The sting still stings.
Yet it’s part of what strengthens her.
Listen to the memory:“I was treated very low because the bus would come through and the Paiute colony is all trailers. They would treat me like I was trailer trash,” said 42-year-old Fawn Douglas, flipping the script of her life back a few decades to her pre-college days.
“They had a lot of choice words. I remem-ber this so clearly. I should deal with that trauma someday. They’d throw paper on the floor and say ‘Fetch.’ I was less than. One, I was brown. Two, I was poor. They knew I lived in a trailer, and they reminded me of how I was trash every single day.”
“I’m proud of who I am every day,” said the UNLV alumna/MFA candidate/graduate as-sistant/multigenre artist/community activist/fiercely proud Indigenous woman — and co-impresario of a new Maryland Parkway art studio that will help her encapsulate it all.
“Some people will always be searching for who they are through groups or religions. I know who I am, and I know whose land this is, and this is Paiute land,” she said. “My ancestors went through so much just for me to breathe. I learned to stand in my power.”
She doesn’t merely stand in it. Douglas wraps it tightly around her soul. Then this talented woman vividly channels her power through mind-widening, activist-fueled art that can stop traffic. Or at least slow it.
“People drove by — some people drove by twice,” Douglas said of her recent public art piece downtown near the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office on Las Vegas Boulevard.
Forced sterilizations of minority women at an ICE detention center in Georgia triggered a national outcry. Further stirring her action were memories of her mother’s story. She had nearly undergone the same procedure in Oklahoma in the 1970s — until she read the paperwork and warned off other Native American women in an act of resistance that still resonates with her daughter. She just goes about it differently.
“Art can be a very powerful tool. I could hold a protest sign, but how do I draw in the viewer, the public, to learn about it?” Douglas asked. “I had some hospital gowns donated to me by a friend. I [painted] blood in the lower abdomen area and wrote the words ‘genocide’ in red on the front. Women who joined me represented those (minority) histories. We had this intersectional piece of art and stood six feet apart with masks on and the hospital gowns over our clothing. Some people driving by were like, ‘Oh, that’s disgusting’ — or people were questioning it, and that was the point. We want people to question it. It happened then and it’s happening now.”
Activism, education, and representation through art. This is Douglas’ power, the sum of everything she is. She is Native American to her core — a member of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe and one-time tribal councilwoman with roots also in the Moapa Paiute, Cheyenne, Pawnee, and Creek nations.She continually learns — holding an associate degree in global studies from the College of Southern Nevada, a bachelor’s degree in art from UNLV (in 2015), and is on her way to a UNLV master of fine art degree.
She teaches — instructing art students as a graduate assistant while on her way to completion of that postgraduate degree in 2022. She puts her money where her values are — being a community organizer for environmental conservation of Standing Rock, Gold Butte National Monument, and the Desert National Wildlife refuge; working as a cultural specialist for immersive art/music company Meow Wolf; and serving on the board of the Institute for a Progressive Nevada.
Yet she mostly inspires, addressing race, class, and gender issues, exploring all aspects of being Native American in our community. Douglas does this in boundary-busting fashion, whether her creations involve native “butterfly dances” of female resilience, murals, basket weaving, video, social media, beadwork, and cultural costuming – only the tip of her artistic iceberg.
Now she provides ways for those of other cultures to do likewise. Late last year, Douglas and her life/business partner, A.B. “Aaron” Wilkinson, a UNLV history professor, purchased a long-empty, ex-synagogue space on Maryland Parkway. Envisioned as a combo art studio/gallery space/community center, the handful of small, stucco buildings are buzzing with refurbishing and revitalizing as an artistic collective.
Named the Nuwu Art and Activism Studios (“Nuwu” means “the people” as well as “Southern Paiute people”), it is cleaning up nicely and includes eight artist studios, a kitchen, a back parking lot suitable for outdoor events, and a shared front-hall gallery.
Artists and activists flocking to it so far are: Ashanti McGee and Brent Holmes of Mesa Gallery; mixed-media artists Juan Cuevas, and Xochil Placencia; Metzli healer Yosha Shay; filmmaker Ben-Alex Dupris; Michelle Hardy-Rodriguez, who created My Scars Are Beautiful; photographer Troy Shay; and Mercedes Krause, Lance West, and Rata Hickey of the nonprofit organization Indigenous Education Empowerment.
Among the elements powering her ever-expansive projects? UNLV.
“With the MFA cohort, there are 11 of us and everyone is so different, from different backgrounds and states,” Douglas said.
“Through the master’s program we’re learning about curating and community connections and writing and being expressive with our work.”
Anchoring all her nearly Wonder Woman-esque undertakings, however, is her own cultural pride.
First among the takeaways she’d like people to absorb from all her forays? “That we’re still here,” she said, recounting an encounter she had with a Burning Man attendee a few years back at the Las Vegas Arts District, who balked at an issue of cultural sensitivity.
“He was saying, ‘Man, they want to take away our headdresses — what’s the big deal?’” Douglas said. “And my friend said, ‘Actually Fawn Douglas here is a Native American.’ So we had a conversation about it. And I didn’t get mad. It was more like, this is why and these are the histories. And he said, ‘Well, if they’re no longer around …’”
Say what, dude?
“And there it is — I’m a living and breathing Native American person sitting in front of you,” she said. “There’s one person from Burning Man who won’t wear (a headdress) anymore. He had an ‘aha’ moment. I’m sure that sparked other conversations with his friends in that group. It’s the power to change minds and come from a real place.”