Vail cancels residency for Native American artist Danielle SeeWalker over painting commenting on the war in Gaza

Eden Lane/CPR News
Danielle SeeWalker, center, works with (from left) her friend Mniluzahe Berg, and her sons Locklan and Brody, on a new exhibit showcasing her work at the Littleton Museum.

Updated at 2:15 p.m. on May 10, 2024

A Colorado artist says the Town of Vail canceled her residency after someone complained about a piece of art she created commenting on the war in Gaza.

Danielle SeeWalker said the piece in question, “G is for Genocide,” was not created for the residency and had nothing to do with the program. She said a town official informed her they were canceling the residency in a three-minute phone call.

“I even turned down other job opportunities because of this contact,” SeeWalker said in a statement. “The residency would have been three weeks this coming June and would include multiple community art events including working with youth, painting a mural in Vail Village, an art exhibition and giving a talk at their Symposium.”

Town Manager Russell Forrest did not immediately comment when contacted by CPR News Thursday or Friday, but a statement on the town’s website questions the appropriateness of SeeWalker’s work on Gaza.

“While the town initially embraced SeeWalker's work surrounding Native American issues, her recent focus on the Israel-Gaza conflict raised concerns about the use of public funds to support a polarizing geopolitical issue,” the statement reads. The Art in Public Places (AIPP) board, which oversees the town's public art program, said it had not received a proposal for SeeWalker's planned mural for the residency, “therefore no contract was issued.”

The SeeWalker artwork in question is a painting that drew parallels between the war in Gaza and the historical genocide of Native Americans. In a May 9 email with the subject line "Silencing of a Native American artist," SeeWalker, a Lakota artist, expressed disappointment with the lack of opportunity to explain the context or defend her artwork.

In an interview Friday, SeeWalker said it is important for her to speak her truth.

"As a person of color relating to other people of color that are going through genocide .... I take it very personal that this was something that they just didn't want to have me be part of this residency because it affected somebody else," SeeWalker said. "On a personal level, my artwork is very much ... provocative. It tells stories, it's centered around my identity as a Native American woman. It's past experiences, current experiences, stories I've been told." 

On Friday morning, a future SeeWalker event in Vail titled “Still Here: Redirecting the Native American Narrative with Danielle SeeWalker in conversation with Clay Jenkinson” was still live on the Vail Symposium website. It is scheduled to be held at Vail Interfaith Chapel on June 19 at 6 p.m.

A spokesperson for the Vail Symposium said in an email Friday that the group was still planning on hosting the event. SeeWalker said she's open to it. She also has a message for the people offended by the Gaza artwork.

"I would love to say to them that it was never a piece about any conflict against them or their community or anything like that," SeeWalker said, adding that there are parallels between the genocide of Jewish people and Native Americans. "It was simply me expressing my culture, my histories as it relates to my ancestors, what they had gone through, and what's currently happening today to another group of population of people."