The Cahokia art space, owned by women and run by Native Americans, cultivates “creative placekeeping”

Ella Ho Ching

Cronkite News

Cahokia boasts of being the first modern Indigenous arts and social space owned by women. Nestled in the heart of downtown Phoenix, it hopes to embody the spirit of a pre-colonial city known for community, creativity, and the free exchange of ideas.

Co-founders Melody Lewis and Eunique Yazzie drew inspiration from ancient Cahokia, an Indigenous town of 15,000 in the Mississippi Valley of what is now Illinois. They want their space to promote “creative placekeeping” for Native American art and culture.

“We called this place Cahokia because we want it to be the modern version of this space, where communities and Indigenous people come together to create and innovate,” Lewis said. “And that’s how it all happened: through our exchange of knowledge, skills and abilities when we started.”

Cahokia is a for-profit social enterprise that is a hub for Indigenous and marginalized creatives and entrepreneurs to host events, sell products, showcase and sell their artwork, and collaborate on various projects.

Located on North Third Street, on the ground floor of the Link PHX, a new high-rise apartment building, Cahokia opened on October 11, Indigenous Peoples Day. Since the official opening, Cahokia has brought in more artists and garnered greater media coverage. than expected, which was exciting for the founders.

“We exploded more than we ever imagined,” Yazzie said. “We’ve had people try to pitch large-scale projects to us, because nobody’s ever seen an all-Indigenous creative team operate the way we do and how we organize things.

Lewis said the startup’s notoriety can also be attributed to the fact that Cahokia is the first of its kind: a community space designed and run by Indigenous people.

“It’s super exciting to be able to have a space to do work that is meaningful to us, that feels like home,” she said. “A space that isn’t institutionalized, that sees through our goals and our worldview, just didn’t exist until now.”

Cahokia has 15 creative members as well as over 30 volunteers. To foster a sense of family, all are part of the decision-making process in planning events and meeting the needs of the community.

Adan Madrigal, a motivational speaker and videographer who is not Native American, said he has explored his own cultural identity since joining Cahokia because of the strong sense of social enterprise community.

“I come here sometimes and see there’s no one here, so I leave and go back to the office because I don’t come here for the space,” Madrigal said. “I come here for the relationships, the people and the connections. This is where the energy is, this is where the excitement is. That’s where the optimism is – it’s with the people. Cahokia teaches people how to take ideas and turn them into tangible things through action.

Lewis said having a dedicated space to be around other Indigenous people allowed her to take what she learned about her culture and “really feel it.”

“There was never really a place where we could just be ourselves,” Yazzie said. “And even if you don’t know all of your culture, you are still indigenous. You still have stories and you still have a family that binds you to the land. It’s almost like we need a place to be able to talk to each other, share those similarities, the struggles, and share the laughter and the joy.

Cahokia is focused on garnering more support and investment for the space, with goals to support 1,000 creatives and entrepreneurs over the next three years, engage in Indigenous advocacy, and eventually purchase property to house Cahokia rather than rent.

“We want to be able to become a sustainable idea and concept so that we can go beyond just operating year after year to come up with enough funds to continue doing programs to cultivate more individuals,” said Lewis. “And on top of that, we want to open more spaces like this in different places.”

Cahokia is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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Nohemi M. Moore