Sunday, August 23, 2009

Prayer Stick

Thanks everyone for your thoughtful posts on my note about art and community. :) I had a wonderful time responding!

I wanted to share an art project that our readings, conversations, and my own studies for this semester has inspired. It is a prayer stick, in the tradition of the Hopis (who, interesting, are the people that the Navajos learned to weave from, so it makes sense for me to learn from them too!). I was inspired by the idea of a prayer stick because if you seek to create change in the world, the best place to start is to first make space for constructive change at home.

Here is the story and symbolism behind the stick's creation and the items that became part of the project.

I gathered the stick from a dead small tree near the edge of the forest behind my tapestry studio (a 16-foot diameter yurt), thanking the tree spirits. I am not a carver, so my ornamentation was with fibers (yarns) and found objects. The collection and process of assembling and dedicating the prayer stick was very meditative and mind-clearing.
Prayer sticks are often decorated with feathers. Native Americans (American Indians, First Nation peoples...whichever is your preference) can use any feathers they find, but Euro-Americans are restricted to domestic fowel and game birds. It is actually illegal for me to have, say, a feather from a bald eagle or even a blue jay in my posession. But this morning while we were out moving the animals in the pasture, I found the tail feather of a wild turkey, and that was like a message to me that today was the day for making a prayer stick.

To this feather I added two collected tail feathers from my own heritage breed turkeys--a black one and a white one (both with brown tips). It somehow felt right that the domestic and the wild should be brought together--just as the young white woman was following Native traditions in that moment. Then, sorting through the house, I found some other items to add to the prayer stick for symbolic and real value.

At the top is a round piece of clear glass, held by some thin wire. The glass faces south-eastward, reflecting the light of the sun--the bringer of life and energy and the true time keeper for both Native and agrarian cultures. Then there is a polished stone, also held in wire, which is a symbol of this great blessing--the Earth--on which we all walk and breathe, a place to be nurtured and shared. There also is an arrowhead of polymer clay that I had made back in gradeschool. It is a symbol of my question of what it means for a non-Native artist to produce Native-inspired art. How does one follow this path with respct and constructive conversation amongst cultures? Below is a spiny seed pod, in remembrance of all the hurt inflicted by Euro-Americans over hundreds of years of occupation. And the shell is to remind us of the gifts we have to share with one another. The six butterfly beads (even numbers being sacred to Native cultures) are there because butterflies--like birds--are spirit messengers. the yarns are in the colors of the earth, left to float in the air and twist and braid as they so desire.
And so I dedicated this prayer stick today, planted in the corner of the herb garden by my studio, in the hopes that this study may bring greater cultural reconciliation, even if it is only in a small way. We start by starting at home. :)


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  2. Hi Laura,

    I was so moved by your entry and work on this project. It is so ironic, because today I was talking with a co-worker about the debate around creating art related to a culture or community in which we may be an outsider to.

    We were talking a lot about respect and the need of constant mindfulness and collaboration with the community that we are working with or creating from.

    I was so touched to see your work. I think it is so meaningful and powerful to read about your process.

    I am interested by the notion of "home". I have been thinking a lot about that lately. I have been questioning why it is taht I ran away from home so quickly and tried for so long to not look back or give that place worth.

    I am finding now as I reconnect with my parents that I have come home again for the first time in a long while. I feel connected to a place that I tried so desparately to disconnect from.

    Your work inspired me to think about home again and be mindful of that experience.

    In fact I feel rather inspired to go back and work on an art project that I have been toying with.

    I am working on a self portraiture art project that involves me using and altering images of myself from old family photos and ones I have taken throughout the years and morphing them onto a composite performance piece of self including original text, image, and music.

    Perhaps I can find some of the same rootedness you shared with your prayer stick.

    What an excellent idea! Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

    I look forward to reading and experiencing more of your work.

    Take Care,

  3. Thanks so much Fran for taking the time to read and your thoughtful response! Your art project sounds great, and I hope you continue to work on it. :)

    I'm not sure I really found "home" until we moved up here to the farm. We moved a lot when I was a child, and drove a lot, so the musician saying that "home is where the van is"--I can sympathize with that. We had always come up to the farm, which Grandma and Grandpa own, for vacation time and Christmas. But we moved up permanently in 2000, and this is the longest I've been in one spot! To me, home has a lot to do with family, but--especially on a farm--it has so much to do with the land. The relationship that is created with this piece of sacred earth that we tend grows very deep as you work it with your hands, care for your animals, learn its patterns and changes throughout the year--and it's little quirks. I'm not sure if living in a city would ever feel right again...after living on the farm. No wonder it was so heartbreaking for so many who had to abandon their farms during the Depression. I can't imagine what that must have been like!

    Again, thanks so much Fran. It's always great sharing thoughts with you!

  4. Hi Laura,

    I love the prayer stick!! I have studied with different Native Americans over the years and the prayer and talking stick are wonderful tools, objects, art, and ritual to connect with roots, earth, and others. I was on the Hopi Reservation years ago. Non Natives are allowed to stay on the reservation for two days. Well I hung out at the laundry mat on one of those days. I was first an outsider for sure but as I did my laundry and was quiet and gracious to be there, I did receive smiles at the end of my stay. Have a great day, Nancy. Beautiful prayer stick.

  5. Laura,
    You might want to read Lucy Lippard's book Overlay where she talks about artists who are trying to incorporate symbols and myths into their contemporary work with new perspectives and meanings while still paying respect to the cultures and histories those myths and symbols represent.