‘We’re still here’

In a bid for greater equity, the Dairy Arts Center changes its rental policy and makes room for indigenous artists at the Creative Nations Center

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'Sing Our Rivers Red'
Courtesy Tanaya Winder

Melissa Fathman remembers a moment two years ago, on Indigenous Peoples Day, watching Sarah Ortegon, an enrolled Eastern Shoshone also of Northern Arapaho descent, look up at the foothills as she spoke during a mural dedication at the Dairy Arts Center.

“She basically said, ‘We’re standing on the grounds where my family once lived,’” Fathman, the Dairy’s executive director, says. “[The Dairy has made a] tribal land recognition, but somehow this, her saying that, standing there in the parking lot, looking up at the foothills, there was this visceral sense of: This is her land, and we’re taking up the space. I thought, if I could give this land back I would.”

Fathman couldn’t give the land back, but she realized she could carve out a portion of the Dairy and give it to indigenous artists.

When the Creative Nations Center launches its first programmatic event at the Dairy on May 8, it will be a callback to that mural dedication two years ago. Like the painting, the exhibition, Sing Our Rivers Red — which has toured around the country — will honor the thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) in the United States and Canada. As spring fades into summer, Creative Nations will take on physical form as a number of organizations with offices in the Dairy’s administrative space move out. 

“We have hundreds of arts organizations in Boulder; who gets to be here and who doesn’t?” Fathman says. “I’ve struggled with that since I took the helm at the Dairy in 2017. And so I thought it was time to change what we do with that portion of the building.” 

Come July, five arts organizations currently housed at the Dairy will vacate the administrative space, making room for a dedicated space for Creative Nations. The Dairy will work with an architect to create a direct entrance to the new center “right off the box office.”

“When you come in the front door, you’ll be able to see the presence of the Creative Nations Center,” Fathman says.

The changes don’t stop there: Beginning this year, when live performances finally resume, the Dairy will limit rental of the Carsen or Grace Gamm theaters to 16 weeks for any one organization, with a maximum of five weekend rentals of the Gordon Gamm theater. 

“That may seem like not very much,” Fathman says, if you’re thinking of a year as 52 weeks, “but really the theater season is 32 weeks. So when you’ve got an organization that’s been taking 25 weeks out of those 32, that’s almost your whole theater season.”

The decision was both difficult and obvious to Fathman. As Boulder has grown, so has its arts community, and professional performance space around town is limited. 

“There’s a lot of pressure,” she admits. “No matter what decision we make, someone’s not going to be happy. Putting all that aside and just looking at the big picture, this is a City-owned building, so we have to think about how to serve the whole community. … There’s so few professional theaters in town and we want to give opportunities to organizations who maybe this is the first time that they have a lighting director or box office ticketing.”

To build out the new Creative Nations Center, Fathman called upon Longmont resident Tanaya Winder, an author and poet of Southern Ute, Pyramid Lake Paiute, Diné and Duckwater Shoshone lineage. Winder had previously worked with the Dairy in her capacity as director of CU Boulder’s Upward Bound Program, helping the art center put together indigenous film programming at the Boedecker Theater. Winder reached out to other indigenous artists, who reached out to more indigenous artists, eventually finding a core group of five who were interested in developing the Creative Nations Center from the ground up. 

“To me, the Center means possibility, it means hope,” Winder says over a phone call from her childhood home on the Southern Ute Reservation in Ignacio, Colorado. “I still can’t believe it’s happening: a space in a legitimate art center, where we have our own space, not just something making the Dairy Arts Center look good. They are really letting us take ownership and make it look like we want. For those of us who haven’t had this experience, we’re getting this professional development, networking. I think it could be replicated across the country. I hope it sets that message and model for other arts centers.”

Joining Winder as cofounders of the Center are Walt Pourier, Kelly Holmes, JayCee Beyale and Danielle SeeWalker.  

SeeWalker, a Denver-based Lakota visual artist who divided her time growing up between Bismark and the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, says that art has provided a way for her to work through her struggle with identity — a struggle she believes many Native peoples know well. 

“The U.S. government launched the Indian Relocation Act in 1959,” SeeWalker explains. “They realized a lot of the land reservations were [located] on had rich minerals underneath, and they wanted Natives off. So they picked different cities, including Denver, and sent Natives into these urban areas with the promise of careers, housing, support. When the money and jobs ran out quickly, when inflation increased expenses, a lot of Native people ended up homeless, addicted to drugs and alcohol, and unable to return to the reservation. But they knew their traditions. Even several generations later, there’s …  this struggle of living this contemporary life in a city, but staying connected to traditional practices.”

For both SeeWalker and Winder, the Creative Nations Center offers a chance to lift up indigenous artists and show the world that, as SeeWalker says, “we’re still here; indigenous people exist.”

“I feel like when something’s right, it’s never forced,” Winder says. “And that’s the energy of the Creative Nations space.”