This week Idyllwild Arts (IA) Summer Programs presents its annual Native American Arts Festival, an institution-within-the-institution for more than 20 years, returning after a hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic. Shaliyah J. Ben, director of the IA Native American Arts program and coordinator of the festival, gave the Crier some background on this year’s festival. She said, “The week has historically been organized to complement the summer workshops,” but the concerts, exhibitions and panel discussions are open to the general public.

Nunamta Yupik Singers and Dancers.

Asked to unpack the meaning of this year’s theme, “Looking at Us: Exploring Institutional Critique,” Ben explained that this year’s festival is special because, “It means that reconvening after a global event, finally recognizing the societal and racial unrest that the pandemic unveiled, we have an opportunity to sit and reflect as people on the Earth and in this country. Institutions were not originally designed to provide the necessary inclusion, belonging and equity that they now need to survive and move forward. I think of IAA [Idyllwild Arts Academy] as an educational hub: We’ve recently taken two very big stances on anti-racism and diversity. [The festival] puts all the statements we put out there into action, using art as a medium to approach these important topics and find creative solutions.”

Richard Tsosie in the Parks Exhibition Gallery.

A full program of events is available online at but Ben singled out two accessible events that will culminate the festival: the Thursday Night free screening at the Rustic Theatre, and the Friday night concert event at Holmes Amphitheatre.

A Native American mask.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, June 23, the Rustic Theatre will host a screening of two documentaries, “Saging the World” and “Power Lands.” The first explains the consequences of appropriating an element of Indigenous rituals, the burning of white sage, by a perhaps well-meaning but uninformed global community. The herb is found only in a stretch of land between Baja and “Upper” California, and while the consequences of poaching lions or elephants are represented often in media and generally easily imagined, the damage done by plant poaching on a commercial scale may not occur to a consumer picking up a bundle of the fragrant herb at a market.

Native American Bird Singing.

Rose Ramirez, Deborah Small and the California Native Plant Society’s David Bryant produced the film to “foster awareness and inspire action for white sage.” The action they invite is to “go from smudging to seeding,” highlighting the relationship to the plant and the land the original inhabitants are still cultivating.

IAA film alumni Camille Manybeads-Tso directed the second film, “Powerlands.” Her organization, “Tso Inspired,” specializes in “Place-Based Media Arts,” the integration of Media Arts Literacy with Place-Based Education. The film is, according to Navajo Hopi News (NHO), a “sobering story of cultural and environmental crisis on Indigenous lands,” focusing on the impact of energy companies on native lands here and abroad. The story emphasizes fossil fuels and uranium, but wind and solar also figure in.

The NHO news story quoted Tso as saying, “Any energy source can be turned into a non-green resource and can be deadly and dangerous for Indigenous communities, if not done correctly or done in tandem [with them].”

The festival culminates at 7 p.m. Friday, June 24, featuring Pamyua, a band from Alaska (pronounced bum-yo-ah, meaning “encore,” or “do it again.”) Alaska’s most famous Inuit band, they are described as “tribal funk” or “Inuit soul music.”

Inuit Yup’ik African American brothers Phillip Kilirnguq Blanchett and Steven Qacungatarli Blanchett learned to sing and drum in their mother’s language, and also went to Baptist church with their father. Ben calls them “absolutely phenomenal,” and their videos confirm this, revealing a rich and deep new take on some familiar sounds and rhythms. The band will utilize traditional dance, masks and drums in their open air performance at the Holmes Amphitheatre on campus.

Chef Freddie Bitsoie, resident guest chef, will provide an array of food tastings throughout the Native American Arts Festival Week — including the final concert — sharing samples from his newly published cookbook, “New Native Kitchen: Celebrating Modern Recipes of the American Indian.” The concert will be opened by Mountain Cahuilla Bird Singers, who also performed at the opening event Sunday, June 19.

All festival week events are free and open to the public.