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Reclaiming Native Art

“Native people are collected in Natural History museums because that is how we have always been viewed. It helps to perpetuate that idea of us being extinct.”
Teri Greeves and Dr. Jill Ahlberg Yohe at the Minneapolis Institute of Art exhibit “Of Our Hearts and Our Hands” (photo Minneapolis Institute of Arts)

In early June of 2019, the first large-scale exhibition to focus on Native women’s art opened at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia). Showcasing more than 115 pieces that  spanned many mediums, the show honored how Native material culture has communicated histories, triumphs, and resiliency for more than a thousand years.

It also recognized that “Native people have persevered in many ways through the strength of their women and through the strength of what [western culture] calls art,” says Dr. Jill Ahlberg Yohe, one of the exhibition curators. “[Hearts of Our People] is about recognizing what hadn’t been recognized before in the art world, but [is] recognized daily in Native communities — which is the significance of Native women’s art in the American story — and then telling that story the best way we could.”

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To track down pieces, Yohe and her co-curator, beadworker Teri Greeves (Kiowa), visited institutions across the U.S. and Canada. Greeves recalls walking through dinosaur displays on  the way to storage spaces for Native work in places such as the American Museum of Natural History.

“Native people are collected in Natural History museums because that is how we have always been viewed. We are [seen as] part of the natural resources,” says Greeves, whose mother owned a Native art trading post on the Wind River Reservation in  Wyoming  for over 20 years. “The Bureau of Indian Affairs is held underneath the Interior Department. The museums collect us in a similar way. It helps to perpetuate that idea of us being extinct.”

In Eurocentric museum settings, Native work is typically rendered anonymous and framed as authentic representations for all work created within a vast region or culture.  If the female gender of an artist is recognized, her work is usually pigeonholed as craft. When works are not on display, they are warehoused far away from homelands and lineages, Greeves says.

“They pop open those drawers and I can smell people’s fires,” Greeves remembers. “I can feel them. I can see them. I can hear them. They are right there on the surface of all of that stuff. I see the intention of the maker first. I do not see an object.”

“Of Our Hearts and Our Hands”

Greeves and Yohe recognized that they could not cull the show with only a few voices. While traveling, they shared every photo taken of the pieces they examined with an advisory board of 21 Native artists and experts from tribal nations across the U.S. and Canada.

Although museum representatives were concerned that they were relinquishing curatorial control — organizing an exhibition with many viewpoints had never been done before in a museum like Mia — Greeves and Yohe implemented a system of consensus. They involved the advisory board in every major exhibition decision, from the pieces included, to the layout, to the themes around which it was organized: Legacy, Relationships, and Power.

“In all of my curatorial practices, what I try to do is go to people who do know and have the authority to talk about those things,” Yohe explains. “Teri and I came [to the board] with one simple question: Why do Native women create?”

The board influenced Greeves and Yohe to consider the show in qualitative and quantitative ways in order to avoid over-representing a region, culture, time period, or medium.

The heart of the exhibition was not to showcase the most “authentic” or “best” representations of Native art, but to connect audiences with the idea of women holding power in their communities.

Additionally, a 12-person community engagement board helped museum staff understand what it meant to be holding  space on stolen Dakota land. A majority of the exhibit labels were translated into the language of the maker. Whenever they could, the curators chose to display pieces without glass to honor how the works would be worn or used outside museum setting.

The exhibition catalogue includes topical overlap in order to share multiple approaches to an artform. For example, two weavers wrote about cedar root weaving. One artist wrote her essay as a step-by-step guide for readers to follow. Another wrote directly to the root, thanking it.

“To all of us women, these things are of us — of our hearts and our hands, of our knowledge of the generations that came before. They [the board] were as interested in that as we were in not telling the same story,” Greeves says.

Significantly, the exhibition was the first to recognize Native women as pioneers in abstraction as well as other artistic movements. “I grew up in a trading post dealing with women,” Greeves explains. “It was women who came in and sold stuff to my mom — women [who used] all different mediums.”


Legacy

The long-range impact of the exhibit might be its legacy to the curation of future exhibits. “When you allow many perspectives to enter, it is a far more beautiful, deeper, meaningful exhibition,” Yohe says. “Our hope is that it serves as a model that can be reformulated or adjusted.”

Organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts are interested in the consensus model that Greeves and Yohe used. “Hopefully it is a paradigm shift for the curation of Native American art in America,” says Greeves. “Ask a Native person. Don’t just assume that you can read it in a book.”


The Hearts of Our People Catalogue is a resource for learning directly from the artists featured in the exhibit. Teri Greeves stresses that if you are interested in learning about Native art, it is important to seek sources who are involved in Native communities.

Additionally, giving to the American Indian College Fund will support aspiring Native curators and academics.