Mounds of wood chips collected on the floor as Stella Nall scooped into a large wooden block. She loved how sore her arms got as she found pieces of herself in the creatures she carved.
A golden mule with a hole gaping from its stomach referred to her grandparent’s last name Yellowmule, likely a mule deer, but depicted as a donkey, the way Nall envisioned it since childhood; a mix of two species, genetically sterile. Above, small-beaked crows with hands for wings fly toward a disjointed larger beak, encapsulated in an elk's tooth, within a portal of smaller teeth.
Apsáalooke translated to English is “the children of the large beak bird,” which then was translated to “Crow.”
“If my ancestors are looking for a large-beaked bird, I might look like a hand bird with a tiny beak,” said Nall, who grew up immersed in Crow traditions.
“First Descendant: Steril Hybridity” is a print Nall made learning a new steamrolling technique in art school at the University of Montana. At 22, she just sold the work to the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.
She celebrated the Venmo payment with a trip to the grocery store. Then she sat down to eat the chocolate buttercream cake her roommate had made two months earlier that had been sitting in their freezer, presumably congratulating her every time she opened it up.
”I don’t think in our culture there are a lot of other ethnicities confronted with so many constant questions and asked to prove themselves in so many ways,” she said. “For me, this project has been important because it is something I have been dealing with my whole life.”
Socially and medically, she’s been categorized as Indigenous, participating in Crow traditions since childhood, dancing in powwows, visiting grandparents who prayed in the Crow language before each meal, learning to bead from her mother. But because of their current blood quantum requirements, she and her brother are the first generation of her mother’s family to be denied enrollment from the Crow tribe, which also prohibits dual enrollment, erasing her connection to ancestors with Arapaho and Sioux ties. She’s technically considered a “first descendant,” and if she has a child with someone who isn't enrolled as Crow, they won’t even hold that status.
Blood quantum is an enrollment tactic based in “fear and racism,” she said, and she wished her tribe used methods that weren’t rooted in settler colonialism, like lineal descent or kinship, where if your parents are enrolled, you can be as well. She said the tribe hasn't amended its constitution since 2002, and because she is not enrolled, she can’t vote on tribal enrollment laws. So she reaches out to her tribe and to groups like “Apsáalooke on the Move” and “Crow Nation Moves” on Facebook to raise awareness through her artwork of the internal conflict and trauma the blood quantum laws have caused her. So far no response, she said.
She always keeps a canvas behind her to turn to when the emotional gravity of her work gets too heavy. Starting at the beginning of a thought or memory, she follows it through stream-of-consciousness writing, burying it in paint and meticulous texturing, tearing the canvas and stitching it together, decorating it with found objects, leather, rags, chicken coop remnants. The subconscious collection of “process paintings” hang at Butterfly Herbs for the month of September.
Nall recently had a new piece propped against her fence in her backyard, in faded purple and blue hues stapled with a line of caramel fuzz. She ran into her garden shed, fetched a toolbox, and plopped down on a blanket, pulling out a plastic baggie of fur, shaking the shed from her bunny, Hoagie, and showing off fly-tying material from her dad.
She said the “process paintings” made her appreciate the emotion between certain mark-making gestures and what they do for her mind. She pointed out the painting in front of her, a long squiggling arm reaching down to her, white hair-like marks against black. She likened the reductive paint pen marks to the marks she carves.
“These usually appear when I am anxious,” she said.
The marks etch their way into her recurring dream scenes in creatures, symbols, stitches and beading. You see it in morphed animals like the “skunkapiller,” a lanky mother skunk reaching towards its baby, or in poor math fractions that don’t equate.
In her poem, “Reflections on Mixed Race Indigeneity + the Blood Quantum,” she writes:
We are the first members
not to have enough Indian blood,
yet so far
no one has split open my veins
and tried to check.
If they did,
what would they find?
Is the white blood within me somehow thicker than the red?
Is it like oil? Unable to mix, it separates me into fractions.
Why is it the only blood passed down in whole?
Is it bleach? Why does it burn away the rest?
She bounces between gridding one corner and scribbling red pen apples in the other. Complex memories and feelings go from occupying a liminal place to a physical one, allowing her to understand them better.
“I’m trying to get rid of any sort of negative feelings indigenous people have about being truly indigenous or not indigenous enough because I think what’s most important is being true to yourself and connecting to your culture,” she said.
Her work opened up conversations with family and friends. In her band, Crybaby, two of her other bandmates are Blackfeet, and they’ve been able to relate to similar experiences and express frustrations of alienation with lyrics like, “how am I supposed to scream with this voice when all my heroes are dirty skinny white boys?” Soon, they’ll release a single for Anything Bagel’s MT BIPOC Mutual Aid Fundraiser compilation cassette and are also playing KBGA’s Birthday Bash live stream September 18.
Nall thrives connecting with her own identity and her community through art. Her last exhibition “Love is (?)” documented and illustrated a year’s worth of community responses to the question, “What is love?”
Her next interactive installation is a mural for Zootown Arts Community Center mural project reserved for historically marginalized voices with a focus on amplifying queer and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) voices. She will make a giant creature out of a bunch of different people’s hands, with an accompanying zine “key” giving details about each individual.
In a world where she’s always had a complex relationship to her identity, art is the one part she feels “really solid about.”