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Native Now Festival Artists Talk Indigenous Culture and The Native Identity Today

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This Saturday the Native Now Festival will bring performers, artists, and musicians from all over Arizona and the country to the Deer Valley Rock Art Center for a daylong celebration of contemporary indigenous culture. Each of the performances will explore what it means to be an indigenous person in Arizona today through media including spoken performances, film, and music.

Performances will include "My Transformation" by artist and educator Melanie Sainz. Sainz says she has been presenting the work for more than 40 years, since she first toured the country after being named Miss Indian America. Sainz, a member of the Hochunk Nation of Wisconsin, has presented the work at schools, festivals and more since that time.

See also: 9 Fall Festivals in Metro Phoenix

"My Transformation" begins with Sainz dressed in modern apparel. She tries to dress in a way that would be typical for the specific show. And then she begins to don traditional Hochunk regalia. As she goes she discusses each item of clothing, sharing the clothing's significance and telling stories of her tribe's heritage. Sainz says she expects the performance to be about 20 minutes long.

"I go into the dialogue trying to dispel stereotypes and issues that are present today," Sainz says.

She also tries to use the performance as an opportunity to bring attention to the reality of native people, which she says have been "trophy-ized" by being used as mascots and in popular culture.

"There's nothing for us," she says. "We're still people, but people don't really recognize us."

Sainz is also a ceramics artist who works in glass bead and porcupine quillwork, pottery, contemporary mixed media sculpture, and found object art. You can find out more information about her nonprofit, Little Eagle Arts Foundation, which supports emerging native artists at the foundation's website.

Native Now will also include screenings of three works by award-winning filmmakers Dustinn Craig and Velma Kee Craig. The couple has been making films professionally for 15 years.

"These three films are part of our creative projects - so they're our independent films," Velma Kee Craig says. "I think we chose them [for the festival] ... because they are something we do for fun."

The first film, I Belong to This, is the fist nationally broadcast film Dustinn created. He produced the 17-minute documentary for a 2003 PBS series called Matters of Race. The four-part series took viewers to diverse communities throughout the state to explore racial dynamics and our national identity.

The couple's second film, "In This Manner I Am," is an animated work based on a poem written by Velma. She wrote and directed the one and a half minute film, while her husband completed the experimental animation. The film and poem deal with interactions between native and non-native people in a city setting.

"I guess it would be sort of subtle but it sort of tries to get across interactions that I've experienced," Velma says. "Situations where people -- not intentionally -- made me feel uncomfortable."

The third film the couple will be screen is called Interview with Einstein, a short comedy that stars the their children and dog. Described as a "short family film," the live action work shows the couple's children interviewing their dog, Einstein. This last work explores the family identity in a humorous way, without focusing specifically on their native identity.

"We create things for our community," Velma says. "But we also don't want all of our stores to be centered around the fact the fact that we're native. We're also human and we have the same types of experiences as the rest of the population."

In addition to the films the couple will also have a booth at the event with their other artistic work on display. Velma is a traditional Navajo weaver, who creates conceptual designs in traditional style. Dustinn does illustrations, photography, and has his own skateboard line .

Admission to the Native Now Festival is free. It will be held on Saturday, November 23, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the ASU Deer Valley Rock Art Center. For more information visit the DVRAC website.

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