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Reflection: Towanna Miller, Artist

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The Sound of InspirationHow did you come to be living here, to be a “Montrealer”?
I grew up in New York City, travelling back and forth between Canada and New York during school breaks. My great-grandmother resided in the Mohawk Territory of Kahnawake and she was the reason for our frequent visits. I went to live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for ten years after completing my college education at the Institute Of American Indian Art (1983-1986). When my grandmother came to the end of her life, I returned to my Kahnawake home to live.

What identities have you developed, living and working as an artist in the area?

I ask myself “What does it mean to be Mohawk” for my inspiration. I feel like I'm becoming a storyteller. Many ask the meanings behind my work.

Two Row WampumWhat has been the historical experience of the communities with whom you identify? Does it show through your work?
Yes, absolutely. I started with our Iroquois creation stories, which have been oral stories for generations. Currently I've been making 3-D Iroquois Pottery paintings to show the different styles that are in museums as broken shards. I show what it would have looked like as a full pot. Now there has been debating in our community about membership, which has been the current hot topic. I made a painting showing one of our Iroquois wampum belts called the “Two Row Wampum”(1)
I also make painting about our games. Like the snowsnake game and the hoop game. My next series of paintings will be about our prophecies.

How do your various identities relate to one-another?
I was a pow-wow dancer for many years listening to the drumbeat. I also go to our traditional Longhouse ceremonies, where we dance for the creator. Music is so much a part of my inspiration while I paint. I also worked as administrative assistant for many years giving me the tools to know how to network and apply to art venues across United States and Canada.
I've been doing beadwork for over twenty-five years. I've incorporated beadwork into my paintings because I'm multi-talented and like to blend my creativity. I also make Iroquois headdresses called Kustowas. It's like looking in my closet at my shoes. I have sneakers to run around with my children, I have high heels for my business meetings, and I have moccasins when I'm going to ceremonies or socials. I'm multi-dimensional like my work.

Our Bear FastedHow have your identities evolved over time?
Practice only leads to perfection. My 3-D pottery paintings are inspiring many other artists to utilize my style. My work is contemporary with bright colours and texture. I started to learn painting with oils. The majority of my work is currently in acrylic because of the speed in which I can produce my work. I do plan on making many more oil paintings very soon. I shall always continue to evolve each and every day. I strive to learn more about our history and stories and enjoy sharing it with the next seven generations, meaning to keep the stories alive in the future.

How and why do you use the English language?

Sadly it's the only language I learned. My great-grandmother, who was fluent in our Mohawk language, was six years old when she was taken and sent to Residential School. She received and witnessed abuse to children that dared to speak Mohawk. She was not returned to Kahnawake until she was fourteen years old. She didn't learn her ceremonies, she didn’t learn traditional crafts, she didn’t bond with family members. She did learn fear. She told her children, don't speak the language because you will be thought of as less, you will be abused. Those children were my aunts, uncles and my mother. Therefore, the next generation which was me didn't hear our language spoken in the home. English was the only language taught to me. I'm grateful to say that it has finally come full circle. My children are enrolled at Indian Way School and are learning to read, write and speak Mohawk. They can be proud to know their language and not to carry the burden and pain my great grandmother had.

Mohawk Portrait with beadsWhat are the challenges facing artists today?
I can only speak for myself. I feel some of the challenge is the language barrier. I can't read, write or speak French. Therefore, I can't apply to any art venues in my own Quebec Province. Another challenge I face is the cost of getting to many of the exhibits. I've been invited to Hawaii and Monaco. I turned them down because I can't afford getting to them. I have to be very selective each year on which venues I decide to participate in. This year I attended the Vancouver 2010 Olympics Artisan Village. I was only able to go because I was supported by the Sahantie Community Fund. In 2008, I exhibited at “the Artist Project” for the Artropolis in Chicago, located in the Merchandise Mart. The economy was bad. There were over 700 artists on display and hardly any sales. People were not spending money on art.
The other challenge is making a living with artwork. I find it more beneficial if you have promotional items like posters to help supplement an income. Marketing is key and essential to help propel your art career. You can be the best artist but if no one ever sees your work no one will know.

Towanna Miller
P.O. Box 1585
Kahnawake, Quebec

1) The 1613 treaty was recorded by the Haudenosaunee in a wampum belt known as the Two Row Wampum.
You say that you are our Father and I am your son. We say, We will not be like Father and Son, but like Brothers. This wampum belt confirms our words. These two rows will symbolize two paths or two vessels, traveling down the same river together. One, a birch bark canoe, will be for the Indigenous People, their laws, their customs and their ways. The other, a ship, will be for the white people and their laws, their customs and their ways. We shall each travel the river together, side by side, but in our boat. Neither of us will make compulsory laws nor interfere in the internal affairs of the other. Neither of us will try to steer the other's vessel.

The treaty is considered by Haudenosaunee people to still be in effect. Further Haudenosaunee tradition states the duration of the Two Row Wampum agreement: “As long as the Sun shines upon this Earth, that is how long OUR Agreement will stand; Second, as long as the Water still flows; and Third, as long as the Grass Grows Green at a certain time of the year. Now we have symbolized this Agreement and it shall be binding forever as long as Mother Earth is still in motion.”
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