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Four Cultural Centers That Are Opening Up the Conversation About Native American Art and Identity

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Photo courtesy of montclairlocal.news

This Native American Heritage Month is timely for us to ask: How much do we really know about Native American history? Looking back at K-12 education, we didn’t learn much about the real details and the frightening way this country has treated minorities, especially Native Americans.

As is well known, the best weapon against inequality is knowledge and education, and the process of learning about other cultures such as Native Americans, while it starts in textbooks, goes much further — in museums, for example.

This is the only way to really learn what is involved in being inclusive and respectful of others’ journeys and understanding their difficulties.

We must learn to go beyond pop culture and what the media chooses to show us and do our own research.

Several museums and galleries are taking this initiative, creating exhibitions that give Native Americans just the right space to share first-hand their narrative, their way of life, and their stories of resilience.

Oak Native American Gallery

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The Oak Native American Gallery, located at The University of Akron in Ohio, aims to appreciate the culture all year long. According to the gallery curator Francisca Ugalde, “our goal as stewards of Native American materials is to create a space that is available for contemporary Native American people, artists, to speak for themselves and showcase their work. [To] help teach about native issues and stories to the public at large.” 

The gallery is currently showcasing the “Art of Claire Heldman: Lakota Wiá” throughout January 29, 2022. According to its description, the exhibition “features original art alongside unique handcrafted pieces of cultural and artistic significance made by and for the artist’s mother, Delma Heldman, to whom the exhibit is dedicated.”

The Birmingham Museum of Art

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Over in Alabama, the Birmingham Museum of Art has the Native American art display “The Lost Realms of the Moundbuilders,” giving a glimpse of how Native Americans of the region lived at the time. One of the exhibit’s features is an interactive display where visitors can test out their weaving abilities. The exhibit’s curator Emily Hanna values this aspect, explaining to CBS 42: “To understand who lived here before us and what are the living cultures that are tied to this ancient civilization, I think it’s important for all of us to know whose land this is and who lived here before.”

Crooked Tree Arts Center

Photo courtesy of petoskeynews.com

In Michigan, specifically Petoskey, the community opened their “Kindred: Traditional Arts of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians” exhibit at the Crooked Tree Arts Center. Most of their art pieces were made by local Native Americans who were or are living in the area. 

The visual arts director, Liz Erlewine, explains to News-Review: “I thought that you could really use an exhibit as an opportunity to look at the history, challenges the Odawa people have faced over centuries, the artistry and of course the traditions and our obligations to those traditions to keep them alive.” According to the same article the exhibit features “quill boxes, beadwork, regalia, basketry and ceramics and will take a look at the economic drivers, environmental factors, and challenges inherent in sustaining tradition, creative practice, and identity in the 21st century.” 

The Montclair Art Museum

Photo courtesy of navajotimes.com

Moving to New Jersey, the city is paying tribute to the Native Americans at The Montclair Art Museum in an exhibit entitled “Color Riot! How Color Changed Navajo Textiles.” Montclair Art Museum’s curator of Native American art, Laura J. Allen, explained to Montclair Local that this exhibition and the historic weavings are “from a particular period where the Diné weavers were rebuilding and recovering from great historical trauma and real social crisis. And so, the weavings are so expressive, so colorful, so experimental because of that history. They were weaving to heal and weaving to express themselves. So, that’s the real narrative of the exhibition.” 

This exhibit features 70 pieces, as well as experimentation in Navajo-style weaving. According to the same article: “The historical textiles, the museum says, are rooted in the period between 1863 and 1868, when the United States government forcibly placed 10,000 Diné — another name for the Navajo people, in their own language — at Bosque Redondo, an internment camp at Fort Sumner, New Mexico.”

Native Americans are undoubtedly one of the populations the United States has failed the most. The more we read, the more we are amazed at the resilience of these peoples and the challenges they must have experienced in “the land of the free.”

However, all is not lost. These exhibits are just a sampling of the new effort to pay tribute, educate and celebrate the existence of Native Americans.

Likewise, leaders such as Native American activist and model Quannah Chasinghorse have used platforms such as the Met Gala to showcase the art of this culture. At the 2021 edition of the gala, Chasinghorse used the theme “In America: A Fashion Lexicon” to showcase her turquoise jewelry made by Navajo artists and her press to talk about her Hän Gwich’in and Oglala Lakota tribe and her reasons for being a voice in climate activism.

Her vibrant look, along with her culturally inspired makeup, drew stares and piqued the curiosity of many.