SHERIDAN — Native American culture has received much attention at Sheridan College this school year, for reasons both good and bad.
The awareness began in October when racial slurs were written on the door of two Native American students’ dorm room. The college responded and hosted a discussion about the incident, followed shortly by its first Native American Day. A roundtable discussion in January focused on Native Americans and education, while Native American dancer and hip hop artist Supaman performed in February.
Another event related to Native American culture occurred Tuesday, when artist Sydney Pursel performed and spoke for an hour at the Whitney Center for the Arts.
Pursel was raised in Kansas City. She currently lives in Columbia, Missouri, and is an enrolled member of the Ioway Tribe of Kansas & Nebraska. Her work and talk focused on restoring Native American culture and language.
She performed an interactive piece, “Waroxi.” It featured Pursel speaking in Baxoje/Jiwere, her tribe’s language, while audience members shouted different parts of the “Our Father” prayer that corresponded to images projected on a screen. She said the prayer in English at the end, verging on tears.
Waroxi was a way to explore her hybrid identity as the daughter of an Irish-Catholic mother and Native American father. She wore a hybrid costume during her performance that was a combination of formal Catholic priest attire and Ioway regalia.
Pursel also screened a short video, “Revitalize (or the opposite of an apple)” which showed different versions of herself in white attire.
It narrowed down to one Pursel, who was covered in cloth and trying to bite her way out of it. Then, it turned into about 12 versions of her, ending with multiple Pursels dancing while wearing a colorful star quilt. The multiple Pursels then converged, fell and ultimately rose at the end.
Over time, Pursel’s art has shifted from combative efforts to healing and revitalization efforts in her community.
Many of her displays in college highlighted negative stereotypes of Native Americans in popular culture. She also created an online Native American name generator, which gave seemingly ordinary names like, “Lynn Dougherty.”
Toward the end of her undergraduate studies, Pursel became more involved with the Ioway tribe, frequently traveling to its reservation in northeast Kansas for language and culture classes.
Baxoje/Jiwere is a dead language, parts of which she is attempting to revive. She translated road signs into the native language and encouraged people to translate phrases into bumper stickers. Pursel also started a YouTube channel where she posts a video each month with translations of colors and single-digit numbers, so it is easier for kids to learn.
Growing up, Pursel gravitated a bit more toward her Native American heritage and attended annual regional powwows. Pursel often felt uncomfortable dancing at powwows because she was lighter-skinned.
“I was very aware that I didn’t look how I was supposed to when I was dancing,” she said. “What most people think of when they think of an Indian is not me.”
That lack of personal identity has lessened over the years as she learned more history and become an active participant in her Native American community. Pursel said keeping a connection between history and culture is important so it isn’t forgotten. It also gives future generations the opportunity to understand their heritage and hopefully have more confidence.
Pursel is halfway through her stay as the first recipient of the Ucross Fellowship for Native American Visual Artists. The fellowship includes a one-month residency at Ucross, a stipend of $1,000 and inclusion in an exhibition next year at the Ucross Foundation Art Gallery. There will be two fellowships per year, one in spring and one in fall.
The WCA hosted Pursel in a larger venue to accomodate more space and allow student participation.
“We were so pleased that Sydney was the winner and when they reached out and asked if we’d be interested in hosting, I jumped at it,” WCA director Erin Hanke said. “We would want her to present to the community anyway, but we certainly want our students to be exposed to her work.”
At Ucross, Pursel is creating more hybrid outfits for performances. One is a patchwork bodysuit about skin color and highlights her being “an American mutt,” in her own words. The other item is a dress made partly by rolling bottle caps to jingle.
One participant wondered how Native American culture — language, jewelry, weaving, etc. — could be brought to Sheridan.
Pursel said it can be difficult to get people on a reservation involved, much less off a reservation. It can be intimidating on both sides, so she stressed the importance of personal conversation, preferably in a one-on-one setting.
Pursel steadily progressed in her journey toward understanding her Native American characteristics, something the college and community are still working to develop.