A. Cyaltsa Finkbonner is a member of the Lummi Nation, or Lhaq’temish (people of the sea). She is a metal worker and self-described “traditionally untraditional artist.” This past year she collaborated with master carver Jewell James of the Lummi House of Tears Carvers to create a beautiful 8’ wide x 4.5’ high, All Our Relations steel sculpture, designed and welded by Cyaltsa. This stunning art piece was central to the Indigenous-led All Our Relations Journey, that stopped in six cities across the Pacific Northwest at the end of September and in early October, 2023. These inspiring events were attended by several thousand people.
Britt Freda, creative director of Northwest Artists Against Extinction, a project of SOS, was fortunate to have the opportunity to work in support of Cyaltsa’s creative collaboration and sculpture building, and to travel with her piece on the Journey. Through their work and time together, they became good friends. Britt recently sat down for a phone call with Cyaltsa to talk about what she most wants people to gain from her artwork.
Britt Freda: First, I want to start by saying I am THRILLED you are joining the creatives of Northwest Artists Against Extinction! We are truly honored to have the opportunity to work with you.
Secondly, let’s jump right in, I am curious to hear what’s important to you right now? What do you want people to think about or care about when they interact with your artwork? And if there is something else, anything else you want to get out there about the work you are creating, tell me about that. I want to know what’s going on these days when you’re in your creative mind.
Cyaltsa Finkbonner: I thought a lot about this question. I want [people] to be inspired–to be inspired and encouraged to learn more, encouraged to get out more, encouraged to educate themselves more. I want them to be inspired to give themselves more self love.
BF: Mmmmmm. That’s good.
CF: I want [people] to feel like we are relatable. You know, that they can relate to some of the things that I am thinking, saying, projecting out there. Maybe it’s a photograph or maybe it’s a place, maybe seeing a salmon will remind them about what they grew-up doing or maybe what Grandpa used to do, or something like that. Just, you know, relatable. Or maybe it is something totally new to them and it just opens them up to so much more. Maybe they’re not used to storytelling, and pictures can tell stories. [I hope my work] opens up their minds, their [creative] right brain to that.
BF: Storytelling–visual, or on a page, or heard around a fire–it is so true that much of the secret sauce is reminding us that even though we may come from different backgrounds, we share so many experiences of what it is to be alive, and to be human. Our humanity is rooted in recognizing our commonalities, and our relatability.
CF: Also connected! Not just to me but to the piece, to what the piece is talking about. I hope it opens up [people’s] imaginations. I mean, maybe they’ll be able to see a wave in a different light or see a salmon in a different way. I’d like them to feel like they learn something, they become more enlightened.
BF: I feel like each time I interact with your work, I learn from it and from the stories that go along with it.
CF: Believe. I hope, in looking at my art, people are reminded to believe in themselves, believe in others, believe in the kindness of other people, and whatever they need help with in believing. You know that’s one thing that I painted a lot was the word “BELIEVE,” but in my abstract way. Those [pieces] would always sell, like that! Because people need that, you know, just those little reminders.
One small painting I did read “JUST TRUST.” And I created an abstract painting with waves and kinda flowy things and the word that was incorporated in there was “FLOW.” Sometimes you need to go with the flow.
BF: (laughs) Sometimes!... Most of the time, actually, right?
CF: Yeah! Also, healing. Definitely some healing, like “Prayer Warrior.” If somebody is wearing the “Prayer Warrior” t-shirt or has got it up on the wall, that can always help people. You know we’re all prayer warriors.
BF: Every time I’ve heard you say to an audience “We Are All Prayer Warriors” it takes my breath away, a little bit. I love imagining all the people, myself included–in the room, or the sanctuary, or town hall–united in our work for the earth and for All Our Relations as PRAYER WARRIORS. It feels like such an honor to hear that from you.
CF: Oh wow, hy’shqe for that. Another of my inspirations is “do your part.” Sometimes people get stuck [in life], you know. You want to do your part. I say, do what you can do, let the rest go–and then turn it into progress. People might call it fate or things happen for a reason. What it boils down to, things happen as it should be.
BF: So true.
CF: And patience. I want to remind people to have patience with themselves, patience with others, be kind to others and be kind to themselves. Mostly, be kind to themselves, you know, once you can do that then how can you not be kind to others?
BF: The world really needs that right now.
CF: When I lived in Seattle, I joined a poetry group and did some writing and one of the things [from that time] that sticks out in my mind, that I will always remember is “drop the shackles of burden and move on.” Do what you love. Make time for you. Sometimes doing nothing, like resting, is the most beneficial, right? You’ve got to rejuvenate–rejuvenate our minds, rejuvenate our spirits, so that we can come back to the table and get back to the drawing board–to do what we love.
BF: That one [doing nothing] is a hard one for me, sometimes. And I so appreciate relearning it, again and again. In the US, culturally, I feel like it is so common to push, push, push and that way of being doesn’t evoke all the things that you’re talking about–the healing, the contemplation, the self love, and even the learning–creating the space to really learn and to be open.
CF: What that brings to my mind is the image of people in NYC packed on a sidewalk rushing, rushing to get to wherever. That urgent rushing doesn’t happen in Indian Country or any Indigenous place. Even though I grew up hearing from my dad K, “if you’re not early, you’re late.” For me, there are times that it is really important, but not rushing all the time. Everything is still going to be there. Time is not real.
BF: We can understand it in our heads, but if we don’t really experience it viscerally–in our hearts and in our souls–then it is just an idea, which is very different. Your work does that, it brings it into the heart, it seeps into your soul. I truly appreciate you, and that re-membering. Your work is beautiful and inspiring. Your message is beautiful and inspiring. Thank you, my friend. Hy’shqe \o/
CF: Hy’shqe. \^/
Hy’shqe is thank you in the native Lummi language, Xwlemi’, and the tradition is to raise your hands up. Cyaltsa taught us this raise-hands-up \o/ symbol and her personal version with a cedar hat \^/. It is with her permission that we share it with you.
All Our Relations is the title of Cyaltsa’s sculpture. It is also the name of the 2023 Indigenous-led Journey and Snake River Campaign to restore healthy and abundant populations of salmon by removing the Snake River dams. But foremost, “it is an Indigenous prayer, an acknowledgement that we are all connected–humans, animals, fish, birds, water, air, Mother Earth– we are all one with Mother Earth” –Cyaltsa.
To learn more about the very cool, creative and wise A. Cyaltsa Finkbonner, visit her website CreativeCuzzin.com, follow her on Instagram and Facebook. Jason Mark from the Sierra Club wrote a fantastic piece about Cyaltsa and the Journey in the fall 2023 issue of the Sierra Magazine. And peruse additional media coverage of the event and a powerful collection of photos from the Journey, courtesy of Se'Si'Le and photography by Megan Mack.