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A group of 16 students sat around a large table, Natasha Smoke Santiago seated amongst them. After the Iroquois artist recounted how she learned to hand-sculpt clay pottery on a small island in the Akwesasne Mohawk First Nations Reserve, where many Iroquois people traditionally learn the craft, a lesson began. The clay before the students rebelled, refusing to take the form effortlessly demonstrated by Santiago - but the soft-spoken artist offered only words of encouragement, emphasizing the value of simply participating in Iroquois culture.
"The goal was to have students and participants come in and experience something different that they might not be exposed to usually," said Geralyn Ducady, curator of programs and education at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. "To see something physical and participate, instead of just hearing about it like in lecture halls," she added.
Santiago traveled from the Akwesasne territory, the boundaries of which extend from upstate New York into the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario, to open her two-day cultural event Oct. 13. The event, which also included a show by Santiago's family's performance group, Akwatsire, and an exhibition of her artwork in the Haffenreffer Museum, was part of a series sponsored by organizations including the Third World Center and the Barbara A. Greenwald Memorial Arts Program.
A predominantly self-taught artist who has been painting since she was three years old, Santiago explores traditional Iroquoian culture, the challenges of contemporary life and the beauty of the natural world through a mix of traditional and non-conventional mediums. The exhibition, which will be on display in the Haffenreffer Museum until Nov. 12, displays paintings, pottery pieces and sculptures that speak to these themes, providing an intriguing glimpse into a culture both deeply rooted in the traditional and simultaneously challenged by the rapid changes and demands of modernity.  
"To me, what was most interesting was seeing Natasha's artwork right next to the 'Thawing the Frozen Indian' section," wrote Nathaniel Harris '15, one of the event's co-programmers, in an email to The Herald. "When you take a look at the contemporary artwork that Natasha presented and then read the blurbs about the ongoing appropriation of Native culture, that juxtaposition strengthens the significance of her artwork," he wrote.
In particular, Santiago's sculpture "Sky Woman," made in part out of her mother's used insulin bottles, provides the audience with a haunting and personal depiction of contemporary heath issues that Santiago said often plague the Iroquois population. "I wanted to create a piece that had an impact, and to help people want to be aware (of these issues) and change," she said. "I would be the fifth generation to get diabetes. I hope to break this cycle - for myself, my children and for future generations," she said.
An element of femininity and empowerment runs through many of Santiago's pieces as well, seen particularly in casts of pregnant bellies intricately painted and often embellished with ribbon, basket-weaving material and traditional symbols.  
"A lot of her art focuses on women, and the power and beauty of women," said Elizabeth Hoover, assistant professor of American studies and a close friend of Santiago's. "Mohawk culture is matrilineal, so the women's perspective is often emphasized."
Following the pottery workshop Saturday, Santiago and members of her family gathered in Alumnae Hall for the closing event of the weekend - a traditional Iroquoian song, dance and story-telling performance by their group, Akwatsire. Dressed in traditional garb of brightly colored fabrics, feathers and shells, the performers allowed audience members to actively and openly participate, creating a sense of cultural learning, shared experience and understanding.
"I like to share through the arts and through our music," Santiago said. "I think it is important for people to travel the world and share their own cultures with others, as I hoped we did here."


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