Native Women Artists are the Stars at New Museum Exhibition in Minneapolis

Jamie Okuma BeLatina Native American Artist
Artist Jamie Okuma

Though we were presented to the beauty of Native American art, we have never really known much about the artists themselves. What’s even more interesting is that we were rarely told if any of the art were created by a woman or a man. But all of that is changing. We are finally getting an exhibition that is personalizing Native American art by their gender. The museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), is going to present Native art in a way we are not used to. Thanks to the debut of this exhibition in Minneapolis, “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists,” we will now have the opportunity to see Native American women highlighted for their significant contribution to Native American art.

Native American Women Belatina MIA
Photo Christi Belcourt; Michif, b. 1966; The Wisdom of the Universe, 2014; Acrylic on canvas; Collection Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Purchased with funds donated by Greg Latremoille, 2014; 2014/6; © Christi Belcourt

 The vibrancy and innovativeness of Native American art is something that most of us have been exposed to in our lifetime. Whether it has been through a textbook while we were in school or if you have been lucky enough to experience it in person, we all know the attributes of Native American art. We have seen Native Americans creativity unravel around ancient Hopi pots, we’ve seen the colors splashed on the rugs that the Navajo have learned to make from their ancestors and their intricate paintings that express stories about what matters to them. 

While navigating through the Minneapolis Institute of Art, you’ll be able to be acquainted with 117 works of Native American art that can date back up to at least 1,000 years — all created by women. These works include paintings, sculptures, photography, textiles, and more. To continue giving the artists visibility on their work, the exhibition displays some of the works with labels translated to their native language. This is important because it provides the artists and their culture to be understood a bit more. At the end of the day, visibility is always going to matter. 

Minneapolis Institute of Art BELatina Native American Women
Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art Nellie Two Bear Gates ( Dakhóta), Valise, 1880-1910. Beads, hide, metal, oilcloth, thread.

The exhibition has been in the works for the past 10 years. From looking for the right art to the right board members, nothing could be rushed for the sake of its quality. Eventually, the exhibition was formed with a group of competent individuals. Teri Greeves, an independent curator and member of the Kiowa Nation and Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Ph.D., an associate curator who worked alongside her.  Aside from these two women, the advisory committee in charge of “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” was composed of many Native American women and some scholars. Having such an extensive was important, especially one with a dense Native American population because some stories are not allowed to be repeated by those who aren’t Native American and an elder in their tribe. Respect is one of the most important pillars for the Native American community and the members of this exhibition made it a point to maintain those standards. 

It is such a shame, however, that all of our prior exposure to Native American art didn’t really lead us to understand much of the identity behind the artist. 

Dyani White Hawk Dakota Hoska Jill Ahlberg Yohe Native American Women
Photos by Caitlin Abrams, Dyani White Hawk, Dakota Hoska, and Jill Ahlberg Yohe in the permanent collection Native American galleries at Mia

This was mainly due to the fact that Native American were usually described by their tribe, for instance, Arapaho or the Shoshone. Their identity was pretty much simplified to the generalization of a group. But the reality, according to Teri Greeves, is that about 80% of the Native art that we’ve ever experienced is created by its Native women. It’s as though 80% of  Native American women artists were discarded all this time. 

Silencing identities or even part of someone’s identity may be seen as a form to hide someone’s impactful character or abilities, which is a total injustice to history. Because this exhibit allowed Native American art to be genderized, the public and museum-goers will be able to gain more of a connection of the art that is displayed.   

As a self-proclaimed bearer of good news, I will tell you that “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artist” is a traveling exhibit. Isn’t that exciting? So, those who do not reside near the Minneapolis area might be able to find the exhibit at a closer location to you. Let us know how it goes if you do end up going!