Authenticity promotes connection to others, and Kellen Lewis ’09 creates (he)artwork — traditional Native American artwork that melds his heritage with modern culture — to uniquely communicate his identity and to encourage others to do the same.
Lewis grew up feeling as though he was living a dichotomy. His mother’s side of the family is part of the Nez Perce tribe, and his biological father was African American.
Growing up, moving back and forth between Seattle, Spokane, and the Nez Perce Reservation in Lapwai, Idaho, Lewis appreciated how his Nez Perce family maintained their heritage through the arts. One of his great-grandmothers was well-versed in bag weaving, in which she would sun dry corn husks and embroider them into woven bags. Another one of his great-grandmothers would create beadwork from seed beads, which is the focus of Lewis’ work today.
His family did a wonderful job of holding onto their heritage — they even have a family tree that documents when Lewis and Clarke traveled through traditional Nez Perce homelands, before the creation of Reservation boundaries. Upon graduating from Notre Dame in 2009, Lewis made a commitment to learn beadwork because he realized that having such a strong connection to one side of the family could result in a distinct artistic impression.
“Leaving Notre Dame, I wanted to be a beacon of expression,” Lewis said. “I committed to developing the skill. There were many things I wanted to say, but I did not have the vocabulary to get there. I had to find mentors and take on projects. In that came personal development and understanding the beauty of my identity. I grew up feeling on the outskirts of my community because of my mixed heritage. It has only been in the last few years that embracing that makes me more powerful and helps me to express my artwork in a completely different way.”
After graduating, Lewis trained in dance in Seattle, worked as a professional dancer in Los Angeles, toured across Asia on A-Mei’s Utopia World Tour, and lived in New York. Throughout these experiences, Lewis made the commitment to learn beadwork to carry on his heritage. Having knowledge about his family’s history is empowering to Lewis, but he does not stop at maintaining history. He adds his own artistic twists — and even pop culture elements — to his works.
“Because so much of our culture was ripped away, a lot of artwork is geared towards maintaining the spirit. Yet, for me, I think about what I have to say as a Nez Perce artist in this millenium. So, in another 200 years, someone can see that in 2020, Nez Perce people came of mixed identities. They did not just focus on older aspects but also reflected on today. When I combine something that inspires me and shows how I walk in the world and mix it with something I have a profound connection with, it communicates something different.”
When connecting with customers, whether through artistic interpretation or via social media, Lewis remains authentic. His artwork is therapeutic for him, as it allows him to channel his insecurities and thoughts.
When a mentor pointed out the decidedly non-Nez Perce elements of his work, he took it in stride.
“Just because what I create does not fit a certain mold does not mean that it is irrelevant. You do not have to fit into a box. Make your statement for who you are at this time, and document the diversity of identity within our people.”
Though he creates a wide variety of works in addition to the beaded pieces, such as clothing, traditional regalia, and home decor, his purpose extends beyond the works themselves.
“The biggest thing is creating visibility for underserved communities and showing that representation matters.”
His genuine nature runs deep, and he uses it to give back to those who have helped him. In 2020, he created beaded medallions for Notre Dame graduates who identify as Native American, though because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he hopes they will receive them at their rescheduled Commencement ceremony in 2021. And in honor of his late uncle, Dr. Arthur Maxwell Taylor Jr., former assistant director for Notre Dame’s Multicultural Student Programs and Services, Lewis created unique pins for Taylor’s friends at the University. Taylor was the core of Lewis’ support system and encouraged him to apply to Notre Dame, always offering a listening ear. He believes the pins bind this circle of support together.
Lewis believes that not only does each of us have our own identity, but each of us has the ability to convey it in a personal way. In opening up about this process, he has been able to connect with others.
“I did a keynote speech for the University of Idaho for Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” he said. “In my introduction, I discussed how I do not have an Indian name. That is a major thing because, when we introduce ourselves in our language, we say our traditional name then our English name. I had a person then reach out to me, saying that (it) was so powerful how I always felt like I had been lacking in my identity because I don’t have an Indian name. We judge ourselves and say that we need certain things to be authentic. Showing the diversity of identity and the diversity in communicating that identity has brought people to me. It’s creating representation.”
Encouraging others to embrace authenticity is the goal.
“Growing up, I felt lost because I did not have many Black and Native people to look up to. Now, I see a lot of mixed heritage youth on our Reservation. I hope to be one of the many beacons that they can look up to see themselves. To know that everything they feel is completely valid, and they are still Nez Perce. You can hold onto your heritages, and there does not need to be a separation.