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At Kansas City’s first Native art market, an intertribal community comes together: ‘We’re still here’

A woman in a pink dress with green and purple appliques and rosegold bells dances with a feather
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
A jingle dancer performs at the Kansas City Indian Center's first-ever art market, held at Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kansas, on Dec. 2.

The inaugural market had more than 10 Indigenous vendors as well as dancing exhibitions and a vaccine station. Organizers said it brought people of many different tribes together and taught the public about Native American culture.

A first-of-its-kind art market and dance exhibition in Kansas City, Kansas, brought the local Indigenous community together on Saturday and helped attendees learn more about Native American culture.

More than 100 people cycled in and out of Rainbow Mennonite Church on Southwest Boulevard for the Kansas City Indian Center’s first major community gathering since COVID-19 interrupted its regular culture nights.

“If you Google ‘Native Americans,’ the pictures that are going to come up are all black-and-white photos of our ancestors,” said KCIC Executive Director Gaylene Crouser, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “We’re really proud of them, but we’re still here.”

Visitors bought art from a variety of Indigenous vendors and snacked on fry bread and wojapi, a Native berry sauce. Throughout the afternoon, dancers performed seven traditional styles and attendees received flu and COVID vaccines.

“That’s the important thing that people need to see,” Crouser said, “not some stereotype of who they think we are or what’s been portrayed in media and sports, but who we actually are. Our culture is still beautiful and alive and being practiced to this very day.”

A man in a blue outfit with beadwork ornaments and a headdress dances
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
A dancer performs at the Kansas City Indian Center's first-ever art market, in Kansas City, Kansas, on Dec. 2. The men's chicken dance, shown here, mimics the male prairie chicken’s mating season displays.

Tokeya Waci U Richardson, a member of the Oglala Lakota and Haliwa-Saponi tribes, and the youth and family programs coordinator for KCIC, arranged the dance exhibition. He specializes in the Northern traditional and grass dances, and says all Native American dance styles, which represent centuries of Indigenous culture, are healing.

“To be able to do the same style of dance that my five-times great-grandfather or great-grandmother had done — in this day and age — that's something beautiful,” he said. “That means that the government couldn't eradicate us like they wanted to. That means that we as a race of people are living on and continuing to practice our culture.”

Heart to Heart International, KC CARE Health Center and the National Council on Aging helped put on Saturday’s event. Crouser said each partner, including the Rainbow Mennonite Church, have been continuing allies with her group’s efforts.

In between dancing sets, Richardson sold his artwork near a large painting the church commissioned from him, called “An Acknowledgement of Life.” The painting, which depicts different styles of Native American dance and Turtle Island, an origin story common to many Indigenous people, is one result of the church’s work with KCIC to draft a land acknowledgment.

After he announced the dancers, Richardson described the history behind their styles of dance. He said it’s important to honor and respect their different meanings.

“It's a beautiful thing to see all these different cultures, all these different people from different tribes come together and be able to showcase who we are,” Richardson said. “Representation is what we strive for.”

A woman in a black hoodie sits behind cyanotype art prints.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Mona Cliff, one of the 10 vendors at KCIC's art market, uses her art to push boundaries and honor her Indigenous identity. Cliff is a member of the Gros Ventre tribe.

Mona Cliff, a member of the Gros Ventre tribe, sold cyanotype prints of beadwork at the art market. She’s been beading since she was 19, and now focuses on making traditional Indigenous art forms like seed beadwork and fabric applique “push the material in a more contemporary way.”

“It's such a huge part of my identity and who I am,” Cliff said. “I like exploring different avenues and being able to share that with non-Native people as well, to kind of open their eyes and see that there are so many possibilities that we're able to create with our artwork.”

Cliff, whose beadwork is included in the Kansas City airport’s collection, normally only shows her art at exhibitions, so selling prints at the market was a way for her to interact directly with her community. She said events like this are why KCIC is essential to the cultural landscape of Kansas City.

With dozens of tribes represented in the Kansas City area, Crouser said that is what the art market is all about: not lumping Indigenous cultures together, and making sure everybody has an opportunity to share.

“In an intertribal area with such a variety of tribes and cultures and traditions and ways of being, it’s really wonderful to be able to experience that and to learn about other tribes and the way that they do things and experience their Indigenous ways,” Crouser said. “We’re happy to be able to be there for people.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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