Indigenous scholar Lyla June Johnson to speak at WICA

Join indigenous scholar Lyla June Johnston for a lecture on ways to heal our land.


Special to the News-Times

Join indigenous scholar, musician and community organizer Lyla June Johnston, aka “Lyla June,” March 22 for a lecture on ways to heal our land and the wounds of colonialism.

Invited by the Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation for its annual Trudy Sundberg Lecture series, Lyla June will present “Architects of Abundance,” at 7:30 p.m. at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley. The event is free and attendance is expected to fill the WICA auditorium; overflow audience can view the talk from nearby Zech Hall.

Lyla June’s message is one of hope, recalling how previous indigenous practices can help heal our Earth.

“I will be speaking about the grandeur and beauty of pre-colonial Native American land management techniques,” Lyla June wrote in a recent email. “I will be debunking the myths of the primitive Indian and reclaiming the sophistication of our civilizations, grounded in cultural and archaeological evidence.”

Originally from Taos, New Mexico, Lyla June notes on her website her lineages: “Diné (Navajo), Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and European.” Her father’s lineage was European, her mother’s indigenous.

Educated at Stanford in human ecology, she later earned a PhD. Elements of her dissertation, “Architects of Abundance: Indigenous food systems, indigenous land management, and the excavation of hidden history,” are the subject of this week’s lecture.

In a 2022 TEDx presentation highlighting her PhD work, “3,000-year-old solutions to modern problems,” Lyla June introduces herself as linked to one of the matrilineal clans of the Dinè Nation. “We are also incorrectly known as,”— and she makes quotes with her fingers — “‘the Navajo Nation.’” Her people live in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. “It is known as the People’s Land.”

Her message recalls how, for thousands of years, indigenous people stewarded the Earth using irrigation and burn techniques.

“This hope comes from what I’ve come across in my doctoral research,” Lyla June said in the TEDx talk. “This hope comes from what native people have proven is possible. Contrary to the myth of the ‘primitive Indian,’ we were not passive observers of nature, nor were we wandering bands of nomads looking for a berry to eat or a deer to hunt. By and large we were active agents in shaping the land.”

Accompanying Lyla June’s talk at WICA are the inspirations of South Whidbey artist Doe Stahr, whose indigenous-inspired textiles have been displayed for events at universities and community colleges, for tribal leadership events, graduations and fundraising galas for social justice, nonprofits and political fundraisers. Stahr rents her “library” of banners, table covers and murals, which are steam-cleaned after they are used, rolled up and stored until the next event. Global cultures and events are her muse, and her collection continues to evolve and expand.

Stahr observes cultural protocol, in that she honors indigenous art, and respects the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. The federal law “prohibits misrepresentation in the marketing of Indian art and craft products within the United States.”

“I am not Native born; however, I have a T’lingit name,” Stahr said previously. “I was formally adopted in 1996. It is a privilege and an obligation to serve our regional tribes.”

Last fall, Stahr was contacted by the Sno-Isle Foundation, inviting her to present her art for Lyla June’s March 22 lecture.

“Right away, I reached out to Lyla June to get a sense of what topics she will address, and to give her my full introduction,” Stahr wrote in a recent email. “For the last two months, I have been working on two pieces. They each reflect the visual vernacular of the Zuni people who are her ancestors, and very much a part of her current community. I am using the ‘day and night’ means to draw the distinction between how the Zuni know their land and how mainstream science sees it.”

Stahr’s textiles can be viewed from a hundred feet away. Smaller details, such as embroidery, button and bead work, and appliqué can be seen upon closer inspection. She invited folks to touch her art. Using latex paints on polyester felt panels, Stahr’s newest creations reflect aspects of Lyla June’s culture.

“The black and white piece relates directly to the black and white designs painted on Zuni pottery,” Stahr said. “It also references the strict numerical data sets about the denizens of the desert, as seen when they are active in the clear bright moonlight. Materials that sparkle and shine enrich every life form and reveal them as one might gaze into the velvet dark. The black ring references the black stain with mica bits painted on the rim of the pot.”

The green and amber piece represents an overhead view of land cultivated with traditional indigenous practices.

“Those who have flown at 30,000-feet altitude across the country have seen the patchwork quilt of farmland made by agribusiness,” Stahr added. “(My piece is) informed by thousands of years of co-habitation with the plant and animal people: bean stalks, corn, grain crops and fallow areas from that same high perspective.”

Other textiles from her collection of more than 350 pieces will be displayed throughout WICA and Zech Hall, paying homage to indigenous cultures from across the country. Some pieces depict the relationship with land and animals.

“My overall art collection has been the result of 17 years of serving events in the larger native community,” Stahr said. “By regarding the art as regalia for the room, and not for sale, I am able to serve whole communities rather than individuals. Respect for the land, knowing the interrelationships of life, and holding sacred the duty to protect and tenderly live in that community, are principles foundational to native culture. Lyla June will authoritatively bring this all to life for those of us lucky to hear her speak.”

Trudy Sundberg was a lifelong community organizer, a high school English teacher in Oak Harbor, a columnist for The Whidbey News Times, an author and a playwright. Honoring her legacy of community service, the Sno-Isle Libraries foundation created a lecture series in her honor starting in 2016. Sundberg passed away in 2013. Each year, the series features a free public lecture by a renowned speaker and an event at a Whidbey Island school.

Photo provided
Photo provided