A galaxy not so far away
Exhibit explores connections between Star Wars and Indigenous cultures

A galaxy not so far away

Artist Ryan Singer's painting of an AT-AT Walker taking a casual stroll by Shiprock./ Photo by Jonathan Romeo

Jonathan Romeo - 09/21/2023

A wildly popular art exhibit, which blends Star Wars with contemporary Native American art, is about to land at Fort Lewis College’s Center for Southwest Studies.

In October 2019, “The Force is With Our People” opened at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff to critical acclaim. The exhibit dived into the influence Star Wars has on present day Indigenous artists, exploring why this particular piece of popular culture resonates so deeply with Native communities, especially those in the Southwest.

“The Force is With Our People” stayed on display until October 2020, but, you know, some stuff happened in 2020 and that killed much of the momentum behind the exhibit.

Tony Thibodeau, the exhibit’s founder and curator, said the intent wasn’t to take the display on tour. This past year, however, an opportunity came up to revive the exhibit at Fort Lewis College, though under a different name – “Return of the Force” – and with some new artwork.

“In a way, I don’t think of this as an art exhibit,” Thibodeau said. “I think of it more as exploring this cultural connection between the pop culture of Star Wars and traditional Native American art. I didn’t want it to feel like you were walking into a gallery; I wanted to feel like walking into another world.”

Indeed, it’s rather uncanny how contemporary Native American artists have interweaved the imagery and aesthetic of one of the most popular film franchises in history, which began with the 1977 film “Star Wars: A New Hope,” and quickly became a worldwide pop culture phenomenon.

And, at the same time, the popularity of Star Wars has provided a venue for Native American artists to showcase their work, culture and history on a much wider platform.

“Some of these pieces deal with an extremely painful and difficult history, but it’s presented in a way people can relate to and not feel lectured about,” Thibodeau said.

Do. Or do not.

The genesis of the original “The Force is With Our People’’ started around 2016 after Thibodeau went to an Indigenous comic con in Albuquerque that focused on Native American artists who were incorporating pop culture into their work. There, Thibodeau saw how many people were infusing Star Wars imagery into their art. On top of that, he learned that the original 1977 film, “A New Hope,” was translated into Diné, the language of the Navajo people.

For the next two years, Thibodeau went back to comic con and saw the event triple in size. And, more than any other material in pop culture, Star Wars was by far the most popular and prevalent among Indigenous artists.

“So clearly something was going on there,” he said. “Then I got the idea that this would be an interesting exhibit.”

Thibodeau, who serves as the Director of Research and Collections at the Museum of Northern Arizona, said he wanted the voice of those artists to be prominent, exploring the central question: why artists felt inspired to incorporate the Star Wars world into their work.

The exhibit was an instant hit, covered by news media across the world and winning the 2020 Viola Award for Excellence in Visual Arts. Over the past few years, though, some pieces were returned to their artists, others sold, and there wasn’t any real plan to travel it. That is, until Duane Koyawena, one of the featured artists, came knocking.

This is the way

So what is it about Star Wars that fits so seamlessly with Native American art? Well, it depends on which artist you ask.

For Ryan Singer, a Diné artist, it started when he was about 4 years old, when “A New Hope,” was first released.

“It basically blew my mind,” he said.

As a kid, Singer would draw characters and play with action figures (not toys!). Years later, around 2000, he started experimenting in his art by adding Star Wars characters into the landscapes of the Navajo Nation. It all eerily seemed to fit, especially with the similarities between the desert of the reservation and (geek out alert!) the deserts of Luke Skywalker’s home on Tatooine.

“In that first film, it’s all dusty and desolate; those washes, rocky hills and arroyos,” Singer said. “It looked basically where my grandma lived in Tuba City. It all made sense.”

Now, Singer uses the Star Wars medium as an opportunity to educate a wider audience on Native history. In one of his most accomplished pieces, Singer painted a split screen image of an Ewok – one in its Native regalia and weapons, side by side with an Ewok captured by the Empire, in uniform, cut hair and behind a desk.

Singer said the image is supposed to evoke the history of boarding schools, in which Native children were stolen from their families and communities, not allowed to speak their language and forced to become Americanized in an attempt to wipe out their culture.

“Art is a way of communicating, and this is my way of educating people about that history,” Singer said. “And it’s not in your face. It’s very subtle. We’re using this popular piece of pop culture to reel people in and tell our story.”

Built on hope

Koyawena, who is taking the lead in curating the exhibit at Fort Lewis College, said his connection to Star Wars is on a personal and spiritual level. He takes life lessons out of the battle between the light and dark sides of the force, and uses Jedi teachings as reminders to remain humble.

“For myself, in my own life, as well as in my Hopi culture, there are battles between good and evil,” he said. “And we strive to embrace the light and turn away from the dark. In some of the ceremonies and practices we do, we are not supposed to have that darkness in us.”

Koyawena was instrumental in the original exhibit’s shining star, a functioning R2D2 that’s adorned with Native American imagery.

“We knew that R2 would be huge,” he said. “People from all over were mind-blown over it.”Christal Ratt, a member of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake Tribe in Quebec, Canada, said she believes Native artists take so strongly to Star Wars because of one of the movie’s main themes – resistance against imperial forces, which resonates with Indigenous peoples.

“For our people, we’ve always been resisting – whether that’s genocide, policies on our people, the government – just everything we’ve been through,” she said. “It’s always been a resistance in trying to survive. And now we’re trying to revitalize a lot of the things we were made to feel ashamed about.”

One of Ratt’s pieces is a Mandalorian helmet with woodland and floral designs. It features the color orange in recognition of the Every Child Matters movement, which seeks to highlight the damage boarding schools had on Native people.

“I thought – if we had our own super hero, what would he wear?” Ratt said. “I wanted to honor our own grassroots people out there protecting our land, our language and our rights.”

Going into hyperspace
In the original “The Force is With Our People,” Thibodeau said he wanted pieces that were already made connecting Star Wars and Indigenous cultures to explore that existing relationship. “I didn’t want the exhibit itself as an influence for people creating that art,” he said.

But now, with the wild success of the exhibit, the cat’s out of the bag, Thibodeau said. As a result, the display at Fort Lewis College features new artists and new pieces solicited specifically for this exhibit. 
With more than 20 featured artists, it’s not just paintings and droids. Work in the show also consists of ceramics, beadwork, graphic art, jewelry and cosplay outfits.

And, while each artists’ connection to Star Wars differs, at the end of the day, it just looks cool, Thibodeau said.

“It’s hard to put your finger on it,” Thibodeau said. “I almost like to envision the Navajo Nation as a parallel universe that’s an expansion of the Star Wars universe. I know that’s not canon, but it doesn’t matter to me.” 

To check out the exhibit, catch the grand opening Wed., Sept. 27, at 5:30 p.m. as well as an artist panel at 6 p.m. The exhibit will remain up until August 2024.