Understanding tribal communities and cancer through storytelling, art

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Art, health and healing

Fernandes is helping Fred Hutch do just that as the latest artist named to the Public Art & Community Dialogue program.

Sponsored by the Fred Hutch Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Core, the program is a new initiative that provides artists, employees, and the broader Washington State community with the opportunity to dialogue about solidarity and research equity in research and health care.

The program’s first call was for black artists in the Pacific Northwest, Uganda and South Africa, where Fred Hutch has established research programs. South African artist Mark Modimola was selected and a banner with his painting was installed atop the Yale building on the Fred Hutch campus on June 21, 2022.

Fernandes, chosen to represent Indigenous artists and communities, unveiled his works on campus on October 10, Indigenous Peoples Day; he replaced the banner with Modimola’s work. Future artwork will represent Asian and Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino, Jewish, and LGBTQ+ communities.

Fernandes’ works were done in a traditional Coast Salish style, he said.

“I wanted to make sure there was cultural accuracy in how it was done and presented,” he said. “Certain elements of art can be a split image, one side mirroring the other side, much like life. There is a duality in life, this idea of ​​having a balance of one side reflecting the other.”

Inspiration for the piece came from an online storytelling circle that Fernandes led on August 23 with Fred Hutch employees and community members. Fernandes shared a traditional Klallam story involving a young boy known as “Slow One” (due to his inability to run) and the nearby Wolf People who helped him overcome this challenge. The story was followed by focus groups and a larger group discussion regarding the meaning of the story.

A second Storytelling Circle featuring Fern Naomi Renville, partner of Fernandes and storyteller from Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota, Omaha and Seneca-Cayuga, took place on September 14.

“Medicine in the form of stories is the medicine of our ancestors,” Renville said during his presentation. “It is literally the power, strength and love of our ancestors in a form that is impossible to quantify.”

And literacy, she continued, is actually a newly acquired human skill.

“Storytelling predates literacy and even language,” she said. “It’s a very old form of communication that’s being exploited and it’s still the way we communicate emotionally. Our mind says we don’t need stories anymore – we have science and facts – but your psyche still needs to make sense of life and experiences with a deeper story. And storytelling physically does something to us as listeners. It relaxes us while we listen. It’s healing and medicine.

Fernandes said it’s critical that Western medicine doesn’t ignore the spiritual and emotional aspects of a cancer diagnosis.

“When I saw this opportunity, it resonated with me as a storyteller,” he said. “Fighting illness isn’t just a decision made by your brain or your body – you also have to prepare your mind and emotions to fight. I wanted to share this perspective with others.

Fernandes said he incorporated elements of the original story, as well as the discussion surrounding it, into the artwork he created.

“I wanted to create art that included the little boy, the wolves, the invisible plants, and the boy’s face after he changed from a scared, lonely boy to a confident one,” he said. “Art will help people remember history. And then they can tell that story to other people.

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