Native American artists in Phoenix express experiences, community issues and cultural pride

Piersten Doctor paints in a studio at the Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center in downtown Phoenix. (Photo by Madelaine Braggs/PIN Bureau)

By Madelaine Braggs

Native Americans pass their traditions, experiences and tribal history through the art of storytelling. Through experimentation and modernization, these traditional methods are being incorporated to create contemporary masterpieces in which many artists express not only what is in their heart, but also issues in their communities.

Piersten Doctor, of the Navajo Nation, has had his hands on paintbrushes since he was a child. Just short of his 20th birthday, Doctor has been commissioned for more than 30 pieces. “As long as I can remember, I’ve been painting. I used to watch my brother paint. I taught myself by copying his techniques,” he said.

Some of his fondest memories from childhood are lying under a clear and unpolluted sky, adorned with stars he used as a compass to navigate through sacred lands.


A painting by Piersten Doctor at the Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center. (Photo by Madelaine Braggs/PIN Bureau)

Aurora Castaneda from the Tohono O’odham Nation tribe is a clay artist who also mixes traditional aspects into her contemporary pieces. Her ultimate vision for her art is to reinvent housing in reservations where resources are hard to find.

In the wake of tragedy, artistic expression can be the shining light that transforms pain into beauty. Castaneda discussed many painful struggles that she’s observed affecting her people, and, in her opinion, the most prominent is sexual assault, an experience she is all too familiar with. “Whenever I meet someone who grew up on a reservation, in the back of my mind I always assume that they’ve gone through the same thing because it’s so common,” she said.

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Justice, 56.1 percent of American Indian and Alaskan Native women and 27.5 percent of men had experienced sexual violence. From 1992 to 2005, American Indian and Alaska Native people age 12 or older experienced an average of almost 7,000 rapes and sexual assaults per year, the study reports.

Sexual Violence

Violence against American Indians and Alaskan Natives in their lifetime. (Infographic by Madelaine Braggs via Canva)

For Samantha Toledo, the art of Navajo rug weaving was something she inherited when her grandmother passed away leaving Toledo her loom and collection of tools. Toledo remembers weaving beside her grandmother when she was very young, but as the years passed she grew away from the craft. “I’m barely a novice,” she said. “I barely know how to set up my loom.”


According to Toledo, Google search isn’t a very good way to learn the traditional craft, but the Heard Museum, dedicated to Native American art, history and culture, is a hub of information. There she attended a weaving workshop and almost a decade after her first rug, her second design has been created.

For the Navajo tribe, weaving is a female role and is passed down through generations of family. “I want to carry this tradition. No one else in my immediate family knows how. It’s something that brings the family together. It tells stories,” Toledo said. “I don’t think there should be gender specificity to weaving. It can be enjoyed by everyone.”

Gender roles in this community are, in fact, flexible. “If anyone is sincere and genuine with their interests, then they’re supported and given the space to create,” said Gila River Indian Community art historian and educator David Martinez. 

IMG_3802Martinez (pictured left)  said gender fluidity has been present unanimously amongst tribes across North America. While tribal history, dialects and traditions differ, all tribes recognize and respect a “two-spirit” belief where a person identifies as someone with a male and female spirit. Some identify as a woman with a man spirit, and others identify as a man with a female spirit, and these identifications are not synonymous with sexual orientation.

Jeffrey Lazos Ferns is of Mexican Yaqui descent, a member of the LGBTQ communities and founder of Tarra Lazos Creative, which hosted the first-ever American Indian drag pageant, Miss Apache Diva Pageant on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation.

“Elders and spiritual leaders can sense a two-spirit from birth, and it’s considered an honor. When you’re more in tune, you wonder how anyone could cause a child pain for being who they are,” Lazos Ferns said.

The Miss Apache Diva Pageant “hit a nerve” with some opposing views in the local community. He said the pageant producer Timothy Ward was receiving death threats, that they had a hard time finding a venue and people were protesting. But local governments and family members supported the historic event and together they showed the protesters, “we are here and we are fabulous.”

Members from tribes across Arizona traveled to participate. They answered questions in their tribal dialects, incorporated dance, music and showed off their elaborate makeup.

“Of course makeup is art! It’s empowering. It’s powerful,” Lazos Ferns said. “The courage it takes to put on a mask and go out and say this is who I am is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”  

Martinez is thrilled with the modern direction younger generations have driven Native art. “If these artists weren’t given the opportunity to experiment with their art then the Heard Museum would just be a place filled with old artifacts,” he said.

Orlando Dugi, Navajo beader and fashion designer spoke at the Heard Museum for the Threads that Bind seminar where he said, “Yes I am native and I am inspired by my culture, but I am an artist and that isn’t confined to tradition.”


(Navajo rug photo courtesy of Samantha Toledo. David Martinez photo by Madelaine Braggs/PIN Bureau)