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Born and raised mostly in Portland, Oregon, Shyla Spicer, an enrolled member of the Yakama Nation and a descendant of the Seneca Cayuga Tribe who also has Filipino heritage, grew up deeply involved in the urban Native community. In December, she started her new role as president and CEO of the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation.

Spicer’s traditional Yakama name is Wachea’wit, which means water rapids. She aspires to create a hub for the Indigenous community as a whole, and continue the foundation’s work supporting Indigenous artists across Portland, the country and beyond.

Formed in 2007, the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation has spent the last 17 years supporting Indigenous artists through grants, opportunities to showcase their work, artist fellowships and more.

“I think that this is a place that artists and guests can come and just be inspired, because art does touch us in ways that we can't even articulate sometimes,” Spicer said. “To be able to share culture and story and past and present and all of that is just so powerful. And doing it from an Indigenous voice and consciousness not the other way around.”

Note: The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Nika Bartoo-Smith for Underscore News & ICT: Tell me a little bit about yourself, including how you came to be in this new role as the president and CEO of the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation.

Shyla Spicer: It's actually kind of interesting because when you're not looking for something but you're asking the universe for something that connects to your passion, and how you feel like you could personally make an impact on the world, something comes up like this. Because I wasn't looking.

But I did notice that I have family members who are artists and they are challenged with all kinds of business issues. And that was something that I just did for a living, I ran operations. I've been in this space for a while, and had studied this with my MBA, and so that was something that I was like, ‘Well, I can help you with that. That's not a problem.’

And then lo and behold, this job became available. Somebody from the community contacted me and said that they were looking, and at the time I was like, ‘I don't even know how it would work.’ I was in Seattle because I have a high school age son, and I'm pretty committed to making sure that he gets a really good education and gets out on his own and goes off to college next year. So to me, it didn't seem attainable.

But as I started to look in and talk to this team and get to know them, it was a really good fit. What they were looking for, where they wanted to go and getting a chance to meet the board and the staff, I figured the rest of it would kind of figure itself out.

When you get a chance to work with amazing people, the rest of it kind of just comes around and it will make sense. So that's sort of where I'm at right now, four months later.

Nika Bartoo-Smith: Can you share a bit about the role of the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation in the community and your vision for continuing and expanding that impact?

Shyla Spicer: It really is an opportunity for us to provide resources and uplift Native artists nationally and hopefully internationally. It is an art philanthropy organization that gives millions out into the community. A lot of that is to drive social change, to activate and elevate our culture and provide a voice for our artists to be able to move up in their careers or expand into their careers and their artistic expression. And so that's what I think that this organization provides.

We're based in Portland, but we're national. So we touch a lot of communities. I think we've given over $14 million out since its origin, over 400 artists have actually been touched by our resources here. So it has a great impact, really, not just in the Portland area.

Nika Bartoo-Smith: Tell me about the building we are in, an old industrial building on Belmont and 10th.

Shyla Spicer: We were gifted this building in 2021, just on the heels of the pandemic, at the same time the organization was in a transition. So you'll see that this place was usable, but it also needs some work.

I think this is really a place that culture can be celebrated and showcased. And not just in Portland, but this is a hub where all artists can come and share their stories, their voices and their work.

At this point, I'm in the listening phase. I really just want to hear what the community needs and how that will help uplift our community in a way that we just haven't even manifested.

Nika Bartoo-Smith: What does advancing Indigenous art and culture mean to you?

Shyla Spicer: I think that there's an opportunity from a contemporary space, to be able to do it from a place of authenticity. That’s not having to retrofit our voice back into what we think will be a mainstream thing.

And I see and I’ve spoken to a few contemporary artists who have this mindset that it's like, “I want to tell it from my story and my side.”

The way I see it is that they've been educated in a discipline that wasn't written for them and now they're having to go back and create art in a place that perhaps wasn't designed for them. To be able to advance their voice from their perspective, in a creative marketplace that will disrupt that system, is completely important.

Nika Bartoo-Smith: I know that you previously worked in tribal government, serving as the executive director of the Suquamish Tribe. How do you think that experience will inform your role at the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation?

Shyla Spicer: Well, it taught me how to organize myself in a way. I mean, there were 500 employees and I had 23 departments. And you're working for a group of people who are so dedicated to who they are, and their way of life and such proud people of that area, because they’re Salish people.

I believe that experience can actually be applied in this space to how to care for our community.

Nika Bartoo-Smith: Growing up in Portland, what is one thing you wish you would have seen more of in the city as an Indigenous young person?

Shyla Spicer: I think I would have liked to have seen a reflection of my culture, instead of having to explain who I am as an Indigenous person, an Indigenous woman. I think being able to see more imagery and make it available to a young person like myself, would have been helpful.

I'd love to see that continue to be reflected in our community going forward so that our up-and-coming Native young people in this place can see themselves reflected back from the community.

And we're seeing this: we’re seeing the Cully neighborhood up-and-coming and all the great work that NAYA is doing. The Northwest Native Chamber and the Center for Tribal Nations coming online. The ATNI embassy. And some of the other Native organizations are really starting to gather some strength. So, I'm happy to be amongst that.

I'd love to see our Indigeneity shine through here and us not to have to stand up and deliver a land acknowledgement. It's like, yes, of course, these people are from this place. Of course, we're always going to be at this place.

Lead image: Shyla Spicer, enrolled citizen of the Yakama Nation, stepped in as the newest president and CEO of the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation in December. (Nika Bartoo-Smith, Underscore News/ICT)

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Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to center the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Of Osage and Oneida Nations descent, with Northern European...