Indigenous art, like indigenous people or indigenous culture, represents many things. Most important to understand about indigenous art is that indigenous art is not one thing. Indigenous people are not one thing. They are many people, many nations, many tribes, many clans, many generations.
I prefer the term “indigenous” to “Native American”- although I will use both – because “America” is a construct of European colonizers. The people who first inhabited the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are not native “Americans,” they are natives of their homelands which predate any notion of “America” by hundreds and thousands of years. Tagging indigenous people as “American” can be interpreted as another example of American, colonial and white exceptionalism by refusing to acknowledge nothing on this continent existed prior to America.
Of the two great mistakes non-native people make when considering indigenous people, the first is that they represent a monolith. One large homogeneous group. That is no more true of indigenous people than it is with Black people or African people or Latinx people or white people or Canadians or women.
Indigenous art is similarly diverse.
Indigenous women lead the way
Most museum collections of indigenous art focus on what were previously utility items and what has formerly been considered “craft.” Moccasins, headdresses, buckskins, war shirts, blankets, rugs, beadwork, quill work, pottery.
All of those “craft” items are now firmly considered “fine” art and most of them have historically been created by women. Anonymous women. In art history, it is famously said, “Anonymous was a woman,” as women routinely had their work marginalized, stolen, ignored or denied as coming from their hand thanks to a deep human tendency toward misogyny.
It wasn’t until the 2019/2020 traveling exhibition “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” that Native American women received a major museum exhibition exploring their achievements. Importantly, and historically, it was the first exhibition of indigenous artwork in which all of the pieces on view could be identified to an individual female artist.
A strong argument could be made that “Hearts of Our People” represents the most important museum exhibition of indigenous art – certainly female and contemporary indigenous art – ever. It traveled America to great acclaim and opened eyes inside and outside of the art world about how the story of Native American art has been told, the shortcomings of that story, and how to better tell it moving forward.
“Hearts of Our People” shattered a glass ceiling these artists had been bumping up against for decades.
From the artists with work selected for “Hearts of Our People” to the Native women producing work today, an unbreakable connection exists between them and their foremothers, all those artisans with work displayed in the nation’s encyclopedic art and natural history museums credited by their tribe, but listed as “anonymous.” The generations of female bead workers. The quill workers. The leather workers. The potters. The weavers.
Indigenous art, culture and people are contemporary
The second greatest mistake people make when thinking about Indigenous art, culture and people is that they belong to the past. While not only being terribly inaccurate, this is terribly insulting to the indigenous people making art, carrying on their culture, and – most importantly – living today.
“People don’t understand how there are a large number of Native people still, upwards of 565 recognized tribes/Native nations and territories, and when you tell people like that, it’s a big surprise,” Dave Kimelberg, a Seneca Nation of Indians (Bear Clan) member, and owner and founder of K Art in Buffalo, N.Y. told me. K Art is one of the few Native-owned art galleries in the United States and among a small number exclusively showcasing the work of Native contemporary artists. “When people think of native art, they think of ‘traditional’ native art–turquoise, silver–and not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there’s so much more. There are a number of fantastic contemporary Native artists and their work just isn’t being seen for a variety of reasons.”
That makes the mission of Kimelberg and K Art, which opened in December of 2020, and the goal of everyone promoting Native artwork and artists all the more important. The goal is not simply to promote art, it is to promote the entire culture, the people, their continued existence, to remind people the story of America’s indigenous people is not closed, it continues to be written across the nation.
Uncountable indigenous artists address this subject in their work. Jay Laber (Blackfeet) was one.
“(Jay Laber) saw his sculptures as fighting stereotypes of tradition and Native culture by updating themes and ideas of Native people with contemporary ideas and materials,” Brandon Reintjes, Senior Curator, Missoula Art Museum, told me when I was writing about a Jay Laber exhibit at MAM. “His sculptures don’t erase the past, they reflect the traditions and values that are the foundation for Native people, but they point to the future, to the present, and show the Blackfeet and Native people as resilient, present, active, engaged.”
Some institutions are also engaged in this re-education.
“The Museum of Northern Arizona strives to work closely with Native groups on the Colorado Plateau to present these cultures as vibrant, living communities and not historical curiosities frozen in a romanticized past, as they often have been–and sometimes still are–represented,” Museum of Northern Arizona (Flagstaff) Anthropology Collections Manager Anthony Thibodeau told me when he and I were discussing the topic.
15 contemporary indigenous artists you should know
Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke)
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation)
Julie Buffalohead (Ponca)
Starr Hardridge (Muscogee)
Mateo Romero (Cochiti Pueblo)
Shonto Begay (Diné)
Kay Walkingstick (Cherokee)
Christi Belcourt (Michif (Métis) – Canada)
Dan Namingha (Hopi Pueblo)
Shan Goshorn (Eastern Band Cherokee, deceased, 2018)
Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne)
Doug Hyde (Nez Perce, Assiniboine, and Chippewa)
Nocona Burgess (Comanche)
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What about painting?
Indigenous people didn’t develop a painting tradition until the early 20th century. Their culture had no use for it. Tragically enough, it was the nightmare of the Native American Boarding School era which began the now dynamic indigenous painting tradition.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States government forced Native American children out of their homes, away from their families and sent them to boarding schools across the country. The government wanted to assimilate the children into “white” culture.
“Kill the Indian in him and save the man,” U.S. cavalry captain Richard Henry Pratt, the man tasked with solving the “Indian problem,” infamously said at the time of the goal for the boarding school program.
The students had their hair cut. Their native names were removed, replaced by Anglo-American names; their native dress replaced by “white” clothes. They were forbidden from speaking their native languages and from practicing their native religions.
The results of this policy upon Native American children and culture was predictably disastrous.
“They were victims of a system that was purposefully designed to strip them of their cultural identity. Some teachers and administrators, like John and Elizabeth DeHuff, and later Dorothy Dunn, bucking the (Bureau of Indian Affairs) administration, did their very best to make their students feel more welcomed and at home,” Alan Peterson, curator at the Museum of Northern Arizona told me. “Among things they did was to hire older artists, for example Awa Tsireh, to paint murals with Native motifs in the school in order to create a more welcoming atmosphere. They were also great advocates for their students and helped them in many ways outside the classroom.”
In the 1920s and 1930s, official U.S. government policy toward Native people began to humanize. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Indian New Deal” began to give Native Americans more control over their governance and education.
One benefit to emerge from this shift in policy occurred at the Santa Fe Indian School in the arena of the arts with the development of the Santa Fe Studio Style.
“I’d describe (the Santa Fe Studio Style) as stylized representations of Native American life and ceremonial scenes,” Peterson said. “It’s graphic and two-dimensional as a result of limited use of light and shade being used to describe forms and space. Colors tend to be intense.”
An artistic hub develops in Santa Fe
“After the mid-1920s, (students) were given greater choices for schools to attend and many who wanted to be artists selected the Santa Fe school on their own,” Peterson said.
Of the early indigenous painters working in this style, Harrison Begay stood out.
“Begay is regarded as one of the best and most successful of the early Native traditionalist painters,” Alexander E. Anthony, Jr., owner of Adobe Gallery in Santa Fe, told me. “He perfected an attractive and accessible take on the ‘flat style’ and exposed it to a wide audience of collectors.”
The ‘flat style’ features depictions of Native figures and objects with no background, no horizon, no landscape, only the essential images. Begay learned and helped develop this type of painting at the Santa Fe Indian School in the 1930s.
Prior to this, despite everything the Diné (Navajo) produced historically that is now considered art–baskets, rugs, blankets, jewelry, etc.–there was no tradition of painting in their culture. As such, Begay became one of the first Diné to ever put brush to paper.
“Begay’s success played a large part in spreading the word about Native arts, and inspired the next generations of artists to work towards similar professional success,” Anthony said. “Begay put Native imagery in the homes of non-Native people all around the country by making the scenes warm, inviting and accessible.”
Although it’s no longer the dominant style, there are artists still working in the Santa Fe Studio style, and many more working in styles derived from it.
“I think another significant legacy from the Studio and this period (1920s–1930s) is that of pride in the Native artists’ culture and traditions,” Peterson said. “It definitely helped to give Native Americans and Native artists a greater sense of cultural pride when they sorely needed it.”
Santa Fe remains center of Native American art production
“By 1940, the government-run art schools at Santa Fe and Bacone, Oklahoma had established and codified the illustrative ‘flat’ style of American Indian painting,” David Penney, curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, told me when I was talking to him about an exhibition of contemporary indigenous artwork at his museum and how artists began breaking out of the government-sponsored definition of American Indian painting, particularly after World War II.
That exploration accelerated in 1962 with the founding of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. IAIA further empowered Native artists to break from the traditions established by the government run art schools and try their hand at what was taking place in the rapidly evolving Modern Art world. Young faculty artists such as Fritz Scholder taught graphic design and painting informed by Pop Art and modernist abstraction.
The works of IAIA artists were, and continue to be, a powerful dissent to the conventions of Indian art.
Since it’s opening, IAIA has been the most important wellspring of formal arts education for indigenous people. Overestimating its influence on contemporary Native American art and culture would be impossible.
Think of IAIA like the Arts Students League of New York in the first half of the 20th century, without which, any notion of Modern art in America would have surely been stunted far short of the heights it came to achieve. Almost everyone who was anyone to Modern art in the first half of the 1900s spent time at the Arts Student League. IAIA’s continuing impact on contemporary indigenous art has been no less profound.
Legendary IAIA artists and faculty
Allan Hauser (Chiricahua Apache, 1914-1994, faculty member)
Charles Loloma (Hopi, 1921-1992, faculty)
Santa Fe Indian Market
More than 100,000 visitors from all over the world descend upon Santa Fe, New Mexico each August for the annual Southwestern Association for Indian Arts Santa Fe Indian Market, the largest and most prestigious juried Native arts show in the world and the largest cultural event in the Southwest.
For lovers of Native art, it’s both the Super Bowl and Christmas morning.
“It is the pinnacle of all Native American art shows,” Ira Wilson, former Executive Director of SWAIA, told me when I began covering the event. “Being a fully juried show ensures only the best art pieces will be available to view or purchase.”
With over 1,100 Native artists from across the United States and Canada selling out of more than 700 booths across 14 city blocks on the historic plaza in Santa Fe, there’s no shortage of material to admire and buy. That material falls into 10 different categories encompassing both traditional and contemporary work: jewelry, pottery, sculpture, textiles, paintings, wooden carvings (kachinas), bead work, baskets and diverse arts, which encompass a variety of items including drums, bows and arrows, cradle boards, etc.
Visitors take advantage of the rare opportunity to buy directly from the artists and learn about contemporary Indian arts and cultures. Quality and authenticity are assured by the SWAIA’s selection process for exhibitors.
Debuting in 2014, the Indian Market Haute Couture Fashion Show has exploded in popularity becoming a highlight of the weekend. Remember, indigenous art is diverse.
If you go to Indian Market – when you go – remember this.
“Buy authentic, buy direct from the artist and most importantly, get to know the artist,” Wilson said. “It is a wonderful way to learn about Native culture and make a human connection. I’ve seen lifelong friendships started at Indian Market. It truly is a wonderful thing to witness.”
Beyond Santa Fe, beyond the West
When white people, mass media and Hollywood think of Native Americans, they tend to do so through the traditionally racist prism of “cowboys and Indians.” Pairing “Indians” with “cowboys” as a defacto grouping placing “Indians” exclusively in the West, ignoring the equally numerous Native people, nations and tribes of the eastern United States.
“A lot of people, when they think of Native groups, Native communities, Native art, they think of the Western tribes, the big headdress, a lot of the stuff at Santa Fe, which is great, it’s all great, but there’s such a diversity,” Kimelberg said. “You look at the eastern tribes and it’s very different.”
Native art and Western art have often been conjoined by museums, collectors and auctions. When thinking about Native art, makers from the western nations–Navajo, Crow, Zuni, etc.–too often exclusively come to mind. Hopi Kachinas. Maria Martinez (San Ildefonso Pueblo) pottery. Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes) paintings.
“When you think of Native art, whether more traditional or contemporary to some extent, that’s sort of what people associate with, so people gravitate towards that and people promote that,” Kimelberg said. “There are a ton of fantastic nationally, internationally known contemporary Native artists from the eastern, midwestern tribes, but those tribes and that work doesn’t fit that model, so we’re looking to try and change that.”
This is a prejudice I have in my own mind I’m working to overcome.
“George Morrison, the Ojibway painter from Minnesota, proved very influential after he established himself in New York City as a colleague of Abstract Expressionists like Fritz Kline and later as faculty at the Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Minnesota,” Penney said. “He is thought of as a kind of founder figure of modernist Native painters among younger artists.”
Native American art receiving broad reassessment
Forwarding women artists and identifying them by name. Dumping “craft” distinctions. Broadening the scope of Native American art both geographically and chronologically. Featuring Indigenous artists alongside their “American art” contemporaries.
This reassessment of Native American art starts at the top. In 2018, for the first time in its history, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York showcased Native works in its American Wing which dates back to 1924.
“Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection” showcased 116 works from 50 cultures across North America with particular strengths in sculpture from British Columbia and Alaska, California baskets, pottery from southwestern pueblos, Plains drawings and regalia, and rare accessories from the eastern Woodlands.
“The American Wing of the Met is an ideal space to exhibit this particular collection,” Ned Blackhawk, professor of history and American studies at Yale University, said in a video produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art when announcing the show. “The art of the indigenous peoples of North America have not historically been prioritized in these spaces. The longstanding territorial practice of designating arts as ‘primitive’ or ‘ethnographic’ or as ‘non-Western’ has limited our capacity to see a broader and more shared humanity.”
The Met, which culls its examples from one of the most important collections of Native art in private hands, features work from the second through early twentieth century. At the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas and at the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio, they are bringing their reassessment of Native American art to the modern day.
“The story of American art, of contemporary art, is incomplete without Native American artists,” Mindy Besaw, curator of at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, told me. “(Indigenous artists work in) a wide range of media, including performance, new media, feature-length films, textiles, painting, sculpture, baskets, and more. We are also highlighting these artists to bring more visibility to their work and encourage a deeper and more meaningful understanding of not only Indigenous art, but contemporary art broadly.”
Remember the big mistake we started with?
“Native American culture and art is not singular, but informed by so many different factors. Also, Indigenous artists championed cultural revitalization, countering the notion that Native American cultures were frozen in the past,” Dr. Halona Norton-Westbrook, director of curatorial affairs at the Toledo Museum of Art, told me. “Native American artists offer crucial and important perspectives. If society fails to hear these voices, then it fails to embrace a truer and fuller picture of America and all its inherent richness and complexity.
It seems obvious to say, but previous to recent years, it simply was not the case in art institutions: Native American art is American art.
“TMA aims to show that Native American art belongs in the midst of considerations of American art, both past and present,” Norton-Westbrook said. “Showing recent acquisitions in the context of the existing American collection was important in order to demonstrate that Native American art has the power to expand our thinking about how we think about American art overall.”
It wasn’t just the artwork.
“Native communities have always been extremely marginalized, it’s a function of history–you have reservations, there was always the move to assimilation and stamp out the culture,” Kimelberg said.
What took so long for Native artists to receive their due?
“Art world biases for many under-represented groups has dominated the art world for a long time,” Besaw said. “Indigenous artists are facing similar biases regarding inclusion. This is, happily, changing. Indigenous artists are being invited to participate in prestigious international exhibitions and biennials, which is important.”
The art world seems to finally be catching up to where other academic disciplines and the general public has been for years.
“While there certainly has long been both scholarly and popular interest in Native American art and culture, that interest has often been outside of the confines of traditional art history,” Norton-Westbrook said. “Art museums with strong ties to classic understandings of art history have not always made space for Native American art or, when they have, the work that has been shown is often presented in a strictly historical context, and/or, separated from other works of American art.”
The Toledo Museum of Art sets forth an alternative viewpoint: that Native American art belongs front and center in our thinking about the story of American art, and that Native American art continues to evolve and thrive into the present day.
That’s my aim here at SeeGreatArt, sharing the story of indigenous art, how it continues to evolve, how it continues to thrive.