Billings billboard project celebrates Crow culture with public art

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Sandwiched on a strip of prairie between Monad and Laurel roads, a billboard in Billings celebrating the Apsáalooke Nation proclaims “The Land Remembers.”

Part of a series of 53 billboards that were installed earlier this month across the United States, the artwork on display is part of a campaign called “Another Justice: By Any Medium Necessary” and launched by For Freedoms, a national advocacy organization for artists and the arts. facilities in public spaces.

Participating artists and activists were asked, “What does justice mean to you? »

For Nina Sanders, the answer was “Apsáalooke Immaachikittúua Chichéhche. The earth remembers.

“It’s something we created out of love for our community and the center of our universe – Crow Country.”

Bethany Yellowtail

“It ties into our people, our culture and our power,” explained Sanders, who joined fellow Apsáalooke members JoRee LaFrance and Bethany Yellowtail to create the billboard. “In three parts, we remind people that your land, your culture and your people are your power.”

Claudia Peña is the executive director of For Freedoms, a national, artist-led social justice organization founded in 2016 that uses billboards to start conversations.

“Billboards have primarily been used to market products, and we, as artists, are very interested in marketing ideas,” Peña said. “It’s also a public space that everyone has access to, so it democratizes access to art, and we’re very interested in proliferating what are considered civic spaces.”

Peña described the campaign as a way to promote more nuanced conversations about social justice. For Freedoms involved people with different experiences and ties to justice in the billboard project, including people currently or formerly incarcerated, victims of crime and their loved ones, law enforcement , public defenders, abolitionists… “almost every perspective you can have — especially from a criminal justice perspective — is included in this campaign,” Peña said.

‘THE EARTH REMEMBERS’

The Billings panel features an image of four Apsáalooke people, including Sanders and LaFrance, as well as KamiJo Whiteclay and Rusty LaFrance, on horseback. They are adorned with beaded badges and contemporary fashion designs created by Yellowtail, a Los Angeles-based fashion designer whose heritage stems from the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes.

“It’s something we created out of love for our community and the center of our universe – Crow Country,” said Yellowtail, who grew up on the land where the photo was taken, in Wyola’s Mighty Few District. , Montana. . “I grew up in the fields,” she says. “This is my garden.”

“Our bodies are made of the earth that we walk on, and when we return to Earth, all of those memories and things are washed away, and that’s part of the cycle. Your ancestors are the earth. You are the earth.

Nina Sander

There’s power and pride in the resulting image, which comes from a series of photos taken in October 2019 by Erica Elan Ciganek, who is based in Long Beach, Calif. The images represent years of work preparing to launch a collection of native-designed clothing in Chicago as part of the “Apsáalooke Women and Warriors” exhibit, which opened in March 2020 at the Field Museum.

“I’m a visual person, so I express myself through art, fashion, and textiles,” Yellowtail said. “I can create the things I want to say without saying them.”

For the words included on the billboard, Yellowtail relied on Sanders and LaFrance.

“‘Immaachikittúua’ is about showing respect for all things,” said LaFrance, a Dartmouth graduate who is working on her doctorate in the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona. “From our perspective, that means caring for the mountains, for the water – for all beings there, and caring for each other, our families, and respecting each other.”

Sanders, who lives in Chicago and works as a curator and consultant, began studying Immaachikittúua while curating the exhibit at the Field Museum. It’s a word she’s heard all her life in connection with the spiritual ecology of the Apsáalooke people. In the “Women and Warriors” exhibit catalog, Sanders shared the story of Iichiikbaaliia, the first creator of the Crow people. “Iichiikbaaliia asked people to live in a way that considers all living things and told them that it was their responsibility to care for the Earth and her creatures, and to honor the many gifts that ‘they received.” The way of being is described as “Immaachikittúua”.

“Our bodies are made of the earth that we walk on,” Sanders said, “and when we return to Earth, all of those memories and things are taken away, and that’s part of the cycle. Your ancestors are the earth. You are Earth.

JoRee LaFrance (left) and Bethany Yellowtail pose in front of a billboard erected in West Billings as part of a nationwide For Freedoms initiative called ‘Another Justice: By Any Medium Necessary’. Credit: Robyn Iron

The Apsáalooke Women and Warriors Exhibit, heading to Bozeman this month, is the largest exhibit of Apsáalooke culture and artifacts organized by Aboriginal people. The exhibit includes contemporary Apsáalooke art and fashion paired with historical artifacts from the Field Museum archives. Sacred war shields and medicine bundles that once belonged to Crow families are on display alongside modern works, all curated by Sanders in conjunction with tribal members. The exhibition opens May 28 at the Museum of the Rockies and will be on view until the end of the year.

Yellowtail has worked on social justice issues in Los Angeles for several years. “I’m often the only Indigenous woman in the room, and I give them that grounding and that perspective to remind them of how we think about justice and Indigenous people in general,” she said. “I feel very lucky to have the worldview of Apsáalooke Country. … Seeing this billboard, it feels like everything is coming full circle.

The three women grew up on the Crow reservation, but now live elsewhere and return to Montana for various projects. Upon learning that the billboard would be placed in Billings, the collaborators knew they would speak directly to other Apsáalooke members.

“The most important audience for us is our own people. This is for us,” Yellowtail said.

“This whole billboard is about imagining justice, imagining freedom from the perspective of our people,” she continued, “and that means land. It means languages. – our core.

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