Interview with Weshoyot Alvitre – Artist/Illustrator

Weshoyot Alvitre is Tongva (Los Angeles Basin) and well established in the Indigenous art community as an Illustrator.

She has contributed to numerous Eisner award-winning books, including the “Umbrella Academy,” (Darkhorse Comics) and “Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream,” (Locust Moon Press). She has earned accolades for her work that visualize historical material, including “Graphic Classics: Native American Classics,” (Eureka Productions), “The Cattle Thief,” and most recently, the first volume of highly acclaimed, “Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers,” published by Native Realities Press.

Alvitre has also illustrated numerous pieces of political illustrations in support of the NODAPL movement for Standing Rock, amongst other Native issues.

She also makes a conscious choice to work primarily within Native-owned publications and educational avenues to further support a self-funded narrative on past, present and future Native issues. It is through this voice, and through her artwork, she feels she is able to communicate her unique viewpoint and continue a strong dialogue on issues that are important to her as a Native woman.

Boozhoo, Weshoyot, thank you for your time!

I love your work! I especially love that your work often has a political slant to it. I’m excited to be interviewing you!

Let’s just jump right in!

First of all, I am very excited about your recent picture book, AT THE MOUNTAINS BASE, written by Traci Sorell. What a gorgeous book. Can you talk about illustrating this lovely book?

Working with Traci on ‘At The Mountain’s Base’ was more than I possibly could have asked for in regards to a perfect first picture book. I received the manuscript and fell in love with it immediately. It was sparse in word count, but so vibrant and full of images that excited me and resonated with me. I immediately was drawn to the descriptions of the Grandma’s home and of the possibilities I could have in exploring the weaving element. I love working with fibers. I have taught myself to spin using hand spindles, and spinning wheels and have a great interest in weaving as well. So when I told Namrata and Traci about my ideas to incorporate yarn and threads into these pages, the book began to build from there. I had such encouragement and trust from all directions on this, I am so grateful they gave me that freedom to interpret this story in the way I did. The art director, Jasmin, literally was essential in helping me tie is all together in color correction and small details in the final stages. I am so proud of the book we have created.

Can you talk a bit about how politics inspires your art?

Yes! Well, I was raised in a very political family. Before I was born, my dad had taken over a position to help the national park service build an Indian Center on National Park land in the Santa Monica mountains, here in southern California. I was born via homebirth on the property. It was called Satwiwa, named after a very close sacred site, and still exists today. He was involved in a lot of intertribal political issues during the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s to not only establish our own tribal representation, but in helping to establish our Sovereignty, by actively stopping the usage of the term ‘Gabrielino’ for our tribe, as it was a Spanish terminology. He wrote a work of our tribal stance and we adopted the name “The Intertribal Council of Tongva” to identify ourselves. He was very active and traveled to Elder meetings to represent our tribe and to discuss issues of Indigenous rights. He was outspoken and taught me a lot growing up about the reality of our own tribal histories/genocide, and issues relating to fights for land, water and tribal sovereignty amongst many tribes. I would say that I have always done personal work reflecting my viewpoints, but most recently I have been using it directly to political and environmental issues that Indigenous peoples are facing internationally: we are all fighting for the same things as Indigenous peoples worldwide.

I read that you are working with Elizabeth Lapensee, PhD, award-winning video game designer, on educational games to be used with the Native curriculum nationwide. I LOVE that idea! I think her work is also amazing. And I really like the idea of tying games to history. Can you talk a bit about how it’s been to work on this project?

Yes! We finally wrapped up this project late 2018/early 2019. It is available for free download anywhere and many places have been utilizing the game within their curriculum. The game centers around a Native main character who is forced to move westward and experiences interactions with characters from many different tribal areas, and their experiences with colonists, land grabs, and the US government during the 1890’s. We explain that it’s like a Native centric Oregon Trail. I have such a respect for Beth, and the projects she’s materialized in the gaming world. I was honored to work on this game with her. Its something I wish I had while growing up, and hope something my kids will eventually play. We had dozens of contributing writers from the tribes represented in the game. We had family photos we were using as reference for the artwork. It was really one of the most amazing things I have been part of. I am so proud of this project.

Tell me about the Toypurina project. I know you’ve been working on it for a while, but I don’t know much about it. I want too! And I’m sure everyone else will too. Can you tell us more about this exciting project?

Yes! Toypurina was a medicine woman, the daughter of a chief, and a member of our tribe who helped to organize a huge plot to overthrow the Spanish at the San Gabriel Mission. She is someone who is remembered to this day and one of the only women to organize to a revolt such as this. I have been wanting to tell her story for many years and finally sat down to begin her story in October of 2018. I decided to use the popular Inktober art challenge as a springboard for this, and spent a month, doing a panel a day, to create a narrative, to begin to tell her story. It received a lot of attention and I put together a small hand printed run of 50 books. I sold out of all of them and had people messaging me trying to get a copy to use in the classroom or for their tribal members. So I decided to launch a kickstarter in May of this year. I launched it on the anniversary of her passing 220 years ago. It was fully funded and so will pay for a reprint of the original 30 page story vignette plus have new content including sketches, research notes and more story.

What first drew you to illustrating? Give us an idea of your journey and some of the challenges you’ve encountered along the way.

Watching cartoons and reading books were two things (animation & illustration) that I was really drawn to as a child. It grew as I grew and I wanted to be an animator. I went to a state summer school for the arts to study animation, while in high school. I thought it was where I wanted to be, however it was problematic. Disney had just shut their doors on hand drawn animation, and our instructors told us the future was in digital animation, as Pixar had just been born. I had no interest in digital animation. I still prefer handmade/hand-drawn anything to digitally conceived. We were basically told if we continued, school was expensive and there was no guarantee of a job after graduation. So that was something that made me pause and reflect. I ended up going to community college due to the costs. I was ineligible for any Native scholarships as they all asked for certificates of federal recognition. So I paid for my schooling through art and merit based scholarships and graduated with a BA in illustration/fine art. I was working in comics all throughout college.

You are an artist with many different talents, besides illustration. Can you speak more about growing up close to the land and being raised with traditional knowledge, and how that inspires your work?

Yes of course. As I mentioned earlier, I was born on National Park land, at Satwiwa in 1984. We were the only house out there, the next house was about ¼ mile down the road or so. So I grew up in a very rural environment. My mom would take me out for walks every day. There’s hiking trails all over the property, and a canyon with old oaks and water. My dad taught me very early about our stories, he taught me the limited word base he knew of our language and also plant knowledge. Growing up I have always leaned more towards natural based things. I think with my art I try to remain the same. My storytelling I feel reflects my introspective nature of being a very quiet, observant child. It translates to how I view and handle the world as an adult as well.

How do you think the industry has changed, throughout your Illustrating career, in terms of literature for, and about, Native and First Nations people?

It has most definitely changed for the better. For the longest time I rejected doing any Native based artwork, which often times people expected of me due to my name and nationality. In college I had people expecting romanticized Native work from me, or westerns even in comics, and I really got uneasy whenever that came up. My goal as a comic artist was to be as good as the leading males in the industry and be diverse in the types of books I was suited to illustrate. It wasn’t until I met Michael Sheyashe and Lee Francis did I feel comfortable even discussing that side of my heritage through the comics medium. Now, it seems all the major publishers are putting call outs for Native American and Indigenous centric media. They have a gaping hole in their products and they know that it is being discussed at large conferences, etc. While I am happy that major publishers are now giving us space to tell our stories, I am often more eager to work with smaller Native owned publications due to the unspoken understanding in freedom in putting out material, but also in a respectful manner as I understand what it takes to create and maintain a Native publishing house or business.

What are some of your favorite children’s books with Native American and First Nations characters?

Honestly, I am a bit new to the current books by Native authors and illustrators. I grew up on a lot of Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnell books. My favorite is “I’m in charge of celebrations” and more recently discovered “The table where rich people sit.”

What books would you like to see more of in terms of children’s literature?

I would love to see more of the unique traditional stories brought to the world of children’s books. So many people grow up not knowing their creation stories so I feel that this would not only benefit the current and future generations, but really fill a void that some of the older generations who are trying to reclaim their cultures have.

Are there sites or resources you would highlight for writers and parents interested in social justice and multicultural children’s literature, specifically Native American and First Nations people?

There are so many sources out there. I would definitely suggest Debbie Reese’s blog, as I feel she does so much work in correcting current available materials and opening eyes to what’s problematic, but also correcting it by offering methods and materials to counteract those things. I think staying on top of current Native and Indigenous issues is key. Because you need to see the whole picture of what is going on in order to create bite sized pieces to explain to your children.

What else do you think is important to share with the reader?

I think that supporting Native artists and writers and including their products in curriculum in education is so important in creating industry change within the markets. It not only tells the retailers there are lucrative markets, which help to continue to pay Native/Indigenous writers and artists, but it allows for positive change in the educational system which works on so many levels: from reteaching adults, to instilling well written and honest materials to youth.

What’s next for you?

Right now, is the first time in many, many years I have had a small amount of downtime. I made sure I gifted this to myself after the amount of large projects and the workload I have been carrying for the last 3 years. So, I am spending my time working on preliminary art and writing for a project on Wounded Knee occupation in 1973, and continuing the write for a graphic novel of the story of Toypurina.

Chi miigwech for your time!