Illustrator Interview: Steph Littlebird On Art That Shows Indigenous People In A Contemporary Light

Steph Littlebird Headshot

By AJ Eversole

Steph Littlebird is an artist, curator, writer, and a registered member of Oregon’s Grand Ronde Confederated Tribes. She has Illustrated covers for You Are Medicine: 13 Moons of Indigenous Wisdom, Ancestral Connection, and Animal Spirit Guidance (Hay House, 2022), The Second Chance of Benjamin Waterfalls (Feiwel & Friends, 2022) and the forthcoming Into The Void: Star Wars Legends (Dawn of the Jedi) (Random House Worlds, 2023).

My Powerful Hair Cover

What is the heart of My Powerful Hair? 

The story is an empowering journey that explores the importance of hair in Indigenous cultures and how our hair connects us to memories, each other, and the earth. The young protagonist learns about tradition and her grandmother’s experience in an Indian Boarding school. My Powerful Hair is a story about reclaiming identity and how historical trauma can impact multiple generations.

This story touches upon the history of Indian Boarding schools, which had lasting impacts on Native communities in both America and Canada. This unfortunate history is not only important to remember, but relevant to Native people, right now.

Later this year, SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) is predicted to overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) which was created shortly after the end of the boarding school era to protect Indigenous kids and keep them in their tribal communities. Now, Indigenous people across the country are preparing for these protections to be rolled back, potentially placing Native kids in harm’s way.

Steph Littlebird and Carole Lindstrom
Steph and Carole at the recent ALA conference in New Orleans, promoting My Powerful Hair.

When you look back on your artistic journey, what are the changes that stand out? 

When I was a young girl in school, art was a way for me to express my emotions and process my experiences as an autistic kid with an unstable home life. Painting, drawing and calligraphy became my means of escape. Art has always functioned as a life-line for me whenever I felt lost.

Now, I’m a professional artist who gets paid to tell important stories like My Powerful Hair through illustration and writing. My purpose as an artist is to create uplifting artworks for my community, to show Indigenous people in a contemporary light.

I believe that creativity is a powerful tool. Rarely are artists able to leverage their talents into a career. I feel extremely blessed to be a working artist who gets to create empowering imagery that uplifts my community.

My Powerful Hair Draft Sample
First Black & White iteration of book spread by Steph Littlebird, used with permission.

How many drafts of a scene or page do you go through before you feel confident with it? 

Sometimes compositions or scenes come really easily and won’t need much reworking from line-to-full color. On the other hand, some scenes might need to be reworked over and over to get *just right*.

I’ve learned to embrace the process of “iteration” and the practice of creating multiple versions of one idea. Some of my best work has come from revisiting an idea with fresh eyes and creating a new version after reflection time or feedback. Embracing iteration as a benefit to my creative process helps me appreciate those instances when I have to draft an idea multiple times.

My Powerful Hair Second Draft Preview
Final full-color published spread from My Powerful Hair, illustrated by Steph Littlebird, used with permission.

What is your dream project? 

I have a dream of writing an Indigenous Futurism graphic novel centered on Pacific Northwest tribal culture. Aside from my work as a visual storyteller I am a writer with experience in the tech industry and AI development. It’s my hope to eventually combine my unique experience, skill sets as artist, and writer to tell a story about a time traveling-vision questing-Indigenous femme.

Steph Littlebird Star Wars
This project was a dream come true for me, as I am a big Star Wars fan!! Cover of Into The Void: Star Wars Legends (Dawn of the Jedi) (Random House Worlds, 2023).

What advice do you have for Native illustrators trying to break into the industry?

I think there’s a few keys for any illustrator wanting to break into the industry.

One: draw A Lot. Make art as much as you can, whether it’s good or bad, create a regular habit of making. The more work you make, the bigger your portfolio, the bigger your portfolio the easier it is for clients to see what you’re capable of. If you really want to be a professional artist then you will need to be comfortable creating under short deadlines and overcoming creative blocks on your own. Being self-motivated is very important.

Two: social media is crucial to creative success these days. Whether you choose Instagram or Tiktok, or Youtube, start sharing your content regularly. These platforms are where many publishers are looking for new artists! If you’re not a social media person, you’ll want to get a website where your art is accessible to possible clients. People need a place to see your work and get an idea of your unique aesthetics over many projects.

Three: don’t be afraid to fail, apply for residencies, submit your work to galleries. I’ve been told “no” so many times as an artist, I lost count. I still get told no, but it doesn’t stop me from applying and continuing to build my skills as a visual communicator. Don’t be afraid of rejection, see each opportunity as a chance to learn, as a stepping stone to other opportunities. There will always be more!

Steph Littlebird Second Chance of Benjamin Waterfalls
The Second Chance of Benjamin Waterfalls (Feiwel & Friends, 2022)

Cynsational Notes

Steph Littlebird Headshot

Steph Littlebird is an artist, writer, curator and enrolled member of Oregon’s Grand Ronde Confederated Tribes. Steph earned her B.F.A. in Painting and Printmaking from the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) in Portland, Oregon, she currently lives and works in Las Vegas, NV.

Littlebird is known for her vibrant graphic imagery that combines traditional styles of her Indigenous ancestors with contemporary illustration aesthetics. Her work often examines issues related to Native identity, cultural resilience, and responsible land stewardship.

Steph has received three grants from the Art + Science Initiative and is the 2020-21 N.O.A.A. National Artist Fellow. Littlebird is also the recent recipient of a writing grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, and her work has been featured by brands like Lucasfilms, Yahoo, Luna Bar, and media outlets such as PBS News and ArtNews.

AJ Eversole covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing, and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She grew up in rural Oklahoma, a place removed from city life and full of opportunities to nurture the imagination. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and writes primarily young adult fiction. AJ currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas; with her husband. Follow her on Instagram @ajeversole or on Twitter @amjoyeversole.