FARGO — Five years ago, Fargo's Plains Art Museum launched the Creativity Among Native American Artists (CANAA) initiative to support Indigenous artists from the region.

Since its inception, the program has played an important role in continuing and replenishing traditions throughout its programming.

“We are so proud of the important work that has been done through this initiative,” says Plains Director and CEO Andrew Maus. Going into 2020, upcoming plans will expand on the efforts.

From exhibitions to outreach programming, CANAA represents a glimpse into the culture of Indigenous artists from across the Dakotas and around the Midwest. Over the years, countless people have engaged in conversations about Indigenous artistic traditions, sacred ties and societal issues affecting Indigenous women.

Native American Arts Program Director Laura Youngbird has worked tirelessly to offer this dynamic programming and elevate Indigenous voices. As an artist and educator, Youngbird has a deep connection to the community. She’s an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe's Grand Portage Band as well as a member of the FM Indigenous Community Circle, Daughters of the Earth and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women task force.

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Soon to retire from her role as director of the Plains Art Museum's Native American Art Programs, Laura Youngbird currently resides in Breckenridge, Minn. Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership
Soon to retire from her role as director of the Plains Art Museum's Native American Art Programs, Laura Youngbird currently resides in Breckenridge, Minn. Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership

Youngbird cultivates relationships with local artists and engages them with solo and group exhibitions, residencies, workshops and outreach to the Plains galleries as well as local venues, including the Fargo Public Library, Fargo Theatre and North Dakota State University.

From film screenings to creative talks, CANAA programming brings issues affecting the surrounding Native American communities to the forefront.

“It’s really great that so many people come here and find the differences and nuances,” Youngbird says about art such as Brad Kahlhamer’s exhibition organized by the Minnesota Museum of American Art.

Brad Kahlhamer’s art explores notions of cultural hybridity and the experience of navigating multiple communities as well as the representation and appropriation of Native American culture. Cody Jacobson / Plains Art Museum
Brad Kahlhamer’s art explores notions of cultural hybridity and the experience of navigating multiple communities as well as the representation and appropriation of Native American culture. Cody Jacobson / Plains Art Museum

On display until Jan. 25, Kahlhamer's “A Nation of One” cuts across cultural traditions with “tribally ambiguous,” multilayered motifs and themes in his work.

“Art is a good way to make people understand, and I’m always happy to help,” continues the Native community leader.

Working alongside Youngbird on the Native American Arts Program, Joe Williams is set to take over as director following Youngbird’s retirement next year.

Originally starting as an intern with the Plains Art Museum, Joe Williams is set to move up from associate to director of the museum's Native American Art Programs. Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership
Originally starting as an intern with the Plains Art Museum, Joe Williams is set to move up from associate to director of the museum's Native American Art Programs. Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership

With a background in storyboarding and over 20 years of service with the U.S. Army, including three active deployments, Williams’ Native American roots come from the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe in South Dakota. During his time as a civil affairs specialist in the Middle East, Williams gained insight on the power of civil outreach.

“We need to have both communities coming in and responding to our programming for us to be relevant,” Williams says about attracting both Native American and non-Native audiences. “The biggest thing for us is we need to identify what the needs of the community are.”

Serving as a geographical center of sorts for the Indigenous communities, the Plains Art Museum plans to actively connect Fargo to regional centers like Rapid City, S.D., and Minnesota's Fergus Falls and St. Paul.

Maus says the museum is gearing up for the relaunch and expansion of the Creative Community Leadership Institute along with the Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul and Fergus Falls and Racing Magpie in Rapid City, along with the support of the Bush Foundation.

“This leadership institute is for artists, culture bearers, creatives and community leaders, and will intentionally work within the region’s Native Nations as well as other communities every year beginning in 2020," he says.

During a past Creative Voices talk, multimedia artist Brad Kahlhamer and sculptor Aaron Spangler discuss their careers in front of a packed house at Fargo's Plains Art Museum. Falcon Gott / Special to the Forum
During a past Creative Voices talk, multimedia artist Brad Kahlhamer and sculptor Aaron Spangler discuss their careers in front of a packed house at Fargo's Plains Art Museum. Falcon Gott / Special to the Forum

As a part of the 6:30 pm CCLI Relaunch coming up on Tuesday, Dec. 3, a simultaneous broadcast between the tri-state organizations will feature artist Keith BraveHeart (Oglala Lakota) with a short reflection on the importance of creativity in community change-making.

Among the other CANAA projects expected for 2020 is the highly anticipated solo exhibition from contemporary Native American artist Dyani White Hawk starting in March.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net.