Tweesna Rose Mills, from the Shoshone-Yakama-Umatilla Nations, spent weeks preparing for her performance at the Spencer Museum of Art.
On Thursday, she singlehandedly put on “Footsteps of Our Ancestors,” an hourlong show honoring Indigenous culture, history and lineage.
Mills is a fourth-year graduate student in the KU Film and Media Studies department and the co-chair of the First Nations Student Association. She’s put on at least seven performances over the past few years, and she’s a driving force behind the increase in Indigenous representation through art on KU’s campus.
“I just wanted our stories to be told by us. Not for us, or about us. By us,” Mills said.
A 20-foot-long painting that Mills created hung behind her and served as a visual representation of the tales she told.
Mills, whose first name means “woman of the river,” was born in Tacoma, Washington and raised in Olympia, Washington, represented on the far left side of the canvas.
Mills first utilized the backdrop during the 2021 Barnyard Bash, but she’s been working on it ever since.
“For me, it’s a continuous process,” she said.
“Footsteps of Our Ancestors” is a combination of songs and stories conveying the rich history of Indigenous culture.
“I’m not a singer,” Mills said after the performance, laughing.
Regardless of what she believes, her powerful voice filled the Spencer Museum of Art’s Dee and Mike Michaelis Gallery, captivating the audience and sending chills down people’s spines.
Referencing the 20-foot-long painting, Mills shared stories passed from one generation to the next, detailing rich history and culture. The audience was silent until she opened the floor for questions at the conclusion of the performance.
Footsteps lined the bottom of the canvas, representing both Mills’ trek eastward and the same journey her ancestors made years before.
“Tacoma” means “don’t forget the water” to the Nisqually people. Salmon, the main source of sustenance for many tribes in the Pacific Northwest, also plays a crucial role in many Indigenous traditions and ceremonies.
Mills also incorporated handheld objects into the performance. She used a tortoiseshell maraca during several songs and referenced old paperwork belonging to her father at one point.
Dressed in Native clothing and a skirt donning the year her parents met, Mills gave a rich recollection of how her history so closely paralleled those who came before her.
“Life isn’t linear like the canvas is,” she said. “The streaks of water show that our stories are always changing; that we’re always changing.”
The abstract quality of the painting also represented a distortion in the way people view Indigenous communities.
Frustration at the lack of respect shown for Native Americans reached a boiling point after KU was discovered to be in possession of unidentified Indigenous remains in September. Last year, the KU Common Work of Art “Native Hosts” was vandalized and then stolen, raising concerns regarding cultural erasure.
On the far right side of the canvas, the flag, the campanile and Fraser Hall sit inside an outline of the U.S., symbolizing both Mills’ arrival at the university and her father’s service in the military.
The canvas also depicts peyote, a bear and an ant on each side of a mountain, a sasquatch and huckleberries.
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Note: This post has been corrected from a previous version.
Chloe Anderson (she/her) contributed to The Lawrence Times from August 2022 through May 2023. She is also published in Climbing magazine, Kansas Reflector and Sharp End Publishing. As a recent graduate of the University of Kansas, Chloe plans to continue her career in photography, rock climbing and writing somewhere out West.
You can view her portfolio, articles and commissioned work here. Check out more of her work for the Times here.