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The Native Perspective Missing from Design

There are a surprising number of Native and Native-influenced symbols in design for how few Natives are involved in the conception of these campaigns. Most of this design is appropriated from their perspective, where visual language is an integral part of their cultural experience.

Join OPB’s “State of Wonder,” in partnership with the PSU Native American Student and Community Center, in a discussion that focuses on proactive ways the design community can grow the Native perspective during Design Week Portland’s April 10th event, The Native Perspective Missing from Design.

The event will include a live taping of the podcast/show; post-taping conversations will focus on one-on-one conversations for youth interested in design careers, with an emphasis on growing Native voices in the industry. We caught up with April Baer, host of “State of Wonder,” to get a behind-the-scenes look on this event.

Give us a preview of the event's discussion: what systems have made cultural appropriation possible, and what are the steps to redirecting these missteps?

Design industries capitalize on many types of culture. The pressure to create stories in the service of brands has led to misrepresentation for any number of under-represented groups within the industry. The erasure of Native American voices as actors in the market and as students in design education (and within the design process) mirrors the voids in America’s broader cultural storytelling. The primacy of European art styles within design education, combined with the amalgamation of different tribes’ visual languages, has led to a lot of further distortion within academic homes for design.

Our panel will model some best practices for artists seeking to enter the industry, maintain agency over their own work, and build a community within existing systems.

How can those in leadership positions (positions of power) support diversity and inclusion in the design process?

A more complete embrace of Natives as both creators and consumers of design is needed. The employment of Native designers and the centering of Native voices are key steps in any process aimed at producing respectful design. Resources like The Native American Graphic Design Project and Native American Chambers of Commerce (like Oregon’s) provide some important tools. Consider the role Native designers can play in both culturally specific designs and those meant for broader consumption. Decision-makers at every level can benefit from a stronger awareness of who Native designers and consumers are in their urban, rural, and suburban markets.

Tell us a bit about the event's guests. How were they chosen?

Drawing on both Oregon’s tribal communities and the wider Western map, we aimed to represent a range of disciplines, including graphic design, fashion, and product work.

Whitney Minthorn (Umatilla/Nez Perce) has maintained an incredibly high-quality photography and retouching practice in Pendleton for quite a few years now. I’ve enjoyed his fine art work for some time as well. I heard he’d moved back home from Asia not long ago, and he was one of the first people on my mind when the Center agreed to partner with us for the event. He’s seen the industry in so many ways, from several perspectives, and on several continents.

Louie Gong’s (Nooksack) name came up early in our research. His business model for 8th Generation is pretty unique in the Northwest, supporting a constellation of Native artists and staff. And the more the program took shape, the more I appreciated what he has to say about moving past a middleman culture, and showing Native artists the ways to their own agency. He’s got some exciting projects in development, too.

Neebin Southall’s (Ojibwa) design work would make her an asset to any discussion of this kind, but the online index of Native graphic designers she maintains is such a critical tool. While she doesn’t hold an academic job, she’s thought and written pretty extensively about representation in the industry. I was thrilled to learn she’s an OSU grad and spent some time in Oregon while growing up. We’re extremely lucky she’s able to join us.

Caroline Blechert (Inuit) is newer to Portland but hasn’t taken long to establish herself. Her line, Creations for Continuity, has such great, fresh looks and is indicative of the blend of influences that inform artists in our communities today.

Asa Wright’s (Klamath/Modoc) graphic design has appeared in so many places. I’m a personal fan of how he blends his family’s signature basket designs into his work. But he’s got some much bigger ideas about how Native artists and designers can work together and create community.

I wince every time someone says, “But there are no Native [insert discipline here] artists working right now.” Qualified professionals are out there, in EVERY field, if you take the time to find them.