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October 17, 2021

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Native American mural at UNR inspired by Thacker Pass debate

 Sana Sana

Jason Bean / The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP

Local artist Sana Sana poses for a portrait in front of his mural at the multicultural center on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno on Sept. 30, 2021. For Reno artist Sana Sana, the work presents an opportunity to educate the public on the history of Nevada’s indigenous peoples and their struggles. It’s a way to give the Native American communities a voice, he said.

RENO — It’s hard to miss the vibrant mural that now decorates a wall inside the Joe Crowley Student Union at UNR.

The image, unlike any other on campus, depicts the history of Native American women and their struggle to protect their culture, land and water.

For Reno artist Sana Sana, the work presents an opportunity to educate the public on the history of Nevada’s indigenous peoples and their struggles. It’s a way to give the Native American communities a voice, he said.

“Whenever I’m creating art pieces, I need to be honest and give attention to things that people aren’t giving attention to,” Sana Sana told the Reno Gazette Journal. “There are enough artists who are just painting pretty flowers or making songs about money, drugs or misogyny.

“There are enough people speaking about those things, so it’s my responsibility to speak about other things that are happening,” he said. “I used my painting to do that.”

The mural was commissioned to celebrate the renaming of The Center. Every Student, Every Story to the Multicultural Center and has since captured the attention of students and faculty.

It depicts the fight over the approval of Thacker Pass, a proposed mine at the largest known U.S. deposit of lithium near the Nevada-Oregon border.

At least one Nevada tribe joined the legal battle -- alongside environmental conservationists trying to protect the habitat in the area -- to ban digging at the site, claiming the mine would disturb sacred burial grounds.

The painting shows a woman’s silhouette as a mountainscape with a gaping wound from an open pit mine.

“This is the friendliest mining state inside the country,” Sana Sana said. “The mining industry is the largest polluter in the country per volume. I thought it was important for people to see that.

“It’s one thing to see a mine, but it’s another thing to see it as a person and the pain the land goes through in this nonconsensual taking of what people value for money and how it correlates to the nonconsensual taking of women’s bodies and the rape culture we live inside society,” he said.

The mural also depicts Mother Earth as a pregnant Native American woman representing life, the land and creation. Sana Sana said he believes it’s important to humanize and personify the landscape to make the issue more relatable.

“When I think of the land, I think of a mother,” he said. “Everything comes from the land, that’s what we’re born out of. When I think of my mother, she’s brown, she has indigenous features because of our heritage.”

Sana Sana, whose father immigrated to the U.S., said he has an indigenous heritage with ties to the Purépecha people from Michoacán, Mexico.

At the bottom of his mural, Sana Sana depicted various indigenous girls. At one end of the mural, they appear to be smiling, but at the other end, a nun wearing an American flag on her sleeve is shown cutting the girls’ hair -- a church engulfed in flames burning behind her.

The piece represents the history of Native American boarding schools and the attempts by the federal government to quash indigenous cultures.

Most recently, boarding schools throughout the country have come under federal review to investigate student deaths and the effects boarding schools have had on Native American tribes. The unprecedent initiative follows the discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children at what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school.

“I shed a lot of tears while I was creating that piece because that piece also represents me as well,” Sana Sana said. “That’s why I don’t speak Purépecha. That’s why I speak Spanish. That’s why I don’t have my ceremonies and I was raised in a church going through that same system, not being able to have our songs to honor our water and our land.”

Beverly Harry, a member of Navajo Tribe within the Four Corners Region and the Native community organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said the mural is a reminder for people that they are on Native American land.

“The most populated areas are taken up by non-Native communities,” Harry said. “When we look at the area of Washoe Valley and Reno, those are areas where the Washoe people and the Northern Paiutes used to roam.”

Harry has worked with Sana Sana to promote other social causes, including raising awareness of the possible effect of storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. She described Sana Sana’s activism through artwork as “artivism.”

“It helps build a bridge between the beauty of art and the beauty of our voices that are protecting these lands,” she said. “We have to maintain it for seven generations forward.”

She said the mural also depicts strong women who fought for their people. It references Haunani-Kay Trask, a renowned scholar who fought for Hawaiian sovereignty and recently died at the age of 71.

Although there are Native American professors and student organizations at UNR, there isn’t enough representation of the local indigenous tribes, Harry said.

“You go through the university and the buildings and the different levels of each building, there aren’t any areas that are dedicated to indigenous people,” she said. “There aren’t even any colleges that are devoted to Native American studies or indigenous studies or anything like that.

“We’re hopeful that it will lend some pride to people visiting the center and help them understand that brown people are important, and they should be prideful for the work within all of these areas of concern and issues (represented) within this mural.”

Jody Lykes, who teaches hip-hop, family studies and classes on gender race and identity at UNR, said he’s seen students stop and gawk at the mural.

“In person, it evokes thought, emotion and everything you hope art does,” Lykes said. “We have people who walk by the center, because it’s new and they haven’t seen it yet, and they will stop and focus.”

For Lykes, the most impactful piece of the mural was seeing the American Flag represent boarding schools.

“It’s super impactful, I can’t even explain it,” he said. “We are trying to make sure people are included who have been excluded, and especially for Native women. It’s just powerful the way he expresses it.”