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Meet the Artist Dakota Mace

Diné interdisciplinary artist Dakota Mace is the contemplative, dedicated mind behind the Łééchąą Yázhí (Puppy) collars in Stunt Puppy’s Indigenous Design Series. Her work is deeply connected to her origins: she explores Diné history, beliefs, community and identity through a variety of processes, including alternative photography, weaving — and now, dog collar designs. Read the interview below, learn more about Dakota’s art and background and tap the button to shop the Łééchąą Yázhí (Puppy) collar collection.

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Diné artist Dakota Mace is super in touch with her origins and her artistic practice. If you spend even just a few minutes talking to Dakota, her devotion to her craft becomes immediately apparent. But if you spend an hour with her, like we did, you learn that she’s one of those rare people who will generously open a window into the deeper “why” behind what she does — thereby inviting you into a rich, layered conversation.

“A lot of Indigenous artists’ work is centered on our history and our backgrounds, so we end up becoming our own archivists,” she explains. “There are a lot of different hats that we have to wear in order for people to understand where our work comes from. Our artwork is more than just a visual presentation — it’s something that is deeply connected to our belief system.”

“Our artwork is more than just a visual presentation — it’s something that is deeply connected to our belief system.”

That intimate connection between Dakota’s identity and art ultimately drove her to obtain master’s degrees in photography and textile design from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a bachelor’s degree in photography from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Currently, she works at the University of Wisconsin’s Center of Design and Material Culture — both as a photographer, documenting their textile collection, and as a researcher, helping build their cultural appropriation curriculum. She’s also a graduate adviser at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In this interview, Dakota brings all of that dedication to bear — and talks about her love of dogs and interdisciplinary approach to designing the very cool Łééchąą Yázhí (Puppy) collars.

Can you tell us a little bit about where you’re from?

I grew up going back and forth between Albuquerque and Torreon, New Mexico, where my family is originally from. It’s part of the checkerboard Navajo Nation, which isn’t technically part of Navajo Nation, but it’s also not part of the state of New Mexico. So, it kind of gets pushed to the side or forgotten. It’s also pretty rural and hasn’t progressed as much as the rest of the world, but I think that’s the beauty of it.

Big question: How would you describe your art?

That is a really good question. I always ask myself, “What is my art?” [laughs]. So many people see me as either a photographer or a weaver, but I see myself as an interdisciplinary artist. My work really focuses on translating the language of Diné history and beliefs and exploring the themes of family lineage, community and identity. I want the viewer to understand the many facets of Diné people through my different processes — alternative photography, handmade paper, weaving and beadwork.

Handmade paper?

Yeah, I sometimes use paper that I make from materials found in the New Mexico high desert, like abaca, sage and wildflowers. I believe that everything is intended to go back to the earth eventually — that things aren’t meant to last longer than their own lifetime. In Diné culture, we see our artwork as a living entity.

It seems like your home informs a lot of the artwork you do. How do you maintain that connection now that you live in Wisconsin?

Well, within Diné culture, we are always connected to the land. When we are babies, as you know, they cut the umbilical cord — and then when the remainder sort of dies off, we bury it in the land. That action grounds us to our ancestral homelands. I like to believe that’s why I go back home every couple of months and stay for at least a month. It’s a good time for me to be able to stay connected to my community, but also to visit the places my grandparents and mom tell stories about. I also bring materials from New Mexico back here to Wisconsin, so I can continue my process from afar.

As an interdisciplinary artist, what was it like designing dog collars?

It was a really great experience — I love finding different ways of interpreting my work. Using the term interdisciplinary is really important to me because it gives that opportunity for my audience to understand that my work is more than just a single medium.

There are so many different ways of understanding Diné people and our history. I’m just one perspective in the multiple ways of understanding us, but I don’t want to limit my perspective to just one medium.

So, what is your perspective?

I think that’s something I’m currently working on. For the last seven years, I have been doing a ton of research on the family album and archive. Growing up, the one thing that really inspired me was looking at the single wall of photographs in my grandparents’ home. This wall was filled with so many memories. Photographs were placed in randomly found frames or frames that had no glass in them — and sometimes the photos were printed from a simple copier. Seeing the way that my family and other Indigenous people document our lives really became my inspiration for my work. Historically, there’s very little documentation from Indigenous people in the way that we see ourselves; mostly it comes from photographers who were outsiders.

Morning Star Design
Land Design
Mountain Design

Was that also the inspiration behind your dog collar designs?

Yeah, so the inspiration behind the collars comes from the current series that I’m working on, Sacred Places. It focuses on learning about The Long Walk, the distance my ancestors took when they were removed from their original home and forcefully relocated to Bosque Redondo. It’s a big part of Diné history. A lot of my Diné ancestors perished, and their stories weren’t remembered — and the only existing photographs erased our identity and romanticized our pain.

Within Diné culture, we don’t really talk about The Long Walk because we believe it causes further harm. But with this project, I wanted to use photography, as well as oral narratives from my elders, to offer healing for those who came before us and for future generations. A lot of these stories are represented in the photographs that I used for the dog collars. And these photographs are cyanotypes that are made from the land surrounding these sacred places my elders speak about.

Cyanotypes?

Cyanotype is pretty much a chemical process where you take paper, coat it with a cyanotype emulsion, and then place something on top of the paper. It creates a deep, cyan blue contact print when exposed to UV light. I use this process to make contact prints of the land: I place the precoated cyanotype pieces in these sacred locations and let the land — the rain, the wind, the sand — create these abstract forms within the image. It gives me the chance to build an even deeper connection to these places my elders talk about and to just be with the land and find hózhó, or balance, which is really important in Diné culture. Going back into the land is one way of healing ourselves.

How do you get that deep, earthy red color we see in your designs from those blue cyanotypes?

I actually add the cyanotypes to a vat of cochineal dye. Cochineal and the deep red color its dye creates is very important to Diné people: it’s used in our medicines and to protect those that are traveling. I really wanted to bring that to the collars because dogs are part of the family, so this is my way of adding medicine to their collar and making sure they’re protected.

That’s so lovely. You also use a lot of symbolism in your designs. Could you talk a little bit about one of the symbols in the collars?

A lot of the designs that I work around are used within Diné weavings. There are four main motifs that I use, one of them being Na’ashjé’íí Asdzáá, or Spider Woman, who is one of our most important deities because she brought weaving to the Diné people. She pops up within a lot of my work because the histories of Diné women are really central to understanding Diné people — they’re the center of our family and the keepers of our ancestral teachings. We’re taught very early on to see Diné women as sacred because so much of our history is passed through the hands of women who weave.

Can you talk a little bit about the idea of a rez dog and what it means to you?

For a lot of Diné people, and all Indigenous people, our dogs and animals are seen as kin. Historically, dogs within Diné culture were used mainly for herding sheep and guarding livestock — they were pretty much protectors of our homes.

Today, many of our dogs are known as rez dogs, and this is intended to be a term of endearment. The whole persona of the rez dog is that they’re neither pet nor wild animal — they live their own life within our communities. There’s something really beautiful to me about this free-roaming rez dog who is really important to their family, and yet is somewhere in between worlds.

Black and white photo of Navajo family members with dogs
Black and white photo of small girl sitting and smiling with dog
Black and white photo cuddling with dog, sheep in the background

What role have dogs played in your life?

I grew up with a ton of dogs. My first dog, who I think I had when I was maybe three or four, was named Spike — and he was an actual rez dog. I remember him very fondly. And when my family eventually moved to the city, we always had dogs around. I think the most we had was six.

Oh, wow!

Yeah, my mom really loved cocker spaniels and pugs. We got our first pug, Mya, and my mom wanted to be able to give Mya that experience of being a mom as well. So she had two litters. But my dog growing up was Kasey, a black cocker spaniel. I definitely believe the theory that owners look like their dogs because Kasey and I had the exact same long, wavy hair. Same coarseness and everything! She was my buddy.

Do you have a favorite memory with Kasey?

My house in Albuquerque was on the outskirts of an area that was being developed, so maybe two or three blocks down, you were literally in the desert. As kids, we would take Kasey out there and do racing games with her. One of us would hold her leash, so the others would get a headstart to see if we could actually beat her — no one ever did! I’ll always have that memory of her running with her ears flapping in the wind though.

Visit dakotamace.com or @dmaceart on Instagram to see more of Dakota’s work and get updates on the release of the Sacred Places series, which inspired her dog collar designs. Dakota has work in current and upcoming shows at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York, Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and more.