Published on October 20th, 2019
Written by Alan Zhang, GMTaC Lab Research Affiliate & Graduate Student, MIT Sloan School of Management
In late June 2019, Professor Lisa Parks and I met with the Blackfeet community in Browning Montana, and led discussions at Blackfeet Community College about local experiences with internet and social media (see previous blog about the workshop), and issues of network sovereignty. Joining us was award-winning indigenous artist Valentina LaPier, who listened in on the meetings as elders and youth recounted similarly mixed stories of technology as having both positive and destructive impacts upon Blackfeet community relations. LaPier, known for her commitment in voicing cross-cultural dialogues through art, was commissioned to create a painting that captured important themes from our meetings. A salient theme to emerge was that social media both amplified harms and counterbalanced them by reviving traditional customs. Having led lectures and workshops with Blackfeet youth for years, and given her passion about facilitating educational events and cultural celebrations, LaPier is most concerned that the younger generation, easily lured away from local customs, will be disadvantaged and unanchored in their pursuit of digital presence. The loss of traditionalism, to her, is the loss of a great teacher in life. I spoke with Valentina in October 2019, after the completion of her painting titled Trust (2019), to understand what that project meant to her.
Trust, Painting by Valentina Pier, 2019
Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:
Me: Did the idea for this painting come to you right away?
Valentina LaPier: No no, I’ve gone through everything. I landed on trust and felt that it was appropriate, between what I heard at the college, and what I felt at the interpretation of the painting. I did a whole bunch of preliminary sketches. Could not land on anything that felt appropriate. The internet really helped. I suddenly went on the web and looked at computer arts. And was amazed at what people had done there. I started to pick up a lot of different things and elements. The Circuit boards concept I picked up there. I knew it had to include traditionalism. The traditionalism, the rider and the feather, that’s all traditional. I thought a blend of traditionalism and the modern stuff like circuitry and computer screen, was a good mix. It is a balance of elements. I was trying to give a balance…not to prioritize one or the other. Because while it is about technology, there is, or needs to be, a real balance between the two. The symmetry is a metaphor for balance.
Me: What do the colors represent (red, yellow, white, black)?
Valentina LaPier: That’s the medicine wheel. It represents all nations on the earth. The prophecy is when the white buffalo comes, all four races would come together in unity. It happened a few years ago, in Minnesota. A rancher had a white buffalo come, it was a pilgrimage for a lot of natives all over, they came to leave offerings.
Me: It seems deliberate that the rider has no identifiable gender, is that right?
Valentina LaPier: The rider, oh yes, gender doesn’t matter. Typically, it would be a male, but I really liked that it would be neither or…both, let’s put it that way.
Me: Was the experience painting this one different from other projects?
Valentina LaPier: Yes yes. I usually paint for myself. What I find beautiful or what I want to talk about. It’s really nice to do a piece like this for others… the idea is more expansive.
Me: Did you like that the prompt was external?
Valentina LaPier: Oh absolutely. Absolutely it was fun.
Me: Did you experience a new feeling in doing this work?
Valentina LaPier: Oh absolutely. This was much more technical than usual. I generally paint in much broader strokes. Looser. The technical aspect of this perspective… I don’t usually do that. It was like going back to school to get the form, learn the form, and still get the message across. The structure in this painting is so important. Once I came up with the sketch, the old teachings in me had to come alive, and I had to dust them off, to proceed with the painting. It’s just much more controlled.
Me: Did you work with others or seek help?
Valentina LaPier: Oh no, I like to work in private. I had people come through and look at it throughout the process, of course, and the response was good.
Me: Were you working on other projects at the same time?
Valentina LaPier: Definitely, I was working on other things. I had about two weeks, where I couldn’t touch it, and that made me crazy. I just had to sit in front of it, and literally wait. When I work, I can’t touch it until I have a direction. Otherwise, I will mess it up. It really took a while. I really got frustrated waiting for it to come. It just comes. At some point I say, Ok, enough bullshit, this is what’s going to have to happen. I put my foot down!
Me: Did the conversations from the summer workshop affect this process?
Valentina LaPier: The workshop conversation figured in greatly. It [the workshop] was so difficult to sit through. It was so negative. I was grateful for the few in there that expressed the importance of technology. How that translated into the painting… that’s why I started with traditionalism. Traditionalism is a teacher, a tool for how to get along in the world. The new things that come in the world, we don’t know what to do with them. We hear a lot of complaining about them. But I look to traditionalism to help. This is the point of view that I have to come to understand. I put traditionalism in so strongly. This is what guides us on our reservation and our community. It is very very strong here. Ceremonies and way of life and way of thinking. Technologies have to be talked about, because we are facing it–we are looking at it straight on. I think traditionalism is strong. But for the next generation, that’s a place for improvement. But I see younger and younger people getting involved in ceremony. My grandson is only 15 and he was captured… they tell you, you come here… brought into the beaver bundle. He had a willingness because he came to ceremony. That’s what he was open to. The young people are getting their place.
Me: Are you doing other work now that incorporate themes of human-technology relationships?
Valentina LaPier: No I’m not incorporating that now, but that’s a good idea, though. It’s a really good idea. I’m glad you said that. I think that will be good, and I will consider how it might fit. Currently, I’m finishing up a series of ravens.
Me: What is the significance of ravens?
Valentina LaPier: Raven is my Blackfeet name.
Me: Thank you for this beautiful piece. It was lovely to hear about the process of making it.
Valentina LaPier: I’m very grateful for you guys for allowing me to this project with you. I appreciate the opportunity.
Trust is now exhibited at the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana.
Valentina LaPier is a multi-disciplinary artist who works with the Blackfeet Nation, the Glacier National Park area, and the Metis Community. Valentina owns Renegade Studio, a gallery and shop in East Glacier Park Village. LaPier’s artwork has been exhibited in San Francisco, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Washington D.C., and throughout Montana. Her artwork is in private collections in Europe, Canada, South America, and the United States. For further information: https://www.valentinalapier.com/
Valentina Pier with her painting, Essence of the Warrior.