A look at the indigenous art in Alaska

Jenny Irene Miller

Transcript of Artist Interview with Jenny Irene Miller

Robert:   Hello, this addition to the Alaska Native Art Living History Project is an interview with the artist Jenny Irene Miller.   Miller is an Albuquerque, New Mexico and Anchorage, Alaska-based artist currently pursuing an MFA in Photography at the University of New Mexico.   This interview was conducted on April 21st, 2020 by myself, Robert Willcox, and my collaborators Josie Heyano, Bob Hook, and Katy Tomter.   To find out more about Jenny Irene Miller and view the work we discuss in the interview, you can visit Miller’s website at www.jennyirenemiller.com.  

Robert: How would you introduce yourself to someone who is unfamiliar with you and your work and how would you describe your work?  

Jenny: So my name is Jenny Irene Miller. My Inupiaq name is Wiagañmiu. I’m originally from Nome, Alaska and I grew up in Nome and Fairbanks, Alaska and I’m an artist who works with photography, video, sound art and also have been exploring more… Right now I’ve been exploring sculpture and textile work. So it’s kind of evolving to be more inter-disciplinary and working with my hands more recently rather than just the camera as a tool.  

Josie: My name is Josie Heyano. I’m Athabascan from the village of Tanana on my mother’s side   and my father is from the village of Dillingham. And I was really interested after viewing a lot of your projects on the website how the community response from in particular your Native community has been towards your work and if you can share any about how your elders have   guided you in your work or any advice that they’ve offered you.  

Jenny: Yeah. Thank you. So, let’s see. A lot of my work I would say derives around stories and knowledge that has been shared with me both from elders, community members, family members, and also different knowledge that I’ve learned through my undergraduate studies at the University of Washington and also my own guided research. So I would say that the community, especially where I’m from, is a very important audience and a group that I keep in mind each time I’m creating. So for a lot of my work it’s a lot of research beforehand and that’s both like research in the in the way that we think of now like hitting the books and looking at different essays that were written, different art pieces that were created, looking at different Indian law, but also it’s having those conversations with elders back home. So for example, one of my- someone back home that I always visit when I go back home is Esther Bourdon and she’s a close family friend and her family originates from KiÅ‹igin– from Wales, Alaska– where my maternal family originates from so I listen, I hear a lot of stories from her. But also a lot of my work I have conversations with different indigenous peoples within the community and get that feedback. So for example, the project Continuous… that actually I conceptualized that project in 2012 or 2013 but I didn’t actually start making photographs for that project until 2015 and it’s a project that’s still in progress like I’m still building upon it. But that took a lot of talking to my mom, talking to family members, listening to elders talk and a lot of research on gender and queerness   within the Native community which isn’t really talked about– at least it wasn’t really talked about back in 2013 as much as it is now today, which I’m grateful for. I would say a lot of my projects: they’re like quiet quiet conversations with individuals continuing to learn from them, but also not extracting that knowledge making sure that there’s- I’m giving in return. So my project Continuous is purely not just for me as an artist. It’s for the community, for LGBTQ Native youth who may need to see someone like themselves represented. So I hope that answers your question.

Josie:   That did. That was beautiful, thank you. I think just in viewing some of your work and I really saw a lot of the storytelling and the narrative that really resonated with me as part of our Alaska Native community. Yeah, thank you. That did.  

Jenny: Yeah. Yeah, you’re welcome. You hit the note of storytelling. So my work also– to talk a little bit about my work, I would consider myself to be a storyteller which is a tradition that has always been within my family and ancestors. But I’ve been challenged right now with bringing those stories from back home forward here in New Mexico and this program that I’m in and trying to find new ways to bring those stories and those knowledge forward without having access to the community. So Continuous focused a lot on the LGBTQ community in Alaska and now the lower 48. But being in New Mexico, I feel like as a visitor, I still have to take time to get to know this community here and these lands and the stories here before I can make work about– if I were to make work about New Mexico and the place here. I’m not at that place yet. So I’m figuring out how to bring those stories back home both family stories and histories that I’ve come to know forward in different objects. So the sculpture’s becoming an important part of my practice and different ways to thinking about titling photographs and making photographs about language loss, identity and even Indian law, which some people may think “well that happened in the past’, but I’ve been thinking about how it still has a continual effect on indigenous peoples to this day. So I like that you mentioned storytelling because that’s a really important part of my practice.  

Josie: Thank you. Yeah, I think another thing that really resonated with me hearing you talk now and in the research that we did is just the thoughtfulness that you really put into the work that you do and I think even that, culturally, is such a strong value within the Native community of really putting a lot of thought into what we do. Thank you.  

Jenny: Yeah, and I’m just remembering a question asking about how the Native community responded to my work. So for example, Continuous was a pretty personal but communal project for me. Yeah, so I was pretty nervous to be releasing the body of work Continuous because there’s still so much oppression and negative views towards LGBTQ– and sometimes I interchange that between queer and LGBTQ– in both… in all communities and I was especially nervous about Continuous and how the indigenous community back home would react to the body of work especially to especially mentors and different people in my life who I’ve looked up to. But there was a news article that came out and it was talking about my project and me coming out and it was incredibly… It made me super happy because individuals from back home, like close family friends reached out to me, texted me and said thank you for making this work or just like letting me know that they supported me so that meant so much to know that I had the support of community members that I value and look up to and also my mom and so then I knew I was in the right place and could continue to make that work.

Josie: That’s awesome. Thank you for sharing that.  

Jenny: Yeah. Thank you.

Bob: Well, I’ll continue on. I had a question on Continuous and you’ve hit on many of the points I was curious about and I really appreciate that work.  

Jenny: Thank you.

Bob: Wonderful. How did the project impact you as an individual artist?  

Jenny: Continuous, as a project, made me, as an artist… So I looked at Continuous as being my first kind of- my first project as an individual, as a practicing artist and it was also a very personal project and communal because it involved so many people who shared their stories and also allowed me to make a portrait of them. So that project was a really– has been a really important body of work for me as an artist because it’s allowed me to show in different galleries and also have these harder conversations around decolonizing gender and sexuality and also bringing forward these ideas that LGBTQ people, and especially LGBTQ indigenous peoples, need a space within their community and this is a demographic that’s often not recognized and so I’ve been… this, I would have to say this has been a very personal project that has meant a lot to me.  

Bob: I guess that one question is that… I’m just trying to understand as the older white guy in the audience here the concept of Two-Spirit within the Alaska Native culture and if you could just explore that a little bit and discuss that with me a little bit. I’d like to learn more.  

Jenny: Yeah, so I first in undergraduate studies I took a course with one of my favorite professors Dr. Dian Million, who’s actually Tanana Athabascan, and it was a course that dove into indigenous gender ideologies and I was first introduced to the term Two-Spirit my last year of undergraduate studies in that course. And there was a particular essay written by a Yupik Two-Spirit person and I learned more about the terminology of Two-Spirit and it’s to be recognized that it’s a contemporary term and it kind of blends together this idea of having both the masculine and feminine spirit in one. So essentially like gifts from your father and your mother and those gifts are inside of you and you express them in different ways. So it’s more of an indigenous concept that is more… inclusive in a way of both your physical, mental, spiritual wellness in a way. So it’s this idea that you have these nasculine and feminine spirits within you and it’s in I believe 1990 indigenous queer activists got together and they decided that they needed a term for themselves. So “for us, by us’ essentially. So they came up with the term Two-Spirit which is rooted in a indigenous language that I’m forgetting the name right now. And it was to put aside some of the words that were used by anthropologists to name essentially Native queer peoples. And I’ve come to really to do a lot of research on this term because it’s not one that was really common in Alaska Native communities, but I know a lot of indigenous peoples within Alaska have found comfort in that word and have begun to identify as that being part of their identity. So it’s more of a contemporary term that includes both your queer identity and your indigenous identity. And I’ve also been looking more into the term Indigiqueer and I’ve been relating more towards that and I’ve been recognizing that some of these terms will, like LGBTQ, while they’re not made by us, they’re a way for us to find a common language to understand each other. So it’s still pretty… I’m still learning every day.  

Bob: Well, thank you for sharing that.  

Jenny: Yes

Bob: And I had one more question on my little group here of questions and it was how did Continuous impact the subjects?  

Jenny: Mmm. Well, you know, I would– I think it… Hm.   So the way that I’ve come to learn how the individuals who have been featured in Continuous have been impacted are they’re being… I think it’s-, for me, it’s really important to identify and celebrate these individuals so that’s a big goal of Continuous. That’s a hard question because sometimes I don’t like speaking for other people.

Bob: Yeah

Jenny:   Yeah, but, for me, I know the individuals of Continuous were either people that I’ve known since childhood or individuals that I met through the project or met through friends and a lot of them– a good number of them– have become really close friends. And also people that I turn to when we’re organizing around queer indigenous health within the communities. People who are turned to for advice and also to talk through things.  

Bob: Very good. Thank you.  

Jenny: Mhm.

Josie: I really appreciated Bob’s question on that because just in viewing the pieces and maybe just kind of relating personally to some of those stories in there I felt that there was a tremendous amount of vulnerability that went into those stories and to have them be showcased in a way. It really struck me as something that took a lot of courage and vulnerability for the participants and you to really do all together.  

Jenny: Yeah, so I– The last time, the big time… So the last time Continuous showed that was a larger exhibition was at the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregan and it was part of a show called the map is not the territory and at the reception, the opening reception, the curator Grace Kook-Anderson had a indigenous leader from the Portland area give the opening   statements in the land acknowledgement and what really moved me was that individual had mentioned how the show, which was grounded in indigenous values and had some indigenous artists part of the show, myself included, that it was meaningful because the work wasn’t put back in the corner as like the indigenous art section. It was the main exhibition and it was celebrating indigenous values and had indigenous peoples on the wall. And for that showing actually I– before the exhibition opened I traveled to Portland to make photographs of local indigenous people who live there because I wanted them to have representation within the museum in their homelands. So that was really meaningful for me to be able to work with those people and for them to also have a space within that museum on their lands or lands that are close to their ancestral lands. So, I think– so Continuous is a lot about representation and bringing those stories forward.  

Robert:   Maybe now we could talk about The Ulu Project shortly, and then it seems like you want to talk about what you’re working on now and your inspiration.   So maybe we can move to that after.

Jenny: Okay, cool. Thank you.  

Robert: Yeah, so Bob, did you want to ask the questions about The Ulu Project?  

Bob: I just- I love that, right off, I really love that project working on the Native foods of bringing back tradition to that. I thought that was pretty exciting. And again, I go back to the artist side or the photographer side of you and I’m just curious what some of the big challenges were.

Jenny: I would say some of the biggest challenges of The Ulu Project was the post-production. My two collaborators were based in Ontario, Canada so we did our post-process editing on the cloud. So that was kind of a challenge but worked out really well because my two collaborators are very trusted and we work together very well as a team. So that was a challenging part. The other was… there wasn’t too many challenges to be honest. It was a really fun project and we did a lot of planning beforehand. So before that, I was in Seattle just about to graduate with my BA and my BFA and go back home for the summer and work on that project and then go back to Seattle and move back to Alaska. So I would have to say there wasn’t too many challenges with The Ulu Project. It was more of a very fun project and because of our research beforehand and dividing up certain themes in the project to each team member we kind of were project managers for certain episodes and certain people that we were going to feature and sometimes we would have to change it up last minute if someone was unavailable because it was… We went back home during like berry picking season and different important times where people were out on the land and so sometimes they weren’t available. So we had to think very fast and critically who the next individual could be featured and also do research while we were in town or just talk to people and learn about new individuals and then show up at their office or door and ask them on the spot “Hey, can we interview you for this project? Can we come back before we leave town?’ So it was a very fun project. There was a lot of learning lessons and it was a great opportunity to go back and focus on these people but also the importance of food security, food sovereignty, and food and identity.  

Bob: Yeah, I think in Alaska that is a challenge for all of us and having gone through this recent pandemic, it shows how critical our supply lines are at a moment’s notice we could be  

living off the land so that’s kind of interesting.

Jenny: Yes.

Bob: You hit on the collaboration which was another part of my question and I think I get a general sense that it was a learning opportunity and how did it influence any of your future projects that you did after that?   The skills obviously must’ve.

Jenny: Well to be honest after working on The Ulu Project, because it was video-based, I decided after that I needed to work on an individual project that was more photographic-based. So that’s where Continuous came to be is wanting to work on a purely photographic body of work with some interviews.  

Bob: Great.

Robert: Is there anything that you’re working on now that you’re excited for people to see and can you tell us about that?

Jenny: Sure.   So right now I’m working a lot on different themes of identity. So incorporating language loss and, as I mentioned, some Indian law and some of the colonial systems that were created in the past but still impact many of us today such as blood quantum, which is the system not designed by indigenous peoples yet it’s now part of our everyday lives. So those historic laws that are present that do have an impact on me personally, I’ve been focusing on.   And I’m still working with photos, video, and more recently, as I explained, sculpture and textiles so… In my practice I’ve been thinking a lot about protection. So protection in the literal sense of…   thinking about protection, the clothing that my great grandma used to sew and our ancestors, so different skin parkas that would protect them from the climates within Alaska. And so I’ve been thinking about that, but I’ve been working towards bringing forward those forms of protection in a way that protects me today. So thinking about the dangerous ideas of disenrollment as an indigenous person, the potential tribal termination, especially with the conversations going on nationally, especially in DC right now and thinking about garments as protection. So protection for me as a queer person, who often has to worry about certain laws going into place that may not protect me and also thinking about violence towards queer people. So I’ve been thinking about this theme of protection and how familial stories are also a form of protection and how to integrate those stories through text into my work. So right now I’m getting back onto a sewing machine and beginning to work and make a garment based on a kuspuk but that is more contemporary towards me and figuring out how that will be an object of protection, integrating some of these ideas and themes of erasure, identity, queer theory. And so one of the photographs that I’m working on is actually called Looking for My Language in the Corner Where My Grandma was Forced to Leave It which is a pretty long photographic   title. But I’ve been playing around with titling to– I’ve been playing around with titling and learning the power within words. So that photo is actually still in progress. It will be my fourth time shooting that photograph and it’s essentially me in a corner. So I’m bringing forward the story of language loss that my grandma went through who is forced to stand in a corner for speaking the Inupiaq language. So that’s some of the stuff I’ve been working on and also the power and how much you give the viewer and how much you don’t give the viewer in portraits. So withholding my identity and also thinking about acknowledging my privilege as being a fair skinned Native person and thinking about these realities of constantly being asked “Well, how much Native are you? Can you speak your language?’ without these people who are asking knowing the government, the federal government’s policy, that were put in place to erase us and assimilate us. So those are some of the themes that I’m working through and I’ve been working on actually a sculpture made out of ivory soap and I’ve been carving that to bring forward some of the traditional ways of art making such as carving walrus ivory but have been using a material that’s readily available to me. And so the piece is actually a sculpture of a tongue and that’s also another play on language loss and one of the mechanisms that was used on indigenous peoples for speaking their language. So that’s what I’ve been working on. But I would say in an MFA program your practice and your way of working is constantly questioned and you’re continually figuring out what it looks like, what works best for you, how to make work in a new environment, and how to make work– especially for me– how to make work about myself, my community without having immediate access to that community. Whereas I can’t just go out and photograph them, I have to make these objects or make these more conceptual photographs and videos. So it’s been a really fun time down here, but it’s also been challenging. So within this program before break, before all this happened we had critique every two weeks on new work. So we’re challenged to pump out new work constantly and kind of develop it. So right now I would say I have a lot of in-progress work.  

Robert: You kind of talked about this a little bit earlier, but I’ll go ahead and ask and maybe you want to expand or if you feel… So in our class that this is for we have talked a lot about tradition and traditional art and like what that is. My question was about how your photographic and video work might not seem on the surface to be like traditional Native Alaskan artwork. And so my question was about like… I suspect it is actually relating back to a traditional form and if you wanted to talk about that?

Jenny: Yeah, that’s a great question. Throughout my time really diving deeper into my art practice I’ve had some questions come up every now and then from people asking me why I choose to use the camera as a tool because it’s… they have said that it’s a colonizer’s medium.   And I found that to be a really intense question and also an inappropriate question because I don’t think that… photography became more accessible in the 20th century to many other people and not many other demographics are being asked that question. Like for example, we wouldn’t have a non-Native person being asked “Why are you using this medium?’ So I just wanted to bring that forward, that sometimes I’m being asked why I’m using a particular medium and what I always resort to when I answer that question is that as indigenous peoples my family members, my ancestors were always innovating. They were always integrating new tools, new materials into their traditions that work for them. And we’re always– like we’re not static people so we’re continually learning and just being the best that we can and so that’s how I would answer that question for people who ask me about using the camera as a tool. And that’s also another hard question is considering traditional and contemporary art as two different fields. I’ve been thinking more about how sure they’re– I respect traditional art and I also recognize that our art is continually becoming… we are continually innovating as artists and so sometimes I find the distinction between traditional and contemporary art troubling because it can trap some people in a certain spot. And I’ve also been thinking about who gets to decide what art is, who gets to decide what folk art is, who gets to decide what traditional art is and I think that’s dependent on the artist for them to categorize their art.   So I’ve also been thinking a lot about curators and different art critics who write about work who categorize indigenous art in a certain way and how sometimes that could be troubling and also how we need more indigenous curators and indigenous art critics. So that’s a really hard question for me. I would say because I am an indigenous person creating art, it doesn’t matter what tool I’m using.

Josie: I just wanted to touch on what Jenny was just talking about, the contemporary versus traditional, because we– a lot of the in class that we are in, our Alaska Native art history class, has been sectioned into contemporary and traditional and then comparing the two and most recently in a discussion we had on tradition and process there was an Alaska Native elder. I don’t remember the name, but he had stated in an interview about his work that he said it very simply and it really resonated with me, but he just said as a people we are always contemporary.  

Jenny:   Yeah, that’s beautiful.

Josie:   Yeah, I thought that just made me think of what you were saying. It really resonated strongly with me. His intention in that is that we don’t have to catch up to anything, we’re contemporary in the way that we are.  

Jenny: Yes, yes. That’s a great simple way to put it. I definitely agree with that sentiment. Because I think that if we continually create these binaries there could be– there’s trouble in recognizing who we are… who we are. And I’ve been thinking a lot about late 19th century and early 20th century photographers, non-Native photographers who would go into Native communities to capture who they said were traditional communities. So these photographers would not include any technology. So, for example, an alarm clock. They would edit that out of the photograph because they had a certain view of what indigenous people were to be like and what tools they used within their lives. So I’ve been heavily thinking about that. Those photographers, those photographs produced by non-native photographers that we see today and how that has had an effect on us as Native peoples today. So thinking that we have to look a certain way, our art has to look a certain way. We have to act a certain way in order to be considered indigenous by other peoples. So that’s been a big thing that I’ve been thinking about and the importance of photography and art made by indigenous peoples for sharing our true stories and its role in representation.  

Josie: Thank you. I don’t think I had anything else. I really appreciate the time that you

took. I know you’re really busy in your work as well, and I look forward to seeing your future project.  

Jenny: Thank you.  

Katy: Hi Jenny, so we do have one question left to ask and that is–

Jenny: okay.  

Katy: What’s one thing that you would tell like a young photographer or young artist up here in Alaska or here in your home community of Nome?  

Jenny: That’s a great question. So for me, one of my biggest goals is to go back home and work with young aspiring photographers and continue to push them and encourage them to continue making photographs. So one thing that I always want to remind young people who are beginning in the field of photography is to continue to create no matter what other people say.   So for young people starting to make photographs, I would encourage them to continue to make those photographs and continue to build upon those and to know that photography as an art practice is something that you are always building upon. And with practice and making and mistakes and successes you’ll continue to become a better photographer in your own eyes. So, essentially, to continue to push yourself. And to continue to create and know that there will be obstacles but to stay true and continue to do what you love.  

Katy: Thanks, Jenny. That’s amazing and I know a lot of young kids in this community of Nome that would love to work with you or even meet you. There’s so many young individuals that are really getting into art and it’s up here. It’s I see a lot more of it, a lot more people interested in that aspect.  

Jenny: Yeah. I’m really excited after this, after my program, to go back home and hopefully begin to work with younger photographers, especially indigenous photographers, because we need more people, more of our people telling our own stories and through photography and also writing and video. And so I really hope that those young people will continue to do what they love and know that their stories and their voices and their visions are incredibly important.

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