Room for Craft
DECEMBER 2016: ASA WRIGHT AND COURTNEY COCHRAN
On the northernmost point of Oceti Sakowin in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, in the first bite of bitter Plains winter, a collaborative camp known as IP3 has been established. The collection of tents is hosted by the Indigenous People’s Power Project (IP3), an Indigenous-led nonviolent direct action training and support network, in collaboration with the International Indigenous Youth Council, Indigenous Environmental Network, and Thunder Valley Community Development Corp. IP3 is the tip of the tongue of camp, closest to the front lines where water protectors come into contact with the armored and armed individuals protecting Energy Transfer Partners’ interests. Here, flank to flank with the tent where the Indigenous People’s Power Project coordinates their daily direct action trainings, the art-for-action tent is a hive of activity. Artists choreograph in tight quarters their repeated movements of pulling ink over silkscreen, cutting cloth, painting banners—all while contorting their bodies to avoid bumping against wet paint and the wood stove that warms the tent. Outside, children and adults of all ages spray paint canvas banners which will stream, dragon-like, overhead in frontline actions. The primary goal of this group of artists is to produce screen-printed patches to outfit water protectors.
Though the art-for-action tent has just closed its open hours for screen printing, activity has not stopped, but only slowed as artists continue their work. Hopper editor Anna Mullen sits down in the just-dark windy winter evening between two tents with three artists. Asa Wright is a Klamath/Modoc artist helping organize the art-for-action tent. Originally from Chiloquin, Oregon, Asa now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works as a painter, graphic designer, tattoo artist, screen printer, and co-founder of the Portland Two Spirit Society. Two students from Minneapolis College of Art and Design, who have been helping with screen printing, join the conversation. Courtney Cochran, of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, is a sophomore studying filmmaking. Alexis Politz of Dallas is a senior studying illustration and printmaking; she sits with us and, not identifying as a Native person, decides to actively listen instead of speak.
Anna Mullen: I’m curious: do you have a body of water that is especially important to you?
Asa Wright: Mine’s Klamath Lake. My tribe, we didn’t move around like these guys here—[the Sioux]. We stayed stationary. Everything that we used or needed came from that lake. That’s where we’ve been this whole time, and we’re really close to Crater Lake, too, which is where our spiritual leaders go, so that’s like our sacred spot. All of our subsistence comes from that lake and so water’s very important to us.
Courtney Cochran: Probably Lake Superior, up in Duluth, mainly 'cause I was raised up there and spent a lot of time down by the lake.
AM: Were you thinking about that place when you came here?
CC: No, actually, I was thinking about my son. But if, you know, the water in the womb can count, I guess . . . . I think a lot about him in coming up here, and about my grandchildren.
AM: If the water in the womb doesn’t count, then I don’t know what does. Asa, how long have you been here?
AW: This is my second time here and I’ve been here for three weeks now.
AM: Has art looked the same here since the beginning or has it changed?
AW: It’s constantly changing. The room is constantly changing. Every day it’s set up different, it seems like. We're trying to get the patches out and trying to get banners out. But, this—literally three weeks ago—this didn’t have any solid walls. There was wind coming through. The stove’s only been in there for four or five days. We were doing this all by propane, little heaters, and no heat, sometimes. It’s also solar powered, so sometimes we don’t have lights because we don’t have enough solar power. They got a generator just two days ago, so we might be able to use that if we need to . . . . Yeah, this building has been changing every day for the last three weeks.
AM: What do you want people to know about the art that's happening here?
CC: That it’s very community-based. Everyone's welcome. It's a lot of healing and a lot of making friends and getting to know each other. And it’s almost like a spiritual healing time for us to be making the art and spreading more awareness. It’s really comforting to be able to come here—since, you know, we’re so used to creating art—and be in this environment with all these great people. It’s definitely a really welcoming, loving, safe space.
AW: It's the visual voice of what's going on at the front lines, and the visual voice of the camp, really. You know, that's how a lot of information is being passed—through art, and through these patches, and through frontline actions, people are starting to see these visuals and they're wanting to have a piece of it. And through wanting to have a piece of it, they're talking about it, and they’re talking to people who don’t know what Standing Rock is, what’s happening with the pipeline, so it filters down into information and dialogue between people. It’s really become worldwide, too. I ended up making a thirty-foot banner the other day with a broken piece of wood, a pencil, and some canvas, and the other day that went international, worldwide, all over online. So it’s like, you think that it’s not very important or you think it’s just an outlet for people, but really it does become the visual context of what’s happening here.
And it becomes a way to talk about the underlying framework, which I think is the most important thing that hasn’t been vocalized yet. The whole point of everybody being in this camp and standing here is clean water, but the underlying idea is sovereignty and treaty rights. A lot of non-Natives don’t understand what sovereignty is or what treaties are in general, and so it also creates a dialogue for that discussion: What is that? What does that mean?
It’s all community-driven, so you really have to come in with a community mindset of Okay, in which little pocket community in this whole camp do my skills best fit? instead of What can you guys do for me? And then you kinda gotta hop through and figure that out. And I think that’s the difference, too, between this and urban settings: you don’t just pass by your neighbor in the morning and not look them in the eye. Here: Good morning! How are you? How long have you been in camp? Where you camped at right now? So there’s always constant dialogue going around.
AM: Do you feel like people here take advantage of your work as an artist?
AW: When you’re here in camp, I think what keeps bringing people back is the feeling of being connected to something, so I think that with these patches, everyone wants to be a part of the group, you know? And so whether they go to the front lines or not, they wanna look like everybody else. And so these patches become a really big thing, kinda like they're honorary. “I've been to the front lines, so I have a patch.” But then people who don’t feel comfortable going to the front lines for whatever reason also want that same kind of feeling. So it’s hard, 'cause I think sometimes a lot of people come over here with the idea that they’re just gonna get something for free. We’ve kind of helped curb that by asking people to help out in the art tent. Just volunteer for a couple hours and earn your patch that way. It’s kind of like a barter system or give-and-take. I think people just want to be connected to what’s going on.
AM: Well, it’s refreshing for me, you know, because I think there’s a big effort to move away from transactional economies here. There’s a difference between Here, thank you, thank you for your time and your work, I’d like to donate, and Can I buy this? Can I buy this? Is that different from your daily life as an artist where you’re trying to sell your work?
AW: I like it better. I'm one of them starving artists 'cause I don't like to put prices on stuff. That feels really uncomfortable to me, and really impersonal. I feel like I put so much of myself into my art, that to put a meaningless number on it is really hard for me. So, I actually really like it out here 'cause I get to work and do the thing that I love to do, and I haven't asked anybody for anything, but, like, half the clothes I'm wearing today are 'cause somebody was like Here! Let me trade this for that. Or, Thanks for making my shirt, I brought you a can of salmon. I don’t even ask for things but they just show up.
AM: What do you feel isn’t being heard? What’s missing in the existing media coverage?
CC: I hear a lot about all the stuff that’s going on at the front lines. I don’t really hear a lot of stuff about the sense of community and how everyone just has such a big heart and everyone’s willing to help you and sit down and talk with you and just be extremely supportive. This community is amazing. I walk past anybody and they always greet me like I’ve been their friend forever.
AW: I think too, the level of hard work people are doing here. People are physically, you know, working here, every day—chopping wood, cooking three meals a day. You know, that’s a lot of food. That’s a lot of work. Everybody steps up to volunteer in some way or another. When I first got here, I was sorting food for the kitchen, and then I would help sort clothes, and then I found my way here, and I’ve just been here ever since. And I chopped wood for a week. I helped winterize a bunch of different camps just jumping in with people I knew, here and there, building floors and building walls. It’s funny 'cause you hear a lot of negative things on social media just like Those Indians, those hippies over there just need to go get real jobs. And it’s like, we’re not just hanging out here camping, having a good time. We’re really working and building community here. The majority of the people here are working people. They’re professionals. They have their own businesses and they’ve managed somehow to make that work while living here at Standing Rock. That’s an amazing feat—to have all these working professionals, all these people, students coming when they can . . . it’s amazing to think we have thousands of people like that here and we’re all working together.
AM: I know you’re working on some of your own screen designs. Do you work around other people or find your own space?
AW: Yeah, other people. We close here at sundown and so we really try to keep this space limited after that so we can repair things, get things in working order, and do inventory, and stuff like that. So that we can stay productive.
AM: Who do you find yourselves turning to again and again for ideas for your art?
CC: A lot of art I do is self-taught, until I came to college. I usually use my culture, or past traumas, or my son, or the death of my mom, and just a lot of cultural and family values I put in my art. I look to local artists in Minneapolis—local Native artists. The work that I do is a lot of healings through my artwork, with lineage and history in it.
AM: Courtney, you mentioned the spiritual healing in this work. I’m wondering, Asa, when you're in the thick of it——like today, when you’re exhausted——do you feel that, or is it like an aftershock? Do you have to retreat from the work you’re doing to feel that sense of healing?
AW: I don't feel it till it's bedtime. It's constantly rejuvenating, if that makes any sense, because, yeah, it's overwhelming and you got like 500 people at the door wanting something screen printed. But then also you get people who are so appreciative that they’re getting to come in this space and that they’re getting a patch and that they’re getting to meet you, and they’re just happy to be here in camp. I think it's kind of infectious. You'll be like, Oh my gosh, I'm getting tired, or Oh my gosh, I need some food, and then somebody will look at you and be like, You want a sandwich? And you’ll be like Yeah I do, that's exactly what I need right now!
AM: And who do you turn to most for inspiration?
AW: Definitely cultural background stuff. Right now I'm really inspired by my peers in my community who are artists. It's always good to be around other artists because they push you to do more and they push you to do better. They push new ideas your way. I think it's good to be in a creative space with a bunch of people. You're like Oh, I didn't think of that! Or, Oh, I haven't used that before!
So it's cool being around other artists, especially from such extreme backgrounds. 'Cause, like, Clarity, in here—she does screen but she also does giant murals in New York City. And I'm like, Man, that's awesome, I wanna do murals! I mean, it really gets you thinking and asking questions and sharing information, and I think that's really inspiring. It's hard to leave here at night, 'cause you're just, like, so caught up in the energy of everybody. I just wanna be at the art tent all day.
As of December 20, 2016, both Asa and Courtney express their desire to return to Oceti Sakowin and their concerns over Energy Transfer Partners and the incoming administration. “I think that Energy Transfer Partners has too much money to lose and will do whatever it takes to finish this pipeline,” cautions Asa over email. “We need to stay vigilant because the fight is not over!” adds Courtney.