Over the last three years, what started as a small celebration for young Native and Indigenous voices at the Santa Fe Indian School has become a full-on movement. Through the annual Celebration of the Arts, students get a platform for expression that amplifies their creative talents to a growing audience that spreads beyond their peers and faculty and into the broader community. With a focus on live performance and visual arts, the yearly concert exists to bring young people who might otherwise not feel heard or seen into the spotlight. With the celebration entering its fourth year, the crowd is expected to be even bigger than the last.
Since 2016, Clara Natonabah (Diné)—the school's first-ever performing arts teacher—has collaborated with students to provide an outlet for sharing original work, but also for networking with older artists who are professionals in their fields.
"That was sort of the whole drive behind what's now become a movement at the school," says Natonabah. "We unite professional Native artists and musicians with up-and-coming youth who are also in that same community and growing out of their shell."
To that end, this year's concert includes performances from accomplished songwriters, poets and speakers Lyla June (Diné/Cheyenne) and
Tanaya Winder (Duckwater Shoshone/Southern Ute/Pyramid Lake Paiute/Diné/Black). This environment of collaboration connects real-world Native artists successfully navigating professional markets for music and visual art, and the results seem to be emboldening students to make major moves even at a young age.
Two such creators are Aaron Tenorio (Kewa Pueblo) and Allen Quanie (Hopi), talented lyricists and hip-hop artists who perform separately under the respective monikers MC Slader and Al-Q. At just 17, each has released music that sounds more confident and intentional than that of artists 10 years their senior.
Tenorio credits the Celebration of the Arts for helping him incubate into the artist he is today. In eighth grade, he performed an Eminem cover at the first annual celebration. Urged on by the positive reaction of the crowd, he has since performed only original material. Tenorio's lyrics are unafraid to tackle charged topics, such as on his original song "Amerikkka," a call to action in rooting out government corruption with plenty of bold condemnations of Trump. The music is not angry, however; rather, it's measured and informed, and Tenorio says his
optimistic point of view is meant to spur positive community action.
"Music drives me. It gives me a sense of purpose," he tells SFR. He also credits the Celebration of the Arts for continuing to influence that purpose.
"When you're on that stage, you shine. It's beautiful," he says. "You see everyone's true being on the stage."
With the experience he's rolled up at the school, Tenorio has also gone on to perform out of state in collaboration with Albuquerque-based self-
funded arts organization Native Artists in Action, providing free and charitable concerts as far as South Dakota, where the group performed at a commemoration of the Battle of Greasy Grass, the site of General Custer's sound defeat.
Quanie has likewise been inspired by the Celebration of the Arts. With an easy and punchy flow, he uses rap and hip-hop as a foundation for his deeply personal songwriting. He voices hope that his music can act as both outlet and inspiration.
"Native kids don't really have a voice, so that kind of drove me," Quanie tells SFR. "I want to give them a voice and lead them in the right direction." Performance helps alleviate some of that feeling of invisibility, and Quanie says, "It brought me a good feeling. People actually listen to you."
As for the celebration's influence on his self-confidence and music?
"It helped me with actually connecting with people to show them who I am."
Natonabah and her students have helped create a special space for young Native voices to be heard, something all too rare in Santa Fe and even more so in the United States at large. It's heartening to see her work gain the audience it deserves and for it to grow each year.
"It's always love-based," Natonobah posits, "celebrating these youth voices that sometimes need a little bit of encouragement to get out there."
We are lucky to hear them.
Celebration of the Arts
6 pm Tuesday March 19. $5 suggested donation.
Santa Fe Indian School,
1501 Cerrillos Road,