The new Cahokia PHX art space, located in the Roosevelt Row arts district in Phoenix, illuminates Indigenous arts and culture through social tech and creative collaborations.
PHOENIX, AZ—Cahokia SocialTech + ArtSpace, a female-owned, Indigenous-led creative space, is fostering collaborations and conversations designed to amplify Indigenous voices in Phoenix. It’s the brainchild of social entrepreneur Melody Lewis (Hopi, Tewa, Mojave) and artist/designer Eunique Yazzie (Navajo), who launched the venture fall 2021 in collaboration with the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation.
“We believe in racial equity and empowering creative voices,” Yazzie says of their collaboration. “We see the need for more diverse thinking and different world views. We have to understand each other and our lenses in a way that’s open and accepting of the fact that people see things differently and operate in different ways.”
Co-founders Lewis and Yazzie describe Cahokia PHX as an Indigenous platform for creative placemaking, reflecting the fact that their collaboration comprises more than the physical space where they center social tech and art. It’s named after the historic Cahokia Mounds located along the Mississippi River in Illinois, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where pre-Columbian civilization once flourished.
“Cahokia is a place in time, and a location where Indigenous people often came together to innovate culture and share knowledge so future generations could move forward,” explains Yazzie. “Phoenix is one of those corridors where people came from different areas to trade and communicate, and now we’re here wanting to move forward in ways that existed pre-borders and colonization.”
The creative space at 707 North Third Street, Suite 130, includes 3,000 square feet on the ground floor of the thirty-story Altura apartment tower. After learning that the developer was seeking someone to activate that space, Lewis and Yazzie submitted a proposal. They got the keys in June 2021 and slowly began ramping up programming.
“Right away, people started reaching out with ideas,” recalls Lewis.
After a soft opening in September 2021, they held an official grand opening on Indigenous Peoples’ Day on October 11. At first, they organized pop-ups, Indigenous markets, and workshops. “This year, we’re evolving and growing, doing more strategic events and partnerships,” says Lewis.
“We’re also developing co-working space and a gallery,” Lewis adds. In addition, Cahokia PHX boasts a retail area, conference room, and kitchen, plus room for small performances. There’s also a podcast space, which they plan to open in March if they’re able to secure a sponsorship to cover costs.
Early on, they relied on self-funding, but now they’re working to increase financial support from other sources. “We have a year-to-year lease and we’re slated to be here for up to three years,” says Lewis.
The organization uses a membership model with benefits that include access to the physical facility. The group has several ambassadors, as well. Decision-making happens by consensus during Monday gatherings, which convene weekly to discuss various proposals.
“We’re coming from an Indigenous lens,” explains Lewis. “We want to put more Native leaders in communities, and we want more people to understand Native communities.”
Meanwhile, additional Indigenous artists have been collaborating around metro Phoenix, even as veterans of the local arts scene recall the former M.A.R.S. art space (launched in 1975) as a way to highlight Indigenous and Latinx artists.
In early 2020, for example, Indigenous and Latinx poet Natalie Diaz became the founding director for Arizona State University’s Center for Imagination in the Borderlands. That same year, Xico Arte y Cultura relocated to Roosevelt Row, where its exhibitions, workshops, and events highlight Indigenous and Latinx artists.
In April 2021, Miles MacGregor (aka “El Mac”) and Thomas “Breeze” Marcus (Tohono O’odham) painted the portrait of a young Indigenous woman on a downtown Phoenix building. And just this month, collaborators Cahokia, Xico, and Roosevelt Row CDC issued the latest call for art for Uncontained, a shipping container mural project spotlighting emerging Indigenous and Latinx artists.
Today, Cahokia has several new events and projects in the works, which Lewis says are informed by key values.
“We want to amplify Indigenous perspectives and voices,” says Lewis. “We want to amplify creativity and social entrepreneurship while we do work that’s hyperlocal and global at the same time.”
The group is gearing up for February’s iteration of the monthly First Friday art walk, when the curated line-up is set to include visual art, fashion, music, and culture. For First Friday in March, they’ll be collaborating with the Heard Museum in Phoenix, which specializes in traditional and contemporary American Indian Art.
They’re also working on an event for Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which falls on October 10 this year. “We’d love to be able to close down the street that we’re on and activate it with performers, music, vendors, and food,” says Lewis.
Amid all the fun and festivities, there’s a serious purpose.
“A lot of people don’t even know that there are twenty-two tribal nations in Arizona,” says Yazzie. “We’re beginning that representation.”