Artist Alanah Jewell Reclaims Her Indigenous Culture

Back in 2015 Alanah Jewell, the artist behind Morning Star Designs, came to Waterloo Region to attend Wilfrid Laurier University. Jewell had just graduated and felt the pressure of needing to find a career. She ended up taking a year off and during that time, her hobby of creating artwork for friends and family turned into something more. 

It wasn’t until she became a vendor at the I AM Kitchener Indigenous Art Market in 2019 that her artistic career took hold. That first experience helped Jewell to realize that she could make a viable career out of her art.  

“I did not think that anyone would like my art and it was just something for fun, but realizing that there is an entire structure and political side of creating Indigenous art, as well as a cultural side — It’s incredible, the amount of things that have come from creating my art,” Jewell said.  

Throughout her youth, Jewell felt disconnected from her Oneida and Haudenosaunee culture. A lot of Indigenous people were not raised with their cultural upbringing/teachings and have expressed to her that they would like to learn more.

“I grew up knowing I was Bear Clan, and that is all I really knew about my culture. It was the only thing that I processed about my culture … So one thing that I like to portray is Clan animals because a lot of the time that is what Indigenous people can connect to,” Jewell said.

She describes her artistic style as modern/woodland, which is focused on plant life, wildlife, animals, berries and florals, and rooted her work in nature and an animal’s environment. She explained that when she paints an animal she also likes to be mindful of its habitat, the food it would be eating and include where it would typically live.

Alanah Jewell works on a custom longboard piece for a client

“A lot of us are disconnected from our cultures and our communities. [Creating art] is a way to reclaim and a way to create representation — a way to network and meet other Indigenous people in order to create our own culture in our own little community in a city,” Jewell said.

At the forefront of reclaiming her culture, Jewell chose a very personal artist’s handle. Morning Star — or Astehtsi Otsisohkwa in Oneida — is Jewell’s middle name. Jewell explained that when she was born, her parents went outside and saw a star in the sky. For Jewell choosing to use that as her brand/ art handle was a way to reclaim it after experiencing racism as a child. 

As a visibly Indigenous kid growing up, Jewell avoided revealing her middle name, Astehtsi Otsisohkwa as she describes already having a target on her back for racism, especially in school.   

“I remember I avoided it at all costs, but I really wanted to reclaim it because I love it and all my family have special names. It’s important that I’m showing that is who I am, and it reflects when I was born, and the kind of racism that I faced as a kid,” she said.

Although Jewell does find inspiration in her culture and its teachings, she expressed that the boundaries of what Indigenous art can be are changing and that putting an Indigenous spin on art can mean anything.

“It does not always have to have meaning and it does not always have to be some beautiful profound explanation of art, it can just be something that we like in our style. This is important too,” Jewell said.

Jewell credits her time and experience at Laurier’s Indigenous Student Centre (ISC) for helping her find a deeper connection to the culture and giving her incredible opportunities to learn about herself and Haudenosaunee or Anishnaabe teachings.

“That’s why I portray the art that I do — it is simple and very easy to make a connection and it is not complicated to understand and a lot of people can relate to it,” she said.

Helping to create community is one of the reasons Jewell took on an organizational role in I AM Kitchener Indigenous Art Market which will be virtual in 2020. 

“I’ve been able to kind of create a bridge between community and art through I AM Kitchener and help people heal … help myself heal and help work through trauma, but also, create a beautiful future for Indigenous art and Indigenous people and Indigenous youth.” 

This connection is why I AM Kitchener is so important to Jewell. She emphasized that these local art markets are meant to connect people by creating opportunities, as well as providing representation and support for emerging artists. 

The future is bright for Jewell as she continues to develop as an artist, including expanding into digital artwork, and large-scale murals. You will also find her continuing to create community in Kitchener. She teased about a studio space with fellow artist Luke Swinson.

“[I hope the space will] eventually support other Indigenous people in the city through the arts,” she said. 

You can follow Jewell