Working toward visibility, not appropriation

December 16, 2018

Following a performance in Santa Fe earlier this year, dancer Ria Thundercloud was approached by a group of women visiting the city from national fashion and beauty magazines. She used the conversation as an opportunity to voice her disapproval of the absence of Native American women on their pages.

Two weeks later, said 27-year-old Thundercloud — a young mother from Sandia Pueblo, a college student and a classically trained dancer who fuses contemporary styles with traditional tribal movements — Glamour asked for an interview.

She gave her personal story, which, she said, offers the magazine’s nationwide audience an “authentic” window into her life and contrasts the concepts of cultural appreciation versus appropriation. Her piece, “This Is What the Beauty of Cultural Appreciation Looks Like,” was published in the June/July issue, helping to increase the visibility of Native women.

“Native people have been oppressed for so long,” Thundercloud said in a recent interview. “To have the chance to share is a privilege and an honor.”

Thundercloud’s story, which includes photos of her in painstakingly hand-crafted regalia, hit newsstands just as Deb Haaland of Laguna Pueblo handily won the Democratic primary race for a New Mexico congressional seat and was poised to become one of the first Native American women in the U.S. House. She was elected to Congress in November, along with Democrat Sharice Davids of Kansas, a member of Wisconsin’s Ho-Chunk Nation, where Thundercloud has roots on her father’s side.

These successes, Thundercloud said, “make me proud.”

“It’s a monumental moment for Native people — women in general, really,” she said. “There’s going to be real representation and real voice in the White House to represent Native people. … It’s a great start to getting our voices out there.”

Thundercloud’s story also came as news media across the country began increasing coverage of a darker reality for tribal women: the thousands who have been murdered and have disappeared in recent years.

“I can definitely see a shift happening in the universe,” Thundercloud said.

Too often, she said, Native women are misrepresented — or not represented at all — in mainstream media. She hopes to change that.

“It’s time to turn the tables,” said Thundercloud, who is in her last year of studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She hopes to graduate in May with a degree in indigenous liberal studies and business, which she said is meant to help her launch a dance company.

In her Glamour interview with writer Lindsay Schallon, Thundercloud decries “oversexualized Poca-hottie costumes” and describes growing up in Albuquerque schools, where, she felt like the “token Indian” and “most of my classmates knew nothing about Native people.”

“One time, when I dropped my books in the hallway,” the Glamour article reads, “kids started dancing around me, making war whooping sounds. All I wanted in that moment was to cut off my long hair.”

Learning to dance saved her, she says, and her insecurities over time shifted to pride.

Now, she says in Glamour, “I want to show how nuanced and resilient my people are.”

Eric Davis, the marketing and communications director at IAIA, said Thundercloud’s story is long overdue.

“It’s not the usual story Glamour would tell,” he said. “I think Ria herself was very aggressive herself in pursuing that story.”

Since the Glamour piece was published, Thundercloud told The New Mexican, she’s received an outpouring of support — mostly on social media — from both Native and non-Native people across the country.

As she was growing up, she said, she rarely saw a Native American character in movies or magazines; she could only recall Disney’s version of Pocahontas. Every year on Halloween, she would watch classmates exploit her culture with face paint and headdresses. She also felt as if her culture had been erased from the textbooks, even in a state that now has 23 recognized tribes.

“We aren’t taught Native history,” Thundercloud said. “… You never read about yourself.”

In high school, she was one of just three Native students in her graduating class of 700. Though she never felt embarrassed or ashamed of her identity, Thundercloud said, she did feel very alone: “I was pretty convinced there were no Natives anywhere.”

Yet, this sense of disconnectedness is what heightened her appreciation for where she comes from.

“A lot of the things she’s done, she’s done because she lived [those experiences],” said her mother, Jessica Bearskin. “She became stronger and became proud of who she is.”

Through dance, Thundercloud is inspiring other Natives — particularly young girls — and raising awareness in non-Native communities about indigenous culture.

“I would like to tell our stories through movement,” she said, “and sever the romanticization and commodification of our culture.”

Thundercloud represents both the Ho-Chunk Nation and Sandia Pueblo in her beadwork and dance. Most of her regalia features intricate floral beaded designs inspired by the woodlands of Wisconsin, she said.

“You’re sewing your intentions into your design,” she said, adding that the dress she wore in the Glamour photo shoot was made to honor slain and missing Native women.

Her regalia includes wings made of eagle feathers. “The eagle is held in high regard in both communities,” she said. “… Each feather carries a prayer.”

Thundercloud is looking forward to starting a dance company to further her mission, and she said Netflix has approached her about possibly filming a documentary on the project sometime next year. She also plans to publish a children’s book focused on a Native protagonist.

Thundercloud credits her 3-year-old daughter, Cyra, for waking her dreams.

She said, “I hope my daughter will grow up and see that there are women like her.”

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