MCI is pleased to announce its acquisition of Ul’nigid’ by Rhiannon Skye Tafoya (Eastern Band Cherokee/Santa Clara Pueblo), a central piece in the exhibition A Living Language: Cherokee Syllabary & Contemporary Art. A moveable book structure, Ul’nigid’ demonstrates Tafoya’s unique approach to paper weaving, working in the style of Indigenous basket weavers like her beloved grandmother, Martha Reed-Bark. The pattern seen in the work is an original design, its materials prepared with the same care, meticulousness, and intention as those used to create traditional Cherokee white oak baskets. An object of remembrance, Ul’nigid’ is “a family lineage of growing from one section to the next and a connection to each generation,” explains Tafoya. MCI spoke with Tafoya about her process, coming home to the Qualla Boundary, and how she uses the syllabary in her art.

Ul’nigid’, Rhiannon Skye Tafoya (EBCI/Santa Clara Pueblo). Photo by Women’s Studio Workshop.

What was the timeline for Ul’nigid’? How long did that take?

TAFOYA: I applied for the grant residency at Women’s Studio Workshop in 2018. And so I did a small prototype—because that’s part of the application process, is that you have to prototype something to send them so that they have more of a visionary response to exactly what you’re going to be making while you’re there. And the edition is supposed to be at least 50, and they like to keep it like 50-100. Because it was so time-intensive, we could only make it to 44. We were close to 46, but the materials, we had to make sure that every single material could make another book and every single book had so much material because we had even magnets clothing the structure. Then we had to order everything, and the book board, making sure all the paper is even enough for it to even to be wrapped around the book. So I applied to it in 2018 and I went up there in October 2019 and I stayed for 12 weeks. So we worked endlessly for 12 weeks and came to point where we were finishing up the 12 weeks and we still weren’t finished. So they just invited me up in January and I stayed for about another two weeks. And we still weren’t finished—everything was so intense. And I was working 18-hour days—it wasn’t just an eight-hour day or anything like that, this was for days on end. So yeah, it took a long time, and I was grateful to Chris Petrone because she finished up all the bookbinding part for the things we didn’t finish—she was able to catch up on that whenever I wasn’t there. And she’s a brilliant expert in bookbinding.

So you grew up making baskets, right? That’s something I was interested in…that connection of the material preparation process, which is so intensive in traditional basketry. Do you feel that’s reflected in your process for paper works and the paper weaving process?

Yeah, let me correct you though, I did not grow up making baskets—my granny grew up making baskets and she made baskets around us. However, I do make baskets, but I make baskets with my dad and he’s from another tribe. So, we make red willow baskets and they’re kind of similar to like, honeysuckle and reed baskets with the weaving sequence, but not necessarily the structure. But yes, absolutely, and that’s what’s really unique to even the paper cutting process, is that when you have to prepare the material for your basket with cutting and making sure the colors are exact and even—I think it’s a very strong parallel to basketmaking. Which I’m really thankful for. Everything has taught me so much about patience and how repetition isn’t always like a crazy thing to do, it’s just a way of going through your thoughts and understanding how to live in the world. I really appreciate the quiet time and the moments that all of that process really gives me.

Can you tell me a bit about the weaving patterns used in Ul’nigid’ that we see?

That was a new design that I made. At the time, I was listening to this podcast Broken Boxes, and it’s made by Ginger Dunnill, and she interviews a lot of Native artists and community workers and people who are just really impacting the world with either their art or with their community services or a mixture of both, their activism. But these interviews were something that, when I moved home and didn’t have an outlet for art, I listened to them a lot because they were so inspiring to hear, because sometimes even if you don’t have the art community, you still have to do it. Regardless of if you have the support of not. That’s kind of like, what it taught me, which is why I made Ul’nigid’ to begin with. At first, that pattern was pretty much an homage to Broken Boxes and thinking about how Native artists are often structured in boxes and we have to kind of stay in these parameters, but what do those parameters look like from the outside? And how do we break out of them, or how do we stay in them and be truthful to ourselves without exploiting our culture? So all these things kind of came out of it as the pattern emerged.

Looking back at it now, it’s definitely all that, but it’s also a family lineage of growing from one section to the next and a connection to each to generation. So, it’s neat. It did transform from one thing to another thing, and I’m so grateful for that. I’m glad I could reflect and understand that pattern even more.

I understand a lot of what you’re talking about—that lineage and everything—honors your grandmother. Can you tell us a little about her?

Yeah! She was wonderful. . . .she just took care of everything. And she took care of us when we were children. Every single one of my cousins had a close tie to her, and it’s really neat to hear their stories about her, because we all grew up in different times with her. So my older cousins got a version of her that was more mobile—but when we were young, she wasn’t as mobile. But she was incredible, she had a garden, she grew things . . .

. . . I think a lot of people experience this also, where the grandmother passes away and all of the sudden the family just kind of disperses and aren’t a strong unit anymore. And that’s definitely true of when she passed away. And I do wish I was able to spend more time with her. I spent time with her when I was a kid, but when I was 14 I went to boarding school, and so I think she passed about a year after I left for boarding school. So I didn’t get to spend last year with her because I was away at school. But yeah, she was incredible. She doctored us a lot, and I know she doctored people in our community. I have friends, they went up to her house to get better. And so she used herbal medicines and prayer and things like that just to help us out and also help my friends out. Which is really strange, because I didn’t realize their families had known each other.

I also read there’s that connection as well for you and your own child demonstrated in this piece.

Yeah. I like that it became a tangible way to connect them. There’s tangible evidence now that I was carrying him while making this and the writings really show that, for sure. The writings happened when I was at WSW, that was something that wasn’t in the original prototype, obviously, I talk about my kid in it. Being pregnant definitely changed a lot of my emotional presence to my artwork. I think when I was in grad school there was a bit of an emotional presence, but I stifled it a lot because I was intimated by it and was so scared to be vulnerable in front of people. But I think being pregnant showed me how you can’t escape that vulnerability, it’s just there. You have to, so that your child also feels vulnerability and understands that it’s not a weakness, that it’s very much a strength.

Ul’nigid’ on view in A Living Language: Cherokee Syllabary & Contemporary Art during the exhibition’s time at MCI. Photo by Tyra Maney, Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

. . . the work was featured in A Living Language. How does Cherokee syllabary, language—is that something you had been using in your work previously? What are your thoughts and intentions behind that?

When I got into letterpress printing . . . I had a class where I had to think about how media uses print and how print uses media. I ended up writing a little paper on the printing press, of course, but the printing press using Indigenous languages. But also the reclamation of that and thinking about…so you look at the history of any Indigenous language, the reason it was printed to begin with was for assimilation purposes. It wasn’t to help in any ways, it was so that people could understand the Bible in their language so you forget your cultural upbringings. So that was really sad to me, but also very important. There’s a lot of history within that…sadly it’s still, with the printing press…I’m trying to work on a project where we can really reclaim the whole process of that. It’s just going to take a few years to get that off the ground. Just thinking about how we make the type and who has the autonomy over that, who gets to control those times of things—and right now it’s not us.

So right now I use the Cherokee syllabary because, one, I’m so fascinated by it, but also I love the history of how it’s changed based on colonization. Because all of those syllables were once something else. Then the printing press came, and they had to be shifted and turned. ‘Cause it’s cheaper to make metal type in that sense. Today, we’re still printing in that way. But I hope eventually we gain control over that so eventually we can print the original one and not worry that it can’t fit into the confines, because it’s not meant to fit in the confines. It’s more expressive.

One thing I find very interesting about the syllabary it’s not…I can’t say it’s like a teaching method. I think it’s beautiful and it’s unique that we get to use syllables to write out words. However, my mom is a fluent speaker, and she doesn’t know the syllabary. So, we think about ways and how we learn the language, and I don’t think that the syllabary is actually the best way to learn the language. Because if we didn’t know English but we knew the alphabet we could spell the words but that doesn’t mean we’re fluent in the language.

. . . Did you find [spending 2018-2019 at home in Cherokee, NC] influential in any way, or is it something you reflect on artistically?

Oh yeah. I think that a lot of the meaningful work I create comes from going back home. That’s why I can’t be like ‘I didn’t have an art community, I didn’t have this.’ Because when I lived in Portland, I had an art community. Here in Lawrence, I have an art community. It was just something I didn’t obtain while I was in Cherokee. I mean, I’m sure there’s plenty of reasons for it. But I think Ul’nigid’ came to fruition because I was home, and because I was trying to find a way to revisit my granny. And I couldn’t anywhere else. The environment wasn’t there. Or even the solace wasn’t there. I did get to print a little bit, though, in Cherokee because of Southwestern [Community College] down in Almond. When I come into town, I always hit [Director of Personal Enrichment/Heritage Arts] Jeff Marley up to see if I can use his studio for a little while.

Is there anything that you’re working on now that you’d like folks to know about?

Yeah, this year’s really great, it’s been really fortunate to get to this time in life where art actually sustains me financially.

That’s fantastic, congratulations.

Yeah, took long to get here. But Ul’nigid’ is definitely something that helped my career out so much. Right now, I just did an artist visit with University of Reno, and we’re creating a book—not an artist book, but one that’s . . . a mix between an artist book but like also a regular book so that the price point isn’t so high, because arts books are so expensive. So that edition will probably be 250 to 300. It has my all my digital designs in it, I think I put about 12 to 13 in there, along with someone’s poetry. That will be released this fall . . .

I also worked with University of Florida—they have a press called Small Craft Advisory Press, they’re bookbinding/letterpress publication and they reached out to me to help them with this other collaboration which is more of an artist book. Their resident created the structure for it and then they asked four to five artists and four to five poets to work together to create about a six-to-eight-piece spread, and then they do all the printing for us, so we made the files and did the writing and stuff together and they should have the printed book released in May.

Then, I have a really large print coming out in June through this organization Self Help Graphics. They’re out of L.A. in Royal Heights. I just finished working with them last week, I spent a week with them and their master printer and we made this 22×30 print and have an edition between 60-70. They’ll be releasing it in their print fair that they have every summer.

Are there any EBCI artists or Indigenous artists that you recommend people check out? Anyone whose work is really inspiring you right now?

One of my favorite artists—and they’re not from Eastern Band but they’re Native Hawaiian, and that’s Lehuauakea—they make kapa, so they make the bark cloth and create these amazing, beautiful patterns on top of them that talk about ecosystems, and also all the pigment is from the earth. Yeah, their work is just incredible. And I got share a class with them when I went to PNCA…they were the only person in BFA program that wrote a thesis, just willingly.

They’re incredible. I love Kenny Glass’s work, he’s one of my friends from high school, so we’ve known each other a long time and I love seeing the progress of his work.

Hollis Chitto is one of my favorite artists—also my best friend, so I may be biased—but he’s extremely talented. And I definitely say, my partner [Jakeli Swimmer] who is the Around the Boundary cartoonist. I love his work—he just pushes the envelope a little bit through comedy, which is amazing, because I think we all do these kinds of things. We use humor to talk about the things we need to talk about.

Find Skye online at and on Instagram at @r.skye.t.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.