This piece was produced for Badger Vibes, our collaboration with the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association.
Though born in Misawa, Japan, Ryan Young grew up in the Ojibwe community on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation in northern Wisconsin. An Indigenous, queer, gender-neutral, multidisciplinary artist, Young identifies as two-spirit: containing both male and female. Ojibwe pronouns don’t indicate masculine or feminine, and in English, Young uses the pronoun they for self-description. Through their art, Young seeks to explore all facets of their identity, activism, and education.
Young came to the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2009 and found a home with Wunk Sheek, the Native American organization on campus. However, Young felt unsure of their career path at the time and struggled to feel seen as an Indigenous artist.
“I had just come out of the closet, moving to a new place at a new school, and was dealing with an organization that was experiencing a lack of funding,” Young says.
Young decided to take a break from school for a couple of years while continuing to live in Madison.
“I got to live at the Audre Lorde Co-op and work with a lot of cool people,” Young says.
Young met fine arts major Cecilia León in 2011. León was working on her senior show, Eyeball-IT II, and she allowed non-art majors an opportunity to showcase their work. Young’s first submission, <1%, was an interactive performance piece, identifying the struggles that Indigenous students face while attending an institution where they make up less than one percent of the student body. Young received praise from faculty in the UW’s Art Department.
“I showed images of my project, Indigeneity, which was photographing Native students at the university,” Young says.
In 2014, Young relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to attend the Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA).
“When I got to Santa Fe,” they say, “I focused less on questioning my identity and seeing myself as two-spirit and queer.”
In New Mexico, Young switched from portraits to more documentary, representational images. Their work helps people break out of stereotypical ways of looking at Indigenous people, such as attributing Native identity to blood quantum level — the concept that people’s Native identity is dependent on what percentage of Native ancestry they have.
“You can be a full-blooded Native and not know anything about Native people and your culture,” Young says. “Then, you can be half-Native and be fully versed in your Native language.”
Young argues that blood quantum is a heterosexual construct and prefers to focus on empowering two-spirit people. “A lot of the work I’ve been kind of doing right now is to be bringing resources to the two-spirit community,” they say.
Young’s current projects explore Indigenization, the act of making something more Native. Indigenization might appropriate something from popular culture or transform a service, idea, or product to suit Native people. For Young, this means playing with pop culture references and Indigenizing them. They replaced the pipe from The Treachery of Images, a 1929 painting by René Magritte, with an Ojibwe ceremonial pipe. Under the image are the words “This is not a pipe,” in Ojibwe.
Young also enjoys browsing through Native memes and references on social networks, where two-spirit people are owning their identity.
“For me, I like to post a lot of funny stuff,” they say. “It helps me get through the world right now.”