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Tradition versus innovation. Authenticity versus stereotype. Pride versus pain. To be a Native artist in today’s contemporary landscape is to constantly juggle centuries-old tensions, frequently echoed within the history of one’s chosen artistic medium. ‘The visual aesthetics of Indigenous communities are innately tied to alternative media that have often fallen into the category of “craft,”’ says John P. Lukavic, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Native Arts at the Denver Art Museum, one of the first American institutions to collect Indigenous arts.

For centuries, ‘Indigenous people have expressed many aspects of themselves through regalia, beadwork, embroidery patterns, animal skins, and feathers that also express family ties or clans, life accomplishments and spiritual beliefs,’ says Kent Monkman, a Canadian First Nations artist of Cree ancestry. The interdisciplinarian is known for his charged paintings critiquing colonization, as well as his performances as his gender-fluid alter-ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. ‘Art was not separate from other aspects of life, so creativity was and still is expressed through clothing and the creation of ceremonial and everyday objects.’

‘Being put under this umbrella of “Native American art” is an added layer of boundary-breaking that we must do, not only to be considered craftspeople, but also to be considered fine artists,’ she says. Having grown up in the post-Assimilation Era – the period between 1887 and 1934, when the US government enacted several policies, such as forced boarding schools, to effectively eradicate Indigenous culture – Cody experiences another tension many fellow Indigenous artists must navigate: honoring and preserving what has been lost, while reinvigorating the fiber arts for present and future generations. ‘I’ve had to angle myself in multifaceted ways to elevate craft and, at the same time, hold true to the handmade quality of Navajo textiles and the medium’s cultural significance,’ says Cody, who hopes ‘to open doors’ for up-and-coming artists. She frequently teaches weaving workshops for both Native and non-Native hobbyists and aspiring artists of all ages. ‘I want them to have validation and to harness that voice to create work that’s going to be considered traditional 50 or 100 years from now.’

An antidote to the ‘textbook’ perception of ‘the old grandmother weaving a blanket outside in the desert sun,’ Cody aims to create ‘something that’s exciting and speaks to an individual story as opposed to weaving cookie-cutter template textiles.’ For example, she occasionally integrates personal or tongue-in-cheek phrases, such as ‘I am Navajo Barbie,’ into her designs, and opts for Technicolor hues over more traditional, muted ones.

Cody’s preferred ‘Germantown palette’ comes with a very dark past, which is equally important to her work. The Germantown Revival movement emerged after the Long Walk (1863–68), a devastating period in which the US military forced more than 10,000 Native American people to leave their territories and migrate to a military camp. During this time, the government supplied rationed wool and blankets, made in Germantown, Pennsylvania, to Navajo women, who would unravel the saturated, commercially dyed yarns and weave them in their own styles. ‘Even in this really dire time of us being on the brink of extermination, there was still a creative energy,’ says Cody. ‘This was a lifeline in terms of our survival.’

In that same spirit of reinvention, Cody is always looking to push her weaving forward. She has recently been experimenting with the Jacquard machine loom, which allows for more intricate patterning and texture, with about 1,200 colors available as opposed to 125 on a traditional Navajo loom. Expanding on her handwork, Cody enjoys revisiting past compositions and reconfiguring them in ways a Navajo loom wouldn’t allow. ‘The possibilities are seemingly endless.’

–Stephanie Sporn

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