Soul of Nations helping Native students achieve dreams

An art student selected by Soul of Nations for its art program talks about her work. Submitted photo

An art student selected by Soul of Nations for its art program talks about her work. Submitted photo

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Indigenous students, ages 15-18, can apply to the Brea Foley Art Program through Soul of Nations, an organization which exists to inspire Native youth to pursue and achieve their dreams with an emphasis on education and free expression.

Soul of Nations is an organization founded in 2015, which focuses on indigenous youth, mainly in the Southwest but which eventually wants to focus on all indigenous groups in the Americas and Australia. The group started out working with the Navajo Reservation because of its size and because the members of the organization had ties to the reservation.

The birth of Soul of Nations started with Ernest Hill’s father, a missionary, who did community service work on the reservation. Hill, executive director of Soul of Nations, said that experience gave him a passion and familiarity with the reservation, but it was not until Hill was older that he realized the economic disparity of on-reservation life and off-reservation life.

“I told myself I would never return back without ways of helping the community,” Hill said.

While Hill was in college, he and others started doing business development projects with high schools on the reservation, including Window Rock High School. From getting businesses to donate $10,000 of professional clothing to helping kids think more like an entrepreneur, Hill’s contact with the students led him to ask what the students were interested in pursuing.

In an organic focus group, the students’ answer was art. Soul of Nations started coming up with ways to achieve that.

That was the how the Brea Foley Art program came into being. Foley, was a co-founder of Soul of Nations. Although she passed away, her belief in the longevity of culturally infused artwork and her wish to inspire artistic talent among youth, gave the Brea Foley Art program a way to do that for indigenous youth.

Soul of Nations teamed up with the Navajo Nation Museum first and gave small scholarships to three students. The second year they partnered with the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, as well.

“That was pretty exhilarating because we didn’t expect that partnership to happen,” Hill said.

The group flew three students to New York City from the reservation where there was an artist reception at the museum — time for the student artists to talk about their work, keynote speakers and a presentation.

Through that, Soul of Nations also secured key sponsorship from organizations that support Native arts and culture and which supported the idea of Native art being put into the right hands.

“Appropriation is a huge deal,” Hill said. “We wanted to right the wrongs of some of the history of some of the organizations involved in the project. This is a cool way to do that in a more contemporary sense and that really gives the students some really cool exposure.”

Those included partnering with renowned schools, colleges in New York, as well, where students got to tour their art programs and some of the admission directors are on Soul of Nations board.

For the coming year, in addition to the flight to New York and art competition, Soul of Nations is working on an artist in residence program where students may stay at New York University Tisch School of the Arts.

“Just to make sure we have our education component and also the cultural immersion component merged together,” Hill said. “I don’t think that is really done in most art schools in the first place unless it is in the Southwest in Santa Fe.”

The program is for high school students, 15-18 years of age. Hill said capturing students in an early and raw stage in the development of their art career is important.

“[Students] asking, ‘do I want to go to art school? I’m really passionate about art, I want to see what it would take to pursue that,’ this is a perfect age…to really see and to really get students inspired before they start applying to colleges,” Hill said. “To think, not just about getting through high school but getting to and accepted to college.”

One of the founding goals of the organization is to help reservation schools with their retention rates and graduation rates. The organization receives data from some of the schools they work with to track those numbers.

While Soul of Nations has worked primarily with Navajo students, it wants to expand to tribes throughout the Southwest through community service work and inviting them to participate in the art program.

“I feel like all the tribes have similar needs and struggles,” Hill said. “We want to not just zone in on one, but make an indigenous community around the arts, business development as much as we can and galvanize the artistic zeal throughout the Southwest.”

Applications are online and at the Navajo Nation Museum and will open Nov. 1. More information is available at Each applicant can only enter one art piece and entries will be accepted in all visual arts media including but not restricted to: painting, drawing, watercolor, sculpture, weaving, ceramics, photography, prints, video, film, performance and digital or time-based media.

The theme of this year’s artwork is Past and Present.

Hill said Dan Namingha, who is Hopi-Tewa and the son of Dextra Quotskuyva (a Native American artist and potter) and great great grandson of Nampeyo (a Hopi-Tewa potter), was a keynote speaker because one of the student artists said Namingha was her favorite artist.

“We’re pretty well-versed in the art world,” Hill said. “We’re trying to be more versed in the indigenous or Native American art world, as well. Any opportunities we can provide for students to meet artists or to gain mentorship from them, we work toward that.”

Hill said the program is expanding and the organization is excited to provide opportunities for Native students and Soul of Nations is always looking for volunteers to help with outreach and administration of its programs.

In the future, Soul of Nations wants to also expand into the legislative process for Indian country and try to be a liaison between tribal governments and the federal government.

“As a non-profit, that is what you can do,” Hill said. “You can’t petition for legislation, but you can encourage and spread awareness for certain issues."

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