Our Humans of ArtPlace series takes its cue from the famed Humans of New York project. This month, as our blog tells stories of “the people behind creative placemaking,” we asked the driving forces behind three ingenious ArtPlace-funded projects to give us some personal insights on work, life, art, and place.
Tawna Little is a member of the Maskoke collective Ekvn-Yefolecv (“E-gun YEE-fol-EE-ja”), an Indigenous group who has reclaimed some of their ancestral homelands in what is now Weogufka, Alabama. The group's cultural placekeeping work includes reintroducing native plants and animals to the area and reawakening traditional arts, including their language and women’s medicinal practices. Ekvn-Yefolecv believes these efforts will revive and protect their people's traditional relationship to the earth, breathe new life into their language and culture, and improve health outcomes for their community. Tawna spoke with ArtPlace from the Biodynamic Association’s 2018 Conference in Seattle.
ArtPlace: This story published on the ArtPlace blog in March says, “On January 12, 2018, Ekvn-Yefolecv became official ‘land owners’ of 577 acres of Alabama woods.” What has your first almost-year on the land been like?
Tawna: It hasn’t really been easy. But anything good has a hard time, right? In the summer, we had an immersion program, and it was awesome to see the kids and parents swimming in the lake together and having fun, and our language being spoken—all in our original place. It gets tiring, driving from Florida [where Tawna and her family live part-time] to Alabama, so those moments when all the parents and kids are there having a good time gave me a recharge.
It made me realize how vital this ecovillage really is to the sustainability of our language. We were able to keep our students in a Maskoke language immersion environment around the clock—that is different from our regular immersion program throughout the year, where students go home to an English-speaking environment. Seeing full-time language immersion on the land, from day to night, caused me to realize for the first time, outside of the mere distant concept we had hoped for in this project vision, that this ecovillage really is the only authentic pathway to the survival of our language and healthy living. That made me ready to tackle the next phase and work through whatever problems will come. I know it’s all going to be okay, because the kids and parents are going to come back, and because we’re going to come back.
ArtPlace: That blog story also discusses Ekvn-Yefolecv’s plans to build straw bale homes and other structures similar to the ones Maskoke people traditionally lived in, and to give up some of the creature comforts that capitalism forces on modern society. Now that you’ve spent some time transitioning to a simpler way of life, what do you think of it?
Tawna: It’s been hard to wrap my head around. In theory, it’s like, “Yeah! This is good for the environment! This is good for people!” But in practicality, you don’t realize how much of a lifestyle change you have to make. I had to do a lot of soul checking and searching; I had to get really get ready for the full transition. When you grow up in poverty, as many of us Maskoke People have, it's a strange concept to think that going back to a seemingly impoverished way of life would be desirable. But, we've been working through this to distinguish the difference between the imposition of poverty as a byproduct of colonial oppression, and intentionally choosing to live a simple and healthy lifestyle wherein we aren't chasing the capitalist dream because that goal is inherently incompatible with ecological sustainability and our indigeneity altogether.
But I didn’t really verbalize my difficulty with it. I kept it to myself because it’s not just about me, it’s about my kids [ages 13, 6, and 4], and how that attitude would affect them. The 13-year-old, she just wants to be where her friends are, and I just have to let her go through that. I can’t stifle it, because I don’t want her to think of Ekvn-Yefolecv as a chore or a burden, but as place she can always go back to, because that’s where her people are, that's her home.
When we aren’t able to make it to Alabama for a while, the kids do start to ask us, “Can we go back? I want to swim!” They do watch videos and stuff, but I feel like they just do that because they’re not in nature. We don’t have access to water [recreation] where we live in Florida, so my son, when we’re in Ekvn-Yefolecv, we really have to watch him—or there’s just a trail of clothes he’s leaving as he runs down to the lake! He has no shame about swimming naked, and I love that. I love that my kids have that freedom that you don’t have in an urban setting, where there are always eyes on you.
I grew up with my grandparents on a garden in Oklahoma; a plot of land the government gave us after they displaced us from our original land. I really grew up out outside; those were my best memories. A lot of kids today don’t have that, so when I can give it to my kids now, I can say, “Okay, not all is lost.”
ArtPlace: What are the most common misconceptions you think non-Indigenous people hold about Indigenous people?
Tawna: When our presence in Alabama started to become more known to the community, a lot of people thought we were building a casino. A lot of people think that Indians have casinos and money, which is not always true! And there are a lot of social things... Back home, Indians are alcoholics and drug addicts, and it’s kind of to be expected because of the historical trauma and displacement we’ve experienced, but everyone’s trying to find a better way to process and to deal with all of these things.
I don’t even know where to begin with some people. You know you’re not going to change their perspective about Indigenous people. So each time, in the moment, I have to decide: am I going to engage, or just let this go? Because I could spend my energy on other things. For the most part, we’re just living our lives, and that in itself can do a lot to change people’s perspective on Indigenous people.
A lot of people think that just because we’re Indigenous that we automatically have a connection to the land and that we would naturally want to do something like this. And we do, but because of all we’ve experienced, that thread is getting lost, and it’s hard to find. Sometimes when I talk to people, I can see they put me in this spiritual realm like, “Oh you’re connected with nature!” And now I do feel that I am, but it took me a long time to get here.
ArtPlace: Anything else to add?
Tawna: I’m just thankful for the opportunity to tell my story, because it’s connecting the dots between the past, present, and future: me, my grandparents, my parents, my kids... Thank you for asking, because our stories haven’t been told—especially Native women’s stories.