Mohawk artist creates traditional and story art with a bit of 'Star Wars' and 'Aliens' thrown in too

This week’s #NativeNerd feature: Arihhonni David, an Illustrator, Syracuse U graduate and Haudenosaunee Mohawk that creates vibrant and impressive works of art

Arihhonni David, his first name translates to “he changes or persuades,” was raised around storytellers. He admits that he had an extremely active imagination as a kid and loved to draw dragons, dinosaurs, Mohawk traditional story characters and as he put it, “way too much Star Wars.”

But though David loved contemporary art, he says he has always been influenced by the stories in Mohawk traditions. “I looked up to the heroes within our stories who taught me how to better carry myself, that life is always in flux, and no matter how hard the trail ahead you must keep our head up. You never know when a flying head may be waiting above in the trees,” he says.

The flying head is a Mohawk traditional story, about an ominous head that rolls or bounces through the forest, hunting for its next victim. 

But in additional to traditional stories, David says he is mindful of the stories of struggle of the Haudenosaunee people who were often put down or shamed for who they were, for speaking their language, but all the while maintained their own sense of resistance.

David said as a Haudenosaunee Mohawk of the Wolf Clan raised in Akwesasne — he was one of the nerdiest Native kids around. He says also he got a lot of influence from contemporary films of the time.

“I’m a nerd, a huge, huge nerd. I have watched Star Wars, Jurassic Park and Lord of the Rings too many times to count. I read comics growing up and admired Stan Lee as the master storyteller he was. But, like many other kids from many other Rez’s, I never saw myself in those stories. There were films that were ours like Smoke Signals, Powwow Highway, Dreamkeeper and Last of the Mohicans, but most of the time when I saw us represented, we were a faceless mob for Mr. America-personified to mow down.”

“I graduated from Syracuse University in 2017 with a BFA in Illustration and a minor in Indigenous Studies. I’m always trying to improve my art, as well as learning each variation of our Haudenosaunee legends. For the past two years I’ve been traveling around and educating people about the Haudenosaunee culture and teachings while funding my art and myself, as they’re one in the same,” said David.

Below is an interview with David as well as 10 of his favorite works of art.

Vincent Schilling: What inspires you to create your art?

Arihhonni David: What inspires me are the stories, our people and my family. I’m inspired by the struggles in our legends. Our legends always have some form of sacrifice, whether that be attached to something physical, an idealism or mindset or a sacrifice of the self. All our stories have this endurance built into them as well, encouraging the listener to push forward no matter the weight, or toll. Our people inspire me, when I come home after a while, I always get a sense of warmth. Once I cross the bridge and enter our territory it feels like home welcomes me and when I’m in the community, I feel a sense of belonging that I haven't felt anywhere else. I’m inspired by my family; my grandmother, (who survived the Residential Schools) my parents (two of the strongest people I know), and my siblings, who teach me more about the world and myself every day. I try to do all I can to help them and guide them where I can.

An illustration by Arihonni David titled 'Guarded'
'Guarded'Illustration by Arihonni David

Vincent Schilling: How much of what you do is nerdy or geeky or contemporary fantasy versus artistry tied to your Native traditions?

Arihhonni David: I would say about 60/40 lately, that’s 60% nerdy and 40% Native stuff. I get into grooves where I’ll illustrate around a concept. Lately, it has been Star Wars which is a vortex I try to avoid, otherwise, I’ll end up drawing for days. But even with these pieces, I try to work in an element I haven't done before. 

That way even when I draw something nerdy which I see as fun, it will have an element of practice to it. I am heavily inspired by Sci-Fi, Star Wars, the Alien Franchise and Blade Runner; these are all films I draw and get visual inspiration from.

When I do pieces centered around our traditions, it's with the narrative in mind. I’ll pick a moment in the story that draws up a lot of emotion; the day’s end with the hunter and the four dogs, a boy looking into the tree trunks and seeing the giant mosquito, or Todadaho cursing his warriors in the flame. 

The pieces will follow the narrative and I love placing my illustrations in those moments, that way my audience can feel what the characters feel and see what they see. When I tell the story to a crowd, I try to embody each character as best I can and see the situation through their eyes, this is something I try to do with my art as well.

Turtle's war on man.
Turtle's war on man.Arihonni David

Vincent Schilling: How much flack do you get from random people that might say to you for example, ‘Shouldn't a Native artist be making baskets, beaded medallions, etc?’

Arihhonni David: Most of the flack I get is centered around the stereotypes. While in University, I spent a lot of time correcting people on their assumptions about Indigeneity. I would always get the teepee and buffalo questions. I’m Mohawk, we are Haudenosaunee. People of the Longhouse, no buffalo, we were farmers. Then you will get people asking what their name is in Indian, sorry, Pete doesn't have a direct translation in Kanien'keha. The worst I got was from a young boy on the road, we were presenting at a grade school, finished our social songs and dances, and the boy asked, “I thought the cowboy’s killed all of you.”

It wasn't the boy’s fault; it was the teachers and education on Indigenous peoples. That’s the American narrative, that we’re a thing of the past with the dinosaurs. I do everything I can with any opportunity to educate people otherwise, they’re left with their stereotypes. But for the most part, I don't receive that kind of criticism because most people know nothing about Indigenous people.

Vincent Schilling: What are some of your favorite things to draw and illustrate?

Arihhonni David: Monsters. As I mentioned, Alien, Jurassic Park and Lord of the Rings fueled my young nerd heart. This gave me an obsession with drawing giant beasts, evil villains and of course, too many dinosaurs to count. Along with that, I really enjoy making fan art, I watch a lot of movies and TV and I read when I’m able to. I’ll regularly mix my fandoms; I recently did a fan casting of Danny Devito as Wolverine.

I like to make my friends laugh as well. I’ll make more serious pieces, but I also get really goofy, and I have more than a few pieces showing my photogenic dog, Darman. 

But overall, my favorite since I was a kid, was the Flying Head. The Flying Head in our legends has many depictions, whether it has large bear arms ending with razor-sharp claws or talons of a bird that are armored with snake scales. The Flying Head is said to have burning yellow eyes that spew flames, or alternatively, its mouth sparks with a constant fire. The movement as well, I’ve heard versions where the monster will fly like a bird above the trees and strike down, but my favorite is the idea of it bouncing between trees, keeping a constant momentum, with a wide fanged smile as it hunts.

Vincent Schilling: What is your technique or medium that you work with?

Arihhonni David: Since I was in grade school I've worked out of a sketchbook. I would carry it around with me wherever I went and when a dull moment struck or I found a table, I would sit and start drawing. I work mostly in pen and ink on top of a pencil sketch. My art’s framework is based around my attention to inking, this is from reading comics. 

I read Spiderman, studied Stan Lee, Frank Miller’s Sin City, Jack Kirby's run on Conan the Barbarian and of course, Calvin and Hobbes. Along with all the other comics I read along the way. Now I work digitally, as I saved up and bought myself a pretty snazzy Wacom drawing tablet. I’m constantly learning with Digital Art and trying out new things as I go. I treat each piece like a doodle in my Sketchbook, which means that I have a lot of abandoned Photoshop files but a marathon man sense of completionism once I really get going with a piece.

Vincent Schilling: How is your work today similar to a community member generations prior to us? How is it the same? How about the opposite, meaning ancestors in the future doing art?

Arihhonni David: I approach my art as storytelling. Only when I tell the story, visually it's all in the details. This is another creative vortex I try to stay away from or have a healthy understanding of. Drawing detail can be a constant struggle, as you’re speaking to the viewer with these subtle things. A broach design, the shawl pattern. Hinting at the clan of your character, at their wealth, or lack thereof. 

"The Devil and God are raging inside me."
"The Devil and God are raging inside me."Arihonni David

The scars you portray, their stance, and what color they paint their face. This is all to say I tell my stories how they’ve always been told; I’m just using my hands to draw rather than express myself speaking. I hope in the future we have more Indigenous storytellers coming from our communities. I hope one day I can go to a powwow and sit and listen to someone’s history through their legends. I hope these stories and our languages are preserved long after I’m gone, so my kids and their kids all the way to the 7th generation can continue to listen and be inspired by them.

Just like me, when I was a young nerdy Native kid doodling on the playground.

Vincent Schilling: How do you put ‘Native flavor’ into the work you do?

Arihhonni David: I work Native flavor into my pieces subtly, either through humor or the character's demeanor. We all know someone in the community with a good stoic power stance or a laugh that brings you along for the ride.

It’s this resting stoic that I give to a lot of my characters, it gives them confidence that’s bold and constant that I’ve seen in every community I visit. I work in Native flavor through humor, I feel like we’ve always got an absurd joke to make like the sly comment your cousin made then just sits there with a smart-aleck smirk. I also imagine that each of the characters I create is Native, as most artists do, we speak through our own lenses and through our own experiences. My experience and my lens are Indigenous, it’s Haudenosaunee, it’s Akwesasne the land of endless teasing and deep Uncle Skoden voices.

Vincent Schilling: What’s your Wi-Fi Password?

Arihhonni David: Well Vincent, my Wi-Fi Password is a guarded secret. But I’ll tell you, its TK421. As in “TK421 why aren't you at your post? TK421 do you copy?” This as my nerd brethren know as the line spoken by an Imperial Officer to Luke and Han as they exit the Millennium Falcon in A New Hope. They’ve taken TK421’s stormtrooper armor and played it off as a communicator malfunction. That’s my password and a lynchpin of my personality, Endless Star Wars references that only 10th level nerds get.

Vincent Schilling: I was just checking to see if you would give it to me. A Wi-Fi password says a lot about a person. So all said, what do you want to do with your life?

Arihhonni David: Somewhere down the line I’d like to write storybooks, children's books, Graphic Novels and maybe star as “Background Mohawk #36” in a movie somewhere. For now, I’ll continue telling our story and legends to the youth, so they too can grow seeing themselves represented and listen to a Native nerd tell them the whole thing.

Arihhonni David has long since changed his Wi-Fi password. Thus he says he was glad to share its previous incarnation.

Reach out to Arihhonni David on Instagram at @Honnid

Native Nerd Phone

Follow the #NativeNerd, Vincent Schilling, associate editor for Indian Country Today on Twitter at @VinceSchilling and on Instagram at @VinceSchilling.

Email - vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com

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