Animals in Native Art

“Hearts of Our People” catalogue book of essays

The “Hearts of Our People” art exhibit at Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Summer 2019 was a comprehensive and pioneering collection of artwork done by Native women that has otherwise often been obscured as anonymous “women’s crafts.” The exhibit, which is now traveling around the U.S., was collected into a 317-page catalogue of art and essays.

The Legacy of Dog Blankets

One of the articles in the catalogue, written by Heather Everhart, was inspired  by  a  dog blanket in the exhibit. The blanket was designed by Slavey (Dené) in the late 1800s, and is made of velvet, canvas, wool, braid edging, glass and metal beads and leather. 

Everhart wrote that nearly all fur-trade-era dog blankets were created by Dené First Nations people, when sleds delivered news, mail, and supplies across difficult terrain, often in subarctic weather. Blankets that exist from that era are intricately embroidered, largely coming from the Canadian Yukon region of Great Slave Lake and Mackenzie River. Dog blankets, with jingling bells, were not for warmth, but for announcing the presence of a sled team. 

In 2017, Yukon First Nations artists Shirlee Frost and Florence Moses brought together nine artists to create dog blankets to adorn the celebration team for the opening ceremonies of Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile international sled race from Alaska to Yukon. Everhart’s essay quoted Moses: “I am very, very proud to be a First Nations woman, and to have the skills of our mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers be brought back to life. [It] brings back memories of my family. It is a good time to heal. It is a good time to remember the good stuff. It is a good time to look forward.” 

The Motifs of Julie Buffalohead

One of the public conversations associated with the exhibit took place with Julie Buffalohead (Ponca), whose drawings prominently feature animals. “I see animals as something you can learn from,” she said. “I’m always waiting for them to talk again.”

Buffalohead often depicts herself as a coyote. She explains that the coyote “introduces chaos into the world. He represents what it means to be a human being. I was very attracted to that.” She also disguises animals as one another. Wolves are strung with antlers. Owls don rabbit masks.

As the catalogue explains, Buffalohead’s work tends to include animals with “different levels of agency and power. These characters create stories that are both intimate and social, from personal family dynamics to the realities of colonialism.”

Her artwork “The Garden” includes a spoon and red cherry, a drawing of a scaffold, and a coyote that grips a blue rooster in its mouth. It is a reference to a controversial and aborted depiction in the Walker Art Center’s Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. A sculpture replica of the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men and two Ho-Chunk men would have been a reference to the largest mass execution in U.S. history, held in Mankato in 1862.

Buffalohead’s visual storytelling will be exhibited in Gallery 255 at Mia from November 23, 2019, to September 6, 2020. It is her first solo show at Mia and will include two new large- scale works on paper.

On November 9, Mia will host a Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon, to write and enhance articles about Native women artists on Wikipedia. Free training provided. Register:, or  612-870-6323