposing paper into new forms gives me a sense of agency.
For my installation titled Visitation, I repurposed books of outdated research and misrepresented rhetoric about numerous Indigenous Nations. This project centered around a beaded Lakota-style dress that ended up at a small museum in Roswell, New Mexico, along with the books. The museum removed most of the outdated books from their library, and I tore apart and pulped the paper until it no longer resembled a document. There are traces of its history, but mostly it has been washed out. Instead, they became traveling trunks in response to the Lakota dress, which—like many Indigenous objects in museum collections—had little to no context. The handmade paper traveling cases would remind the dress of where it came from and that it will be saved one day.
That project led to another sculptural paper installation titled Enduring that incorporated leather, porcupine quills, and thread. The clean surface provided me with a sense of peace, a place to hide, a safe place. There is also a sense of self-embodiment in these pieces. When I use paper to make other forms, such as boxes, they feel as though they were made from a handmade membrane. This is a version of skin made from the seemingly endless stream of paper products flooding the landscape.
Understanding the reciprocity between the tangible and the action of making is healing, as expressed through my handmade paper traveling trunks. I approach this work with Indigenous methodologies of values, protocols, relationships, community, relationality, and sovereignty, with Lakota art practices and materiality steering the direction of my overall practice. I have had the opportunity to learn from many other Indigenous friends from Chemehuevi, Apache, Hopi, Tohono O’odham, Dakota, Ojibwe, Diné, Kiowa, Yakama, Cheyenne, Yaqui, Pueblo, and Yupik, and I have an infinite appreciation for the people in my life and the teachings they have shared with me. All these elements are crucial to acknowledge, as they are what ground me in my work.
. The Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
. The Red Cloud Heritage Center in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.