New Cahokia SocialTech + ArtSpace downtown Phoenix will evoke the spirit of an ancient Midwestern town that was once home to more than 20,000 indigenous peoples and a thriving center of art, knowledge and commerce.
Cahokia, which opens on October 11 in the arts district of Roosevelt Row, was created by co-founders and partners Eunique Yazzie of the Navajo Nation and Melody Lewis, who is Hopi, Tewa and Mojave. Their company is in collaboration with the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation.
Yazzie and Lewis took inspiration from the original Cahokia, the largest pre-Columbian city in North America, which existed from 700 to 1350. It was a confluence of cultures and ideas where artisans, farmers, astronomers, rulers and ordinary people shared their knowledge and traded goods, according to the Washington post. The ancient city was located across the Mississippi River and present-day St. Louis.
The Phoenix Cahokia will have the same purpose as its predecessor thousands of years ago: to bring together the knowledge and creativity of indigenous peoples in a central gathering place.
The 3,000 square foot space inside The Linx PHX The apartment complex will provide galleries and exhibition spaces, retail and coworking spaces, workshops, markets and events for under-represented communities. It’s the first such space in Phoenix and, according to the founders, the first they’ve encountered in the country.
âOur mission is to elevate a thousand creators and social entrepreneurs over the next three years,â said Yazzie, board member of the community development corporation. âSo that’s the number of people that we want to push through this space and really elevate to the next level wherever they are.
âWe want this place to be in the modern sense where indigenous peoples create, innovate and exchange knowledge, tools, resources and ideas. So we are just a creative platform for people to harness their talents and art and develop them even more.
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“We could not continue to operate in a parking lot”
In the fall of 2019, Yazzie and Lewis were introduced by a mutual friend, Shon Quannie, and found they were doing similar work with Indigenous artists, youth, and educators in downtown Phoenix and other parts of Arizona.
Yazzie had founded IndigeDesign collaboration, a group of Indigenous designers and artists who organize events, art markets and conferences on how Indigenous peoples could use design to advance their culture.
Lewis, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Tribal health, a consulting firm that works to improve medical staff in Indigenous communities, had founded a nonprofit called the Indigenous community collaboration which offers educational programs and training in workforce development.
Their work wasn’t the only thing they had in common. Yazzie and Lewis realized that their organizations did not have access to a permanent space to propel their work. Their groups met in cafes, rooftops and other public spaces to share ideas.
When Yazzie and Lewis decided to unite their initiatives to form Cahokia in early 2020, they still didn’t have a dedicated space. The group often met in the parking lot of the Roosevelt Row Visitor Center. They coordinated pop-up markets and organized a poster exhibition and a rotating art exhibition.
âThis space brought in so many artisans and it was amazing,â said Yazzie. âAnd everyone over there for our first event was like, ‘Why aren’t we here in real space?’ We knew we couldn’t keep operating in a parking lot.
“Without having the floor at the table”
Lewis said there was a lack of representation of Indigenous people in decision-making in Phoenix and that’s a big reason there aren’t spaces like Cahokia.
She recalls attending a conference in downtown Phoenix last year that supported small businesses and entrepreneurs with resources and services. There was not a single Indigenous person on the panel, she said.
âThere are 22 nations here in Arizona and we’re not even represented. It was a shock to us, âsaid Lewis. âSo imagine an Aboriginal person trying to get resources without having a say.
Lewis also said that cultural differences between Indigenous communities and outside systems often prevent people from finding opportunities to help them succeed.
“How do you train people with varied mentalities and skills to navigate a system that was not made for them?” Lewis said. âI come from a reserve and I came to a city and I trained. I only did work on the reservation, so come here and try to find out where I’m going? What do I do?
“How can I do what I’m supposed to do and bring it back to my community and vice versa, right?” So having this space is super huge and important for indigenous communities and their work. ”
Cahokia aims to break down the barriers that financially and culturally hamper Indigenous artists and other creatives.
âWe make it accessible,â Lewis said. âWe have different scalable amounts, but we also have an exchange model which means if someone has a skill set or a strength that they can contribute to the development of the space, then we will exchange that in value and not in money.
âSo if they can give a class, a workshop, donate, you know we all work with (them). It’s about meeting people where they are. “
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“The artistic communities had the impression of being expelled”
The flourishing growth of downtown Phoenix has highlighted the need for spaces like Cahokia, Yazzie said.
âA lot of cultural arts communities felt like they were being kicked out,â Yazzie said. âAll the galleries were starting to disappear, and it was a great conversation going on between the creatives in this downtown area, like where all the galleries are when all this development was happening.
âThere aren’t enough housing advocates at the table when town planning is going on and when development companies are negotiating their purchases and someone really says, like, hey, we still need a art space, we always need creative spaces. “
During a board meeting of the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation, Yazzie discovered an opportunity that would lead to the creation of the permanent home of Cahokia.
Real estate developer CA Ventures came to Roosevelt Row with the idea of ââincorporating an art space on the ground floor of one of its developments. Yazzie and Lewis introduced the Cahokia concept to the board of directors last January and in March the space was approved and under construction. Cahokia rents space at Roosevelt Row.
âWhat we really had to do was prove to them that we could use that space and turn it into something that was badly needed,â Yazzie said. âThe (Black Lives Matter) movement really sparked this conversation about how, you know the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) community doesn’t have access to this stuff.
How does Cahokia work?
Since its smooth opening on September 17, the space has hosted youth events, art markets, virtual lectures, art exhibitions, and even the debate on Hopi tribal leaders ahead of the tribal elections.
Lewis and Yazzie said the creation of Cahokia was 100% self-funded and managed by them and 15 members. Members decide which events to organize and with whom they wish to collaborate. As Cahokia continues to grow, the group hopes to find community partners who align with their goals to help fund or sponsor their initiatives.
âNo one is rejected,â Yazzie said. âWe are all working on it together. We have lights, we have bills. It’s just things we all naturally know that are going to come into play. How can we together strategize to pay for a space like this and be sustainable using all of our resources and stay in downtown Phoenix? And it is really a challenge.
“We see value in our stories”
Although Yazzie, Lewis, and the rest of the Cahokia members are still getting to know their new space and how to maintain it in what appears to be an ever-changing landscape, they are certain of a goal.
âFor us, it’s kind of an investment in the community and a challenge for my own peers to be part of our own economic development,â Yazzie said. âHow can we together create funds to run places like this or get places like this for our communities?
It’s an innate state of mind, Lewis said.
âIt’s something very natural for indigenous peoples to recognize each other. We see value in our stories, in our profession and in our skills. “
Inauguration of Cahokia
When: 7-10 p.m. on Monday October 11, which is Indigenous Peoples Day.
Or: 707 N. Third Street, Phoenix.
Admission: General admission is free. Afterparty tickets cost $ 25 and include performances by Mato Wayuhi and Foreshadow. VIP tickets cost $ 50 and include the afterparty, a loot bag, and other perks. Get tickets at https://www.eventbrite.com.
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