The art of activism: Painter Fawn Douglas fights for Native culture and lands

Douglas curated Paiute: A Journey through Traditional and Contemporary Art showing at the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort through May 31.
Photo: Wade Vandervort

Artist and activist Fawn Douglas isn’t afraid to share an embarrassing story with a near-stranger. In this case, it’s a comic tale of wardrobe malfunction. During last year’s Memorial Day Pow Wow, a portion of her regalia cut off circulation to her foot as she danced. Each step became more excruciating, until she had to drop out mid-competition. The situation might otherwise be cringe-worthy, but as she relates the sequence of events, you’re there with her, feeling her pain and sharing her laughter.

It’s that unique combination of friendliness, inclusion and vulnerability that makes Douglas so effective. Her activism—and art and dancing and teaching and more—is about lifting everybody up, not spotlighting herself. As such, when the Las Vegas Paiute tribe member (and former tribal councilwoman) speaks, others listen.

“She’s very dynamic,” says Leilani Clark, a member of the group Womxn of Color LV along with Douglas. “She is just so in her element when she speaks from her heart.”

Environmentalism, indigenous rights, education—Douglas uses her heart to advocate for all of them. She has worked to help Gold Butte gain national monument designation, organized fundraisers for protestors against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, created (and still leads) a weekly Pow Wow dance practice for Native youth. She’s one of those people who seems to be everywhere, all at once.

When the political climate changed so dramatically last November, throwing much she has worked for into jeopardy, Douglas initially felt crushed. She found solace in her community groups, and with them, has redoubled her efforts. “I feel like I’ve gotta come harder, be more proactive,” she says. “With Trump in office, it’s a daily fight.”

That battle isn’t just for herself; it’s also for her 16-year-old daughter, Sol, and future generations. Douglas envisions a day when her daughter can enjoy the sacred spaces and desert landscapes in pristine condition. “Whenever I go to a march or a walk, she’s with me,” says Douglas, who brought her daughter onstage when she spoke at the Women’s March. “It’s so important when you’re doing anything, to pull the next generation with you. That’s f*cking mandatory.”

Douglas says she feels more comfortable than ever in her own skin. But at the same time, when older folks look askance at her tattoos, she questions herself. In seeking a balance between two worlds, between tradition and innovation, she asks: Would my family be proud? Would my ancestors be proud?

Anyone would be proud of the art show Douglas recently curated. Paiute: A Journey through Traditional and Contemporary Art features four artists (including Douglas) from different Paiute Tribes. Originally displayed at Nevada Humanities’ gallery, it’s showing at the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort through May 31.

Douglas’ art combines traditional and contemporary imagery in pieces that often carry a political message. She sometimes melds the ram iconography of petroglyphs with an edgy street-art style. Other paintings feature bright watercolor landscapes that hint at what will be lost if we don’t care for our natural resources.

The images arrive in response to deep emotion. She “gets a push,” visualizing them in her head, then translates them to the physical realm. Sometimes the emotions—often intense love or anger—appear as murals, oil paintings, woven baskets or ceramics. But spray paint is her favorite medium, because it offers instant creative gratification.

The Snow Mountain Pow Wow is just around the corner, and Douglas seems ready. She’s been doing regular cardio, and the effort shows. A playlist of fast, hypnotic drums and chanting keeps the energy high. Douglas stays in constant motion as she leads her group in a circular dance.

One student, 17-year-old Ryan Boone, is at his first practice. A graduating high school senior and member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, he wants to learn how to move to the music he loves. When class is complete, he sounds inspired to continue learning. “It’s amazing,” he says.

“That’s what I love about this next generation: They get it,” Douglas says. “They see what’s going on. Their attention is attuned to what’s happening in the world. I wasn’t like that when I was a teenager. I didn’t care about anything outside of myself.”

Despite political turmoil and calamitous environmental degradation, Douglas maintains hope for the future: “If we can’t keep Gold Butte protected, if we can’t keep Red Rock clean, if we can’t do that in our generation, this next one is going to succeed.”

Paiute: A Journey through Traditional & Contemporary Art Through May 31. Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort, 500 E. Washington Ave., 702-486-3511, nuwuart.com.

Snow Mountain Pow Wow May 27-28, $5-$7. Las Vegas Paiute Snow Mountain Indian Reservation, US-95 North at Exit 99, 702-910-2593, lvpaiutetribe.com.

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