It’s not quite right to say that Sarah “Sass” Biscarra-Dilley is looking to create queer Native American community.
Her anthropological art history project is like nothing you’ve seen before. It moves between her re-interpretations of white colonialist imaginings and a collage of inspiring contemporary Native artists. But what the visual artist and scholar is looking for is to get back something that already existed — once upon a time, back before colonialism smashed at indigenous culture with boarding schools, Christianity, genocide, and binaries.
Back then, the Mohave had commonly used words for four different genders. Native queers were the ones deemed powerful enough to handle a community’s deepest mourning, to take care of its orphaned children, to gamble better than everybody else, to make some transcendent baskets, depending on which pocket of the Americas they were in.
“These people were regarded as powerful. They had specific roles in the community,” Sass tells me over a laptop and under her signature bold brows on a sunny patio of a Mission District café.
We talk a lot of background. Sass grew up Chumash, learned to make baskets with her great grandma – the two attended annual gatherings of Native weavers. She eventually graduated to cornhusk dolls and later, clothing design. This last on account of needing “miniskirts to be much shorter than what I could find at the store.”
Her Swedish father came out at 29 upon contracting HIV. Sass talks about that time, the criticisms he faced, as the moments in which she realized that things just weren’t right when it came to the way modern society treats its queer members. “Who he loves, that’s part of his work,” she says. After Sass herself came out, she remembers being told that being in a queer relationship was “not traditional” for a Native woman, that she needed to find a man to further the ethnic line.
This is Sass.
So her research project … started at Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts, continued at San Francisco’s Art Institute, recently presented in a keynote address at the Sexuality Studies Association of the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences in Victoria, British Columbia earlier this year … well it’s hard to overestimate the importance it must carry for her.
“This isn’t about just who we have sex with,” Sass tells me. “This is about how we relate to ourselves and our community. That’s something I think that stabs at identity politics really fail to address.” Talk about Bradley Manning all you like this Pride season – Sass is just as concerned with how queer people experience kinship, participate in lineage, share history. In due accordance, she recently joined the Black Salt Collective, a pack of talented women of color whose group exhibitions give me serious life.
And happily, her research has brought her into contact with queer Native artists who prove that the importance of gender variance in kinship networks have translated “even for people who didn’t grow up with that direct, spoken lineage,” says Sass. She points to the work of filmmaker Thirza Cuthand and multimedia creator Walter K. Scott as examples. “We’re occupying our bodies in this way we can’t help but live.”
Since she’s a big-time keynote speaker and all, I asked Sass to talk us through some of the artists — including herself — who are bringing the past to the present.
GRACE ROSARIO PERKINS (NAVAJO/PIMA)
The Drunk Usually Drinks A Lot, Watercolor, 7″ x 7″, 2013
Sass: Grace and I are new friends and collaborators. My platonic lifepartner, Adee Roberson, moved in with Grace last summer and began collaborating with her (and housemate Fanciulla Gentile) on the visual spellwork that is the Black Salt Collective. Her work is as visually varied and intellectually stunning as she is; interwoven with necessary critique, finely spun neons, and cathartic humor. I greatly admire her practice and look forward to learning it more deeply as a new member of the Black Salt Collective (!!).
Waiting, To Be, Watercolor, 7″ x 7″, 2013
Sass: This series is being created with the intention of centering on language; the power of language, language loss as cultural loss, the importance and complexity of language revitalization. Grace is in the process of teaching herself Navajo (or Diné) from online sources and books, citing the disconnect that many Indigenous people experience from their traditional languages due to forced re-education and the breakdown between intergenerational knowledge exchange.
While images are riveting, my attention centers on the text. I think this speaks to the breadth of intention behind it.
Regarding the text, Grace says, “I take text that is often fragmented but tied to something I identify with on a personal level … Additionally, a lot of the titles or text came from concrete examples in Navajo dictionaries, which again point to specific experiences that are unique or at least paramount to experience of the Diné — such as “Last Winter We Suffered Much” or “The Drunk Usually Drinks A Lot” … you probably won’t find sentences like that in an Oxford English dictionary or if you do, the impact is not the same, because the language is already readily available.” With works like these, she visually shifts the power narrative.
CHRIS J. ANDO (Alutiiq)
Untitled, serigraph, 8″ x 10″, 2008
Sass: Chris and I met while attending the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, learned how to make contact microphones out of smoke alarms from Postcommodity collective member, Raven Chacon, and then fast fell into Twin Peaks marathons and explorations of varied intuitive arts over green chile cheeseburgers. Chris J Ando is a remarkable human being, filmmaker, genius, and my magical twin.
Chris’ print work, while being especially graphic, distills complex experiences into strong symbolic images. Knowing him as a close friend, these images feel like a potent dose of his wit and brilliance, turning the knowledge of overlapping and interdependent worlds into a kind of sigil or alchemical symbol. Chris Ando is a gay wizard.
Untitled (Four Corners series), collage/print assemblage, 9″ x 11″, 2013
Sass: I wish we could display this whole series! These collages are meticulous reworkings of histories and storytellings, maps and galaxies. Using religious imagery to create topographies, Chris undertakes the task of illuminating the colonized worldview that divided our traditional homelands and our relationship to self, home, community, and spirit, while setting the intention of dissecting that worldview itself. These images, to me, are maps home, to finding empowerment through dismantling oppression.
SARAH BISCARRA DILLEY (Chumash)
HIGHLY AUTHENTIC NATIVE AMERICAN BLESSING PHOTO, collage, 9.5″ x 12″, 2012
Untitled (full moon and eclipse in gemini), collage, 9″ x 9″, 2012
Sass: Much of my work is a hodge-podge mess of color and texture, kind of like my blood and chosen family.
Like some of the textile work I do, embroidery and weaving, the process of collage is a meditative one. The intuitive incorporation of seemingly unrelated images, colors, textures has been a very affordable form of therapy!
In these particular images, I chose to incorporate subverted text from 1940s southwestern tourist publications, reclaimed imagery from anthropological sources, various fibers, plant detritus, and whatever the hell else I found laying around to weave a visual intention or intellectual interruption.
These are examples of collage as the construction of alternative concepts of space and time, collective and self, myth and reality. I’m bored (among many other things) of the stories that the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy has fed me, my loved ones, and my community; I intend to nourish alternative narratives that are loving, interdependent, accountable, inspiring, and empowering.