The Native Graphic Design Project is headed by me, Neebinnaukhzhik Southall, a member of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation. For more information on me, head over to my main website.

I am passionate about the intersection of Native cultures and graphic design. Art, philosophy, and cultural movements have long cross-pollinated. Indigenous ideologies, visual systems, and aesthetics can and do inform the process of design. I believe that graphic design can be used by Native communities for positive impact. I think it’s important that Native people speak and create for themselves, especially when Native cultures and art forms continue to be co-opted.

The roots of this project began with my graphic design senior thesis at Oregon State University.

To give you a little background to my motivations, below are some writing excerpts from my senior project from over 10 years ago now, which I feel are still applicable. (Note: I used the terms First Nations, Native American, Native, and Indian interchangeably to refer to the same groups of people.)

What is Graphic Design?

Graphic design is a form of visual language dealing with the creation and organization of text and images, alternatively listed under the headings of marketing, advertising, and more broadly, communication. The results of graphic design are found everywhere. Graphic design is employed on media such as books, posters, pamphlets, business cards, letterheads, flyers, banners, and even receipts. It is used on t-shirts, product tags, makeup, and shampoo. Graphic design is used in digital media such as the opening credits in movies, commercials, email ads, and in the layout and imagery of websites. Graphic design is used in developing a brand, also known as the look and feel of a company, organization, or person, and includes the logo, a significant marker of identity. Graphic design can be purely functional. It can be artistic mastery. In any combination, it is a valuable process for creating and distributing messages and ideas, potentially playing a large role in how people view the world.

The Lack of Native Voices

In the field of design, Native Americans are underrepresented both as audiences and as designers. Historically, Native Americans have endured intense misrepresentation, exclusion, oppression and genocide. Although we have moved forward as a society in many ways, there are still problems of inclusion and representation to be overcome. AIGA, “the professional association for design,” an organization setting standards in design, has noted the need for greater diversity within the design profession. Back in 2007, they stated that: “only 10 percent of the design profession is other than white Caucasian,” in spite of 42% of the United States’ population being other than white. (http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/insight-doubling-membership) Also, responses to a survey conducted by AIGA led to a surprisingly low number of minorities among AIGA members, with Native Americans not mentioned by name. (http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/initiatives-diversity). Essentially, the majority of design, which affects people of all backgrounds, is primarily conducted by people of one group, who may or may not have a good grasp on issues affecting those outside of this group. Unfortunately, the latter state occurs frequently. A lack of diverse voices leads to both intentional and unintentional biases in graphic design work. Sadly, ignorant, inappropriate and racist imagery of Indians persists to this day. For example, the name of Lakota leader Crazy Horse has been used for marketing products against the wishes of his descendants. One of the worse cases is by the Hornell Brewing Co. In spite of the reality that Crazy Horse was against the consumption of alcohol, they used him to brand their “Crazy Horse Malt Liquor.” (http://www.greenamerica.org/pubs/realgreen/articles/nativeamericanmktng.cfm) The book Designing Across Cultures (written by Ronnie Lipton in 2002) urged the increasing need to design for growing diverse audiences in the United States from a largely business standpoint, with a tone seemingly directed at white designers. Although the book went in-depth about several groups (though certainly not all), Native Americans were not mentioned here either. However, an article originally published by American Demographics in 2001 spoke to increasing numbers (and wealth) among Native Americans — and thusly their potential as a target for marketing. (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m4021/is_2001_August_1/ai_78426752)

While solid work has been done, can be done, and should be done by non-Native companies and designers for Native American groups — the best graphic designers are good listeners — it is vital that graphic design strongly emanates from within these groups as well. Lakota intellectual Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, after much discussion about the lack of Native voices and misrepresentation of Natives especially in literature, states that: “Art and literature and storytelling are at the epicenter of all that an individual or a nation intends to be. And someone more profound than most said that a nation that does not tell its own stories cannot be said to be a nation at all. To think that the reverse of that comment is still true, that at the close of the twentieth century the ascendant power of Indian storytelling still emanates from long-held patterns of colonizing nations, is profoundly disturbing.” [Anti-Indianism in Modern America: a Voice from Tatekeya’s Earth]

With this in mind, if First Nations are to assume their rights of self-governing to the fullest potential, it is imperative that their members have strong control over their representation, including word and image.

Designing for Native Americans

In an article about Ryan Red Corn, a prominent Native American graphic designer, the Lawrence Journal-World noted his take on non-Native companies trying to design for Natives: “Often, he said, they don’t know what they’re doing. They aren’t connected to the culture of native tribes and struggle with the intricacies of important symbolism.” He went on to say that they “don’t know how to put it together right.” (http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2006/mar/06/american_indian_artist_preserves_link_past) For those wishing to design for Native American groups, it is vital to first realize that the definition of Native American is very broad and one approach will not work for everyone. In North America, there are several regions inhabited by hundreds of tribes with their own histories and cultures. For example, the stereotypical image of a man adorned in buckskins and a headdress, which is how many visualize “Indians,” is not representative of the whole. In fact, this form of dress stems from particular tribes of the Plains region, such as the Lakota. Additionally, a headdress is not to be worn by just anyone, but rather people with significant status, such as chiefs. Just as one would take French culture into account while designing for the French, or Spanish culture while designing for the Spanish, equal care must be taken to design for groups of people spanning an area much larger than Europe, whether they are Hopi, Tlingit, Algonquin, or otherwise. Additionally, there are Native Americans living in rural, suburban and urban areas, and there are Native Americans who have mixed ancestry.

Given these complexities of identity, cliché images of “Indians” should be avoided. With the historical suppression of Native voices in mind, designers should take care that their work speaks accurately on their client’s behalf. Gaining an understanding of broad and local customs in Native America is important for productive relationships with clients. Designs should be sensitive to the values and culture of the Native community or tribe in question. It is important to have a good understanding of cultural imagery, especially in regards to the spiritual significance of certain objects and symbols. This ensures that a design is executed in a respectful way. A solid knowledge of the history and issues that impact Native communities can help the designer better serve these clients. Native designers should be equally attentive in all of these things, especially when designing for those from another tribe.

The Role of Native Lifeways

People of the Seventh Fire: Returning Lifeways of Native America deals with the subject of cultural reclamation and strong positive identity that is taking place today among Native Americans, in the face of centuries of oppression and loss. In an interview in the book, Jim Dumont, an Ojibway who is both a member of the traditional Midewiwin Lodge and professor of Native studies at the University of Sudbury, speaks on how Native ways of being can continue to inform the future:

The lifeway that spoke to our people before, and gave our people life in all the generations before us, is still the way of life that will give us life today. How it will manifest itself and find expression in this new time comes as part of the responsibility of how we go about the revival and the renewal.

“There are ceremonies, teachings, and songs that have always been and will always be. They cannot and should not be changed, but there will be new ceremonies. There will be new songs. There will be a new way of speaking but it will be a way that comes from the foundation of what has always been.

“It will find a new expression that speaks to the people of this time. But it will still be that which has always been.”

[Thorpe, Dagmar, ed. People of the Seventh Fire.]

Jim Dumont notes that “The spiritual foundation of indigenous values, traditional knowledge and culture form the source of inspiration for contemporary paradigms of indigenous learning, development, healing, and creative expression.” This certainly can include the practice and production of graphic design, infused with Native ways of thinking, being and creating. Graphic design can be used carry Native American culture into the future, rather than leaving it behind.

The book Visions for the Future: A Celebration of Young Native American Artists, Volume 1, put together by the Native American Rights Fund, speaks of the work done by NARF on behalf of Native American rights, and features a collection of work by different Native artists working in a variety of mediums, including hip-hop music and yes, graphic design. These new forms, rather than taking away from Native identities, were used to reflect and assert Native American experiences, viewpoints, and tribal sovereignty. The book frames both NARF’s attorneys and the artists as modern day warriors acting for the betterment of those in Indian Country. [Native American Rights Fund. Visions for the Future: A Celebration of Young Native American Artists. Vol. 1.]

Philip Janze, a Gitxsan carver and jewelry maker who strongly embraces tradition, said the following in Challenging Traditions: “I know for a fact that when I was a kid there wasn’t a proud Indian anywhere, and now we’ve got a whole bunch of proud Indians. It is the artists that have changed that.” [Thom, Ian M. Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast.]

Graphic design, as a visual medium, can continue to promote this positive sense of identity.