Karen Sixkiller is a contemporary Cherokee sculptor and Washington native residing on the Olympic Peninsula and walking in two (or more?) worlds as a mixed white and “at large” Cherokee Nation citizen. Studying social psychology in graduate school taught her the discipline of scientific research, which she applies to cultural research and Native social justice issues to inform her art. Her formal education in public health and elementary education brought her to New Mexico and the Indian Health Service, where she worked with all 23 sovereign nations and with children from each community at a Native-owned residential tribal school. These experiences and influences have coalesced in her passion for teaching new perspectives through art. Sixkiller’s work has been featured at the Port Angeles Fine Arts Center, ʔaʔkʷustəŋáw̕txʷ Peninsula College Longhouse, Cherokee Art Market, Cherokee Homecoming Art Show, and Klallam Heritage Center. She is currently working on a monumental bronze and steel sculpture to be installed in the Cherokee Nation capital city of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in August 2023.
“I created a game-ready chessboard with 32 individually sculpted porcelain pieces illustrating current and historical parallels of American subjugation policies. Sixteen pawns (eight Native children from various North American tribes and eight backpack-wearing schoolchildren) and four schoolhouse-shaped rooks represent the discovery of Indian boarding-school burial sites and modern-day school shootings. Other pieces represent abuse of power: an Andrew Jackson-like caricature as the historical king; bishops and televangelists with pockets of money; and a jingle dress-wearing woman with MMIW on her fan and a red handprint over her face as the modern-day queen. Faces are blank, as anonymous as the countless, true-to-life people depicted.” —Karen Sixkiller
What does the idea of “justice for Native communities” mean to you?
That’s a hard question because justice looks different for each individual person, and communities are groups of individuals. Generational trauma is real, it’s in our DNA and each new baby will have to find a path to justice. So “justice for Native communities” means to acknowledge past injustices, work to repair them whenever possible, and ultimately evolve actively and honestly as a species beyond perpetuating future injustices. I’m not sure if justice is obtainable in my lifetime, but I am sure we can get closer.
What do you think needs to happen in the world to achieve justice for Native communities?
To my mind, obtaining justice is like addiction recovery. First, we must admit we have a problem, and a large part of that problem is financial greed. We need to move through the feelings of despair; that the problem is too big, too deeply rooted, too fundamental to the human condition, and embrace the knowledge that CHANGE IS POSSIBLE. In 2019, a Harvard study found that only 3.5% of any population is needed to create societal change. So, if we continue to commit to change and educating others, eventually our 3.5% will take action and achieve it.
How do you express justice through your artwork?
My art aims to express justice on multiple levels, and I strive to have these messages resonate and be accessible for Native and non-Native viewers. By presenting images or objects that non-Natives “know,” but have Native imagery or perspectives embedded in them, people from any walk of life have a place to start thinking about each sculpture, each justice problem. I hope people may then start a questioning process, an opening of the mind to find new understandings of a Native justice issue.
Is there anything else you would like to share about Native justice and your artwork?
Ultimately, I hope to help the generational healing process for Natives by explicitly acknowledging the injustices and inequalities we have experienced and helping to make them more salient to non-Native viewers who could be allies in our quest for justice. Indeed, the abuser is also harmed when they abuse, and advocating for the abused is the path to repairing their self-inflicted wounds. Humanity can only be whole when we all are free.