Beyond Feathers and Beads: Recognition for Contemporary Indigenous Artists |
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Beyond Feathers and Beads: Recognition for Contemporary Indigenous Artists

John Hitchcock and Tom Jones in Hitchcock’s studio.
John Hitchcock and Tom Jones in Hitchcock’s studio.

Though historically it has been difficult for contemporary Native American artists to find acceptance and inclusion within the often exclusionary world of the fine arts, Wisconsin artists are playing a prominent role in changing that. Emily Arthur, Tom Jones, John Hitchcock, Dakota Mace, and Sky Hopinka are five of many contemporary indigenous artists whose work is being created in or informed by their personal experience of life in Wisconsin. Their insights on the contemporary indigenous art scene demonstrate the changing artistic landscape locally and across the continent.

For many people, the idea of Indigenous American art conjures up images of beads and feathers, buckskins and teepees. Wendy Red Star’s traveling exhibit titled Apsáalooke: Children of the Large-Beaked Bird, which was recently showcased in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and at the Milwaukee Museum of Art, presents an array of what we might call items of stereotypical Native American representation—cultural artifacts and photographs of Native people in traditional regalia—that have been added to, changed, written over, or otherwise amended to provide a different view of contemporary Native America.

Consider an archival photograph from the 1880s of Déaxitchish/Pretty Eagle, a chief of the Crow Nation from 1886 to 1903, written over with red ink, text reading, “My body sold to a collector for $500.00 and kept for 72 years at the American Museum of Natural History,” and “Brass ring,” with an arrow pointing to his finger. Or a contemporary photo of the artist in powwow regalia against the backdrop of a painted landscape of plastic bows and arrows, toy buffalo skulls, and cardboard cutouts of deer. The works in Wendy Red Star’s exhibit invite the observer to consider how photographs and the histories they evoke differ from the perspective of the indigenous subjects and from the perspective of the photographer or historian.

Hanging near Red Star’s work in her Madison exhibit was a photograph by long-time UW–Madison professor, Tom Jones. In it, a young woman in a dark blue dress with colorful beads draped around her neck and a feather on the back of her head looks into the distance, a bright smile on her face. The photograph, adorned with shells, glass beads, and rhinestones, is part of a group show called Home which considers the idea of home—the memories, emotional, familial, and cultural ties, and the losses that makes up one’s home. The collection asks the question, how does our home intersect with our identities as individuals and peoples?

Emily Arthur, a UW–Madison professor and printmaker of Eastern Cherokee descent, also examines the concept of home in her work. In her artist’s statement, she explains that her practice “is informed by a concern for the environment, displacement, exile, and the return home from dislocation and separation. I seek the unbroken relationship between modern culture and ancient lands which uses tradition and story to make sense of the enduring quest to understand our changing experience of home.” Her work uses different modes of printmaking to layer images from nature—birds, plants, trees, reflections, insects, etc.—to give voice to the land and living world. The process of layering allows her to interrogate the ways in which our human lives and histories have interacted with the lives and histories of nature. She writes, “I see nature as a living force, rather than as the backdrop for human events. Displacement, loss, and a concern for the environment are a result of my personal experience.”

The idea of home has been frequently explored in the work of indigenous artists. As long as there have been people, there have been artists, storytellers, historians, craftsman, and musicians telling our stories and asking us to examine ourselves. The notion of home in an indigenous context, however, is layered upon a history of colonialism and violence. Though indigenous art is powerful, unique, and important, it has not always been well received or included in galleries, museums, exhibits, private collections, and national conversations—until recently.

When asked in an interview with PBS in January about the recent increase in national recognition of indigenous artists, Candice Hopkins, Executive Director of Forge Project, a Native-led collective that focuses on furthering indigenous arts and justice, stated, “People are recognizing that one of the missing narratives in American art history is actually the narrative of the development of Native art, and the influence Native art has had even on how we understand this country, how we understand the formation of this country.” The many contemporary Native artists working and creating art today, have struggled to be recognized in large and prestigious spaces. She notes that the recent increase in the recognition of these artists isn’t a sudden change, but part of a larger movement that started in the ‘60s. It was never the lack of quality work coming out of indigenous communities that was the issue. Rather, she says, it was the lack of allies in the institutions.

In an interview with The Guardian in 2020, painter and member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai nations, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, comments, “Because of popular myth-making, Native Americans are seen as vanished. It helps assuage the government’s guilt about an undocumented genocide, as well as stealing the whole country…It’s like we don’t exist, except in the movies or as mascots for sports teams.” This cultural erasure is one that complicates the theme of ‘home’ even further.

Just weeks before that interview, Smith’s painting titled I See Red: Target became the first painting by a Native American artist in history to be purchased by the National Gallery of Art in Washington D. C. Then 2022 saw the launch of the first ever long-term installation of historical and contemporary Native American art at the Met in New York City, just months before the Met announced the appointment of Dr. Patricia Marroquin Norby, a member of the Purépecha tribe and a UW–Madison alum, as its first ever Associate Curator of Native American Art.

So what is behind this recent recognition of contemporary indigenous art and artists in the mainstream art world? Is it simply, as Hopkins asserts, new allies in powerful spaces? Or is there something about this contemporary cultural moment that aligns with indigenous stories, ideas, and questions? And how is this shift showing up in the artistic landscape of Wisconsin?

The answers are complicated. There is a long history of interest in Native art among private collectors around the world. And there have been advocates of indigenous art making their way into the institutional art world for a long time. One such person is Nancy Mithlo (Chiricahua Apache), professor of Gender Studies and American Indian Studies at UCLA, and a former UW–Madison faculty member. Her exhibitions have been featured at the Venice Biennial, one of the most prestigious and largest art exhibitions in the world. The Venice Biennial, showcasing international contemporary visual art, is the original exhibition of its kind, around which other Biennial shows (such as the Whitney Biennial) were modeled. UW–Madison alum, Dyani Whitehawk (Sičáŋǧu Lakota), an abstract artist and curator whose work features traditional techniques and materials such as porcupine quills, beadwork, and painting, was featured in the Whitney Biennial in New York City in 2022.

To get his take on the shifting landscape of contemporary indigenous art, I sat down with John Hitchcock, a politically motivated printmaker, member of the Comanche Nation, and UW–Madison Professor of Art. John and I recently participated as Artist-in-Residence and Poet-in-Residence, respectively, at the Climate Fast Forward conference on climate change hosted by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, so I was familiar with his work. In the din of a downtown Madison coffee shop, I began our conversation by simply asking, “Are Native artists suddenly getting more attention?”

“Yes, but it isn’t the first time this has happened. It seems like there is a renewed interest in Indian art every fifteen or twenty years. Right now, a lot of people are focused on politics. We’ve had recent social movements like the George Floyd protests, the Water Protectors in Standing Rock, and people focused on climate change and environmental issues. Those kinds of topics have always been explored in Indian art because of how much they overlap with colonialism. The colonial mindset is all about controlling the land and controlling people. It reminds me a lot of the 1970’s, with the Red Power movement and Alcatraz and the politics of that time.”

His words echoed the assertion by Candice Hopkins that what we are seeing is part of long cultural conversations and social movements centering around the issues of indigenous rights, oppression, and sovereignty. The political and social changes of our era are a continuation of the 1960’s and 70’s, particularly the Civil Rights Movement. Besides flared bottom pants and flowery dresses, the two eras share post-wartime economic turmoil, political division, and generational change leading to an increase in visible personal testimony by people who have experienced oppression, discrimination, and erasure. During the 1970’s when public schools were still attempting to desegregate, the United States saw a major surge of interest in the development of diversity studies, race and ethnic studies programs, and women’s studies programs in universities all over the country.

This era also saw the founding of the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the product of Native leadership, and a place where many indigenous artists have been educated since, as well as a movement towards “pan-Indian” identity, in which Indigenous people began identifying collectively as Native Americans, gaining political power, solidarity, and the sense of a larger community than they had when separated by tribal affiliation.

The timeline of this is significant: the students of art, and other creative disciplines during the 1970’s and 1980’s, have been teaching and mentoring young contemporary artists in recent decades. Thus, the expression of pan-Indian identity has persisted in much of indigenous cultural expression in the last several decades. Even though pan-Indianism is a concept from which contemporary indigenous communities have largely moved on, it has had long-lasting effects in shaping Indigenous art.

So what has changed? Why, after decades of advocacy and activism, this increased visibility of Native artists now? The answer is as complex as the arts themselves and depends upon whom you ask, though in my conversations with Native artists who are current or former Wisconsin residents, some common threads appeared.

Dakota Mace, Diné (Navajo), received her BFA in photography
from the Institute for American Indian Arts, and her MA and MFA in photography and textile design from UW–Madison. She is an interdisciplinary artist whose work explores Diné beliefs, stories, histories, and language, and has been exhibited nationally and internationally. She is an MFA Mentor at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the photographer for the Helen Louise Allen Textile Center and the Center of Design and Material Culture. She has translated western scientific literature into Diné Bizaad through visual storytelling, used art to explore the landscape as a way of examining her community’s histories and stories, and utilized weaving techniques to investigate the relationships between the western colonial world/art and its perception of Diné art and culture.

Dakota explains, “For so long we were excluded from the mainstream, and especially the mainstream art world…Because so often our identity is always seen as static or monolithic, I think now social media is really pushing [us] into a totally different realm where people are really engaging with the different representations of community and ideas of what it means to be indigenous in 2022. She goes on to say that social media have played a role in allowing non-Native people to see a more multifaceted view of indigenous communities that reflects the great diversity that exists there. For so long, the only representation that people outside of indigenous communities saw was from history texts or museums, which are outdated and easily exploited. Social media allow people from all walks of life to choose their own representation, which has increased visibility for a lot of different issues and communities.

Dakota is currently working on a project that recontextualizes photos of her family and ancestors in a way that more accurately depicts the context and imagery seen within them. Her work will be featured in an upcoming exhibit titled ‘Trust Me’ at the Whitney Museum of American Art from August to November of 2023. Of her recent work, she says, “It's a project that focuses on Diné historical trauma and my own relationship to my homelands. It stems from my own interest in bringing awareness to indigenous history through the arts, but it’s also informed by my own community and my own family. It looks at the site of Bosque Redondo in New Mexico as the final stop on the Long Walk for the Diné, which was already a painful removal of my ancestors from their home. It was that place where my ancestors faced extreme hardship and were unable to return home from, but the only photographs that exist within that period really erase our identity and really romanticize our pain.”

Sky Hopinka, a Ho-Chunk and Luiseño artist and filmmaker whose family is from Wisconsin, earned his MFA in film, video, animation, and new genres from UW–Milwaukee. His work has been shown at the Sundance, Toronto International, Ann Arbor, Courtisane, Punto de Vista, and New York Film Festivals. He has been awarded fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, Sundance Art, Art Matters, Guggenheim, and Forge Project, and was awarded a 2022 MacArthur Genius Grant, among other accolades.

Sky’s thoughts on the changing landscape of indigenous arts align with John Hitchcock’s. “Natives have been [taking] more agency in their work and how they’re represented…You can see a coalescing of native-led resistance movements and also more visibility [outside of] arts or film…which helped build something like Standing Rock.” He notes also that the general increase in visibility for marginalized peoples in the mainstream, which could be the result of advocacy and activist efforts as well as social media and other content platforms, has contributed to a surge in interest in indigenous artists and filmmakers.

Sky’s films examine his personal experiences and cultural stories, myths, and histories through the use of abstract imagery and experimental media. “I try to ask questions like, ‘What does the oral tradition look like when it’s depicted in a film that can’t be changed or edited once it is complete?’”

I asked him what effects he thought the use of abstract forms, opacity, or other experimental techniques has on his subject matter.

“I’m making films that speak to an audience that’s very specific, one that will know certain things that a larger audience won’t,” Sky says. “But at the same time, I’m speaking to them from my own experience, from my family, from my viewpoint. It’s subjective. I want that subjectivity to be felt and it’s often felt, through the abstract images, through the sounds, or by using poetic elements behind it.”

This subjectivity, like Dakota Mace’s recontextualization of her family’s photos and histories, has to do with the reclamation of public understanding of indigenous identity and experience, a shift away from stereotype, generalization, and universality into the specific, personal, and subjective. Doing this work, forcing the public to face its false assumptions and stereotypes, can be a painful process.

“When we teach art and artistic design, it’s always through the lens of the western canon, Dakota Mace noted. “But sometimes people don’t understand the more inherent complexities of where [appropriated] inspirations came from. It is important to look at how taking those things from those communities affected the way that our ingenuity changed and has been pushed and challenged in terms of survival.” To not do so risks allowing the public’s understanding of the indigenous experience to slip back into stereotype.

John Hitchcock echoes this point. “People will look at Indian art and say, ‘that’s not Indian enough.’ Any (Indian) art that is modern or contemporary is seen as inauthentic, because it doesn’t fit what they think of as the ‘Indian aesthetic’ that they are familiar with.” The truth is that authenticity is a myth. There were no glass beads before Europeans came here. The motifs and techniques that we associate with regional Indian identity, floral patterns found on powwow regalia, for instance, are often the result of cultural mixing, modern innovation, and pan-Indian representation. They are adaptations. As John puts it, “There is no ‘real’ Indian. That adaptability is not inauthenticity. It’s survival.”

In contemporary arts movements, from visual arts to film, music, and literature, artists have made an effort to stop translating their personal experiences for broad audiences. There is far less interpreting and explaining of artistic work to ensure that those audiences understand. Instead, we are seeing a movement towards a form of expression of an artist’s self for people in their own communities, or those who have had similar experiences. While it might be tempting to say that this is moving away from inclusivity, it seems to be having the opposite effect: it is finding the universal in the specific. It is, as John Hitchcock says, about survival.

Survival, perhaps, is a big part of the answer to the question, “why now?” Native artist’s intentional use of subjectivity, coupled with growing awareness of the experiences and identities of marginalized people by mainstream audiences, evolves out of the long conversation and history of Native activism that began in the 1960s, and has created an environment where those “allies in powerful institutions” seem to be prepared, finally, to take work by Native artists more seriously.

I asked John how that idea of survival shows up in his own work. He began by recounting memories of sitting by his grandmother’s knee as a child while she was beading. “She was obsessed with images of roses,” he said. “Even from a young age, she was handing me scraps of paper and telling me to go outside and draw what I saw. She taught me how to draw a rose pattern, which she used a lot in her own work. It was unusual because that motif is one that is usually used more by tribes in the Great Lakes region, not so much in Oklahoma where I grew up. I didn’t realize until later that her exposure to that motif was something she picked up in boarding school. The painted dots that I use in my work are there to represent beadwork that I saw my grandmother making.”

This, reminded me of Dakota Mace explaining how material like beadwork and photographs that outsiders might view as “traditional” often don’t actually represent the histories they seem to. The personal experience and its relationship to home, homelands, ancestors, and the movements of people are infinitely variable and impossible to accurately represent with generalizations.

Near the end of our conversation, Sky talked about his relationship to the idea of home, and, in particular, his family’s home in Wisconsin, which plays a part in shaping his work.

“In my twenties, in the early 2000’s, I was heavily involved in language revitalization, and that was important for me,” he said. “Especially in comparison to when I was growing up in the 1990s when we didn’t have access to those kinds of things. It’s an important resource for people to help them understand what it means to be from a place…In my work, I ask questions about what it means to have a homeland. My dad left Wisconsin in his twenties, and I’m left questioning what it means to return to a place I’ve never been before…Those kinds of questions permeate my work. I ask them in different ways in different projects, but I circle back to this idea of home and homelands.”

Tom Jones, Emily Arthur, John Hitchcock, Dakota Mace, and Sky Hopinka are five of many contemporary indigenous artists whose work is informed by their personal experience of life in Wisconsin. It is clear that Wisconsin artists are playing a central role in the increased inclusion of Native contemporary art within the larger art world.


Alexandria Delcourt (Abenaki) is a fiction and poetry writer from Madison. She currently works as an Editor for LifeStory editing and writing memoirs. Her work explores the topics of travel, colonialism, otherness, belonging and identity, and family history. 

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