How Can Contemporary Art Be More Inclusive of Native Voices?
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How Can Contemporary Art Be More Inclusive of Native Voices?

Jeffrey Gibson, IN NUMBERS TOO BIG TO IGNORE (detail), 2016. Glass beads, artificial sinew, copper jingles, metal studs, repurposed wool army blanket, wood 60 x 42 inches. Photo courtesy the artist

The traveling exhibition Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World has reignited longstanding questions about the artist’s identification as Cherokee, sparking numerous critiques by Cherokee artists and curators and defenses by Native and non-native curators alike, from Ashley Holland and America Meredith to Paul Chaat Smith and Anne Ellegood, the Hammer Museum curator who organized the show. But while much has been written about the controversy itself, which is sure to intensify as the exhibition tours to New York and Saskatoon in coming months, it tends to eclipse a larger issue: the dearth of opportunities within the contemporary art field for Native American artists. As many have asked: Why is Jimmie Durham the artist—or, at least, one of very few artists—selected for a major touring retrospective? Why isn’t more art by Native Americans collected, contextualized, and presented by major institutions like the Walker, the Whitney, and MoMA? And why is there so little representation—both within the staffs of contemporary art institutions and in the critical art press that covers them—of Native American, First Nations, and indigenous peoples?

Using the Durham exhibition as a springboard, the Walker Reader recently convened a conversation on Skype to consider necessary steps to make the field of contemporary art more inclusive and reflective of Native American art. The following dialogue, moderated by and planned with Twin Cities–based artist Dyani White Hawk, is one effort, of many more to come, by the Walker in foregrounding traditionally marginalized voices.


Kathleen Ash-Milby (Navajo Nation) is an Associate Curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in New York. She has organized numerous exhibitions at the museum, including C.Maxx Stevens: House of Memory (2012) and Off the Map: Landscape in the Native Imagination (2007). She was the co-curator, with Truman Lowe, for Edgar Heap of Birds: Most Serene Republics, a public art installation and collateral project for the 52nd International Art Exhibition/Venice Biennale (2007). She was curator and co-director of the American Indian Community House Gallery in New York City from 2000 to 2005.

Jeffrey Gibson (Mississippi Band of Choctaw) is a New York–based mid-career multidisciplinary artist. A citizen of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, he is half Cherokee, and he incorporates his heritage into his work, which includes abstract sculptures, paintings, and prints. He earned his MA in painting at the Royal College of Art, London (1998) and his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1995. Gibson’s work is in the permanent collections of the Denver Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and the National Gallery of Canada, among others. He is a faculty member at Bard College, a past TED Foundation Fellow, and a Joan Mitchell Grant recipient.

Luzene Hill (Eastern Band of Cherokee) is a multimedia artist based in Atlanta, best known for conceptual installations addressing the issue of violence against women. Through work informed by pre-contact culture, Hill advocates for indigenous sovereignty—cultural, linguistic, and personal sovereignty. An enrolled member of the  Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Hill is the recipient of a 2016 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Fellowship in Visual Arts, a 2015 Eiteljorg Museum Fellowship, and a 2015 First Peoples Fund Fellowship.

Dyani White Hawk (Sicangu Lakota) is an artist based in Minneapolis. She earned her BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts (2008) and MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2011). White Hawk is a recipient of 2017 and 2015 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Fellowships and the 2014 Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Grant. She draws from her multicultural background and education to create paintings and mixed-media works that speak to her upbringing as a Lakota woman in an urban American landscape. Her works are in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Minneapolis Institute of Art, IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Art, and Tweed Museum of Art, as well as other public and private collections.

Candessa Tehee, PhD (Cherokee Nation) is an artist based in Tahlequah, OK. She is assistant professor of Cherokee and Indigenous Studies and coordinator of the Cherokee Language Program at Northeastern State University. She is the former executive director of the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah. 


The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

Dyani White Hawk in her studio. Photo courtesy the artist

Dyani White Hawk: There have been numerous publications, podcasts, and radio pieces done around the controversy surrounding Jimmie Durham’s self-identification as an artist of Cherokee descent. It’s been in Indian Country Today Media Network, First American Art, Art in America, Hyperallergicartnet News, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and locally in the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public RadioIt goes on and on. So if anybody’s not seen the conversation yet, they can find it in many sources.

But the conversations have been exceedingly difficult for all parties involved. It’s not a fun conversation. So, what I really wanted to start with is just asking each of you, despite the difficulty and the challenge to take on this conversation, why do you feel it’s important to have?

Jeffrey Gibson: I’ll start. I think it’s important to have this conversation. Kathleen and I were talking about it; Kathleen’s someone I’ve known since 2002. She was my very first studio visit here in New York City, so we’ve had lots of conversations, and she said something really wise to me: “We need to get this conversation to day two.” There’s the immediate emotional reaction, and then everything was hovering in this immediate reactionary place. Then day two or day three would be when we’ve all had a chance to step back and get some objective opinion and thoughtful responses and then start the conversation again from there.

Jeffrey Gibson during an exhibition of his work at Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art in Milwaukee. Photo: Kevin J. Miyazaki

Those topics for me are things that I’ve spoken about with Native curators, Native artists, non-Native curators, non-Native artists, and they have to do with tribal enrollment, how tribal enrollment works. They have to do with the reasons why there are so many gaps in Native American art history and how there is so little integration of American western art history and Native American art history. As an artist—I’ve been in New York for almost 20 years—it has been such a hindrance to have to start every studio visit with Native American Art 101, and at some point I began resenting the fact that I had to be an art educator, a cultural interpreter. I’m not even qualified, really, to be either of those things, you know? Ultimately, it takes away from the development of the artist and the development of the work.

So part of what we’re seeing here is that there are a lot of artists who are in a similar position. Another problem is we’re spread so far out around the world, and there’s been a lack of a way for a collective voice to come together, not only across the United States but also across countries. So I hope that’s what comes from this. I think that would be incredibly beneficial.

Kathleen Ash-Milby: I think that everything that’s happened in response to this controversy with Jimmie Durham is something that has been going on for a long time: it’s just been going on underground, in terms of the mainstream perspective. There was always a question about [Durham’s] identity. There was always disagreement among some people about what that meant and about what his background and his claims meant. So, I think that in some ways the mainstream is just catching up to the conversations that we’ve been having amongst ourselves for a long time.

Kathleen Ash-Milby speaking during the Smithsonian’s 2016 People>Passion>Purpose series. On screen: Wendy Red Star’s Fall, from “The Four Seasons” series (2012)

But what I’m concerned with is that we dwell too much on this individual and that it drowns out all the good work that’s happening in the field. I’ve also been concerned that it becomes divisive within our field, because we are a small community, even though we’re really spread very far and wide (and I’d include Canada in that community). We all need each other, and we all have a common goal, which is to promote contemporary Native art, because there is such outstanding work being done today. And even though there has been a tremendous amount of progress in the field over, say, the last 15 to 20 years, there’s still a long ways to go. So, in some ways, it was a bit of a wake-up call to the fact that there is so much ground to be covered and so much education that needs to happen.

Luzene Hill:  Yes, I agree. I think that the problems and the controversy and discussions that are going on now are helping the progress because you don’t learn from things that go right. You learn from all those bad drawings that you throw away, and you get to the good stuff. I’m very grateful for the Walker’s openness to have these conversations, because [it’s important] having our voices out there that have been not heard for so long. We’re a small minority, and we have to speak up more loudly now—and we are. I think this is helping us move up and get heard. So, it will end up with us all being better off: getting it out and discussing it and having these hard conversations and not being afraid to have them.

Luzene Hill in her studio. Photo: Shawn Vinson

Candessa Tehee: I completely agree with everything that everyone’s saying. When you start talking about aspects of identity, everything is so emotionally laden that people sometimes lose sense of logic and rationality, because questions about identity cut so very, very deeply, for all people, and especially so for indigenous peoples, because we’re so often plagued with questions of authenticity, questions of realness, so to speak. But one of the things that this whole conversation around the identity issues of Durham has brought forward for me is the top-down way in which the American Indian art scene sometimes works, how much power non-Native curators have in terms of determining what is and what is not valid Native art or indigenous art, the way in which colonialism and paternalism play into American Indian art markets and American Indian art scenes, and, I hesitate to say, enact violence, but they definitely sometimes produce strictures on American Indian artists and how they feel—the freedom they feel to express themselves.

That’s something that comes to the forefront for me, as well as a lack of consultation with Native communities. You know, I’m a full-blood Cherokee woman, and I also have a PhD. I’m a traditionalist, I’m an advanced Cherokee language learner, and I try to use my language often. And I’m an artist. That’s some unique constellation of attributes, and I find difficulty in getting people to hear my voice. So those are all things that have come to the forefront for me in the controversy surrounding Durham.

Candessa Tehee. Photo: Peter Henshaw, courtesy Northeastern State University

White Hawk:  That’s something that a lot of folks have been trying to say: who are they choosing to listen to? Native voices in the conversation are often put aside, and a lot of times the folks that get the spotlight or the final say are those that are in the higher positions within the field. So it feels like, collectively, what everyone is talking about is this idea of not being heard regularly, not being recognized regularly within larger historical narratives, within the art field in general, and then even within this conversation. So, thank you all.

On that, the lazier thing to do, the easier option, would be to walk away, right? To let it go, to just continue to buckle down and focus on our own work. But my own investment in this topic has really lied in the potential for growth within this field. I’ve decided to stay involved and try to take on this conversation in whatever form it needs to take, because I believe in the way that the arts impact those within the field, but also audience members and its potential to influence the greater public. And I recognize that through challenging discussion greater understanding can be achieved.

So, it’s here that I hope this moment can ultimately serve as beneficial. Do you individually feel that it’s possible that the art field and its audience members can benefit from this moment in time, and in what ways?

Ash-Milby:  I don’t think that this is necessarily related to the Jimmie Durham controversy; actually, I think it’s a coincidence. But I do think that Native American art is having a bit of a moment in terms of visibility. It’s 25 years after the Columbus Quincentenary, and I don’t know if that has something to do with people’s renewed interest in it. In 1992, there were a number of events, and there was a lot of focus on Native art because of that historical moment. And there are a couple publications that are coming out this fall that are looking back at the 25-year time span, so I think that’s something that is helping to draw attention.

So, the main thing I am concerned about is that the reaction to the controversy might undermine some of that progress, because what we want is to have visibility for Native artists in the mainstream, in the larger world, as well as continued success in the Native art field. And I’m a bit worried that there are going to be people who are going to look at this controversy and say, “I don’t want have anything to do with Native art because I don’t want to step into something I don’t know enough about. This is too fraught.”

And the thing about art writers and critics is it’s just like any other aspect of publishing: they move really quickly. So, when you’re promoting an exhibition and you’re sending them your press kit and you’re sending them information, they’re gobbling it up, they’re doing quick Google searches, and they’re pounding out the reviews. Things are going to press right away. And I think that there’s a little bit of fear on my part that people are going to say, “This takes too much work. I don’t have time for this, and I don’t want to get in trouble by accident.”

So, that’s my worry. We are coming up on this historical moment, and there is a lot more visibility than there has been in the past. Art in America is coming out with a special issue in October on contemporary Native art, which is fantastic. Art Journal, a publication of the College Art Association, is publishing a focus on Native American art, looking back on those 25 years. So, I hope that we can move forward in a positive way and that my fears are misplaced.

Hill: And the Eiteljorg this year is having its 20-year anniversary exhibition. So all of those things are very positive, I agree. But things that are hard have to be explored. I understand that it’s easier not to, but I think that’s the responsibility of museums who have the prestige and the background of doing research and putting the time in. Even though we’re moving at rapid speeds now, that time has to be put in.

Historically coming to recognize any group—i.e. African Americans, which was hard during the ’60s and ’70s, Civil Rights—it was easier to just sort of not pay attention, easier to not explore, rather than try to understand that point of view. I think that Native American stereotypes have compounded the problem, because it’s so easy to just dismiss certain people saying, “Well, this is what the art is,” “This is what the person is,” “That’s what their point of view is.”

Let’s remember: Native people in the Americas are not Western Europeans with slightly darker skin. Our world view, our culture, is enormously different from patriarchal culture coming from a Judeo-Christian foundation. To look upon us through a European lens, that we’re more or less the same, past a few clothing differences and a few songs, is a mistake. I think the curiosity is not as great, because we’re around and there’s a sense that, “Well, I know what they’re like.”

If the artist coming to exhibit in a show at the Walker or the Whitney is from China or from Indonesia, there would be more exploration because it’s clearly different. But Native American people are right here, so to speak, and you have your ideas about them.  I think not understanding how different our culture is is what’s lost. You don’t know it, and you don’t know that you don’t know it. You think you know.

Gibson: I’m going to play a bit of a devil’s advocate here. Early in my career, when I received my first major New York grant, I was super excited, and I thought, “Great, now I’m going to get a lot of opportunities”—and nothing happened. And I remember talking to the grant manager, and they were introducing my work to curators and high-level curators’ institutions, and there was no response. And he said to me, “You know, you can bring water to a horse, but you can’t make the horse drink.” And, so in many ways these opportunities of these magazine issues, this moment of a highlight on Native American artists, it’s like: What’s going to make them drink? Like, why drink?

Also, in the conversations I’ve had with curators, the time of emotional reaction and the time of institutional moving forward are so radically different. Then there are the institutions: let’s say the Whitney has 30 curators, and two of them want to do an exhibition about contemporary Native American art. Somehow they have to convince the other 28, or at least enough of them for it to make sense for the audience that’s attending the Whitney.

Jeffrey Gibson, AMERICAN HISTORY, 2015. Wool, steel studs, glass beads, artificial sinew, metal jingles, acrylic yarn, nylon fringe, canvas. 89 x 66 x 5 inches. Photo courtesy the artist

One of my biggest resentments: if you’re looking at contemporary African American artists, female artists, there are really high-level markets for that work right now. That’s the context that we don’t have as Native American artists. Oftentimes, collectors are sitting on the boards of those institutions. China had a huge market, Japan had a huge market, and so we are in a capitalist society, and money speaks in institutions. But as Native American tribes were gaining money from, let’s say, casino and gambling earnings, that money was going elsewhere. It wasn’t necessarily being put into building art collections.

I do think that the Eiteljorg is unique in that it’s a really different experience to walk among the work there, when the collection is shown. That’s probably one of the best experiences. But I’ve seen Kathleen’s programming at NMAI in New York, and I see how difficult it is to get people to that space. It has nothing to do with the quality of the programming. The programming has been fantastic and sensational since I’ve known Kathleen, and it’s built, consistently.

So, people can push us back, people can say they’re not interested, but ultimately it’s our responsibility to find ways for our own representation. I can’t make anyone do anything. So, I think as artists, if this is our concern, we have to take that on as a responsibility. You have to have these conversations; you can’t get upset and walk away if this is what you’re interested in achieving.

Tehee:  I completely agree and, gosh, you guys all bring forward such really interesting points. I can’t help but think about how there’s been an American Indian population explosion since the 1960s. The demography of American Indian people in the US has increased by over 600 percent, according to the US Census. And that can’t be explained by birth and death rates or immigration or anything like that. There is a public fascination, and there is a fascination in the national imaginary, with Indians and with Indian-ness. But, yet that’s coupled with a spectacular ignorance about Indian people in general and, specifically, Indian art. And recalling a statement that Jeffrey made about constantly having to do Native Art 101, I find that it’s more than Native Art 101. It’s like Indigenous People 101. You have to get them through that to even get to Native Art 101.

So, looking at this particular moment that contemporary Native art is having, one, we want it to be continued in some kind of a sustainable way, a substantive way. But also, I would love to see us as a movement build on that to create teachable moments, or some kind of education, because I still feel as though, as an American Indian person, when I meet non-Indians, that I’m some kind of inaccessible mystery. You know, it’s like, “Oh, you’re alive, you’re here, and you’re dressed just like me.”

White Hawk: “All of a sudden I don’t know how to talk to you.” Yeah.

Tehee: Right? I’ve honestly had somebody say, “Wow, you speak really good English for a full-blood.” It’s like, “Well, I have a PhD.” So, you know, I can be all of these things at once, and I think Paul Chaat Smith, when he wrote Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong, I know that scares people, but to a degree, it’s still pretty accurate.

Dyani White Hawk, Stealing Horses Back, 2016. Oil, vintage beads, thread on linen

White Hawk: Yeah. When we started this conversation with some of the people at the Walker, I remember sitting in those meetings and being afraid that even bringing this conversation up would potentially undermine our efforts to increase attention and recognition of our contributions in the field, because there’s potential that they might get scared and just want to avoid it. So I remember saying, “Please, don’t let this scare you.” It’s actually, I think, a tremendous opportunity to just call out and recognize the under-representation that is happening, to utilize this difficult conversation as something for real, genuine growth.

And when people are scared, my response to that is: hire Native folks to be a part of whatever thing you’re thinking up. Contract, pay people, partner, bring Native folks into the fold so that you don’t fail, because you’ve got that guidance; you’re building real partnerships.

Gibson:  If I can bring up one more thing before we move on: I think there needs to be a distinction when we’re talking about art, between cultural practice and art making. Because they’re not always the same thing. For years, my work would be shown next to a basket to talk about my painting, or next to appliqué to talk about my painting. And they’re actually two very different things. They have completely different intentions, completely different narratives, completely different histories, and, again, I think that has to come from Native people. Oftentimes, we talk about our work in terms of a very personal biography and narrative, and that makes it difficult for it to be aligned with other artworks happening out in the world.

White Hawk: Wow, that’s a great point.

Gibson: The other thing is the lack of criticism, whether written by Native writers, or even non-Native writers. There’s a situation where people are afraid to critique.

How do we determine what is a good artwork? How do we determine what is a weak artwork? How do we determine what is ambitious in different ways, whether it’s philosophically ambitious or [ambitious in terms of] scale? These are the sorts of things that are coming out of generations of feeling as though we haven’t been acknowledged, so there’s the kind of fear of rocking the boat. But, really, criticism will help people grow, and it will provide language that can be used to talk about work on hopefully a much more complex and higher level than it has been in the past.

White Hawk: I completely agree. On that note, one other thing that I’ve thought about is: the art world is about taking on difficult conversations. It’s at the heart of contemporary art’s work. It’s how we get through some of our largest, most difficult issues as people. Art is such a beneficial tool to help us do that. As individuals and as societies, some of our greatest growth and gains come from when we push through fear and get to know one another’s stories, get to know one another, get to know the basis of that fear, and it’s the only way to move past those things. So I feel like we need to take on these challenging conversations and push ourselves as Native artists to make our voices heard within those larger conversations in the field, but also people at large who feel like they don’t know enough need to push themselves to get to know, and to push themselves to create a more inclusive art conversation that includes the indigenous people of this land base. And how could you not want that?

Alright, on to the next question. Native and indigenous artists are really wildly under-represented within the mainstream institutions, academia, collections, exhibitions, programming, personnel within mainstream institutions, et cetera. Specifically in regards to Native arts or contemporary art made by native and indigenous artists, what would be two to three of your top hopes for growth within the mainstream art field?

Ash-Milby: I can speak to this because I’ve been becoming aware in the last couple years that many American art museums seem to be reexamining their definition of American art, and thinking about the exclusion of Native art from the American art canon. One of my recent exhibitions was Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist, which was trying to bring up that question and really frame her as an American artist, thinking about her as an American artist, not just as a Native American artist. And I’m really feeling a little bit optimistic because there are changes taking place in some institutions, in terms of how they’re exhibiting the material and integrating Native art into their more mainstream American art collections, or at least starting to think about it. For bigger institutions, I think it’s going to take a lot longer to turn those ships, but the fact that they’re even having the conversations now is a positive step. I hope that it sustains. I hope that it keeps going in this direction, because I think that there is some promise out there.

Kay WalkingStick, A Sensual Suggestion, 1974. Collection of the artist. Photo by Lee Stalsworth, Fine Art through Photography, LLC, courtesy the National Museum of the American Indian

Gibson:  I would like to see a market develop outside of the Indian market. I think there’s a difference in terms of the criteria, in the Indian market on how an artwork is deemed as valuable or the best artwork. A lot of us are operating outside of that kind of structure. And I think that there needs to be collectors, there needs to be patrons of the work, the work needs to be supported on a really large scale. I know there have been many efforts and continued efforts in Venice during the Biennale. I think it was 2005, when NMAI sent a number of artists over. I remember there was a lot of pushback about how that money could have been spent in other ways to support the Native arts community. But to have representation on a global scale, at that level, I think was really impactive. I remember in particular James Luna’s pieces, Edgar [Heap of Birds]’s pieces, right when you came out of the airport on the billboard.

And, you know, contemporary art is impractical. It’s constructed to enable the impractical, to handle difficulty with, kind of, “This is what we do.” It’s not necessarily extraordinary for things to be difficult. So I’d like to see someone step up with some money and start buying work that’s private, private collectors who are promising their collections to the Whitney, to MoMA, to the Walker. This is the way the art world works. This is the way, 20 years from now, you’re going to see a significant difference for the younger artists growing up today.

Tehee: Just so you know, that’s not enough.The comments that were made so far have been wonderful, and I think I’m going back to something that Jeffrey said again, and it regarded criticism. I was fortunate to hear Dr. Amanda Cobb-Greetham talk about the need for criticism in American Indian art in general. I see this in the Cherokee art scene. There’s definitely a need for it. And she said something I really agree with: that most criticism of art falls into three broad categories. It’s either overly celebratory, merely descriptive, or it’s overly critical with a severe focus on authenticity. At this point for us to be productive, I think we have to move past that, and we’ve got to talk about the art differently.

We need more people writing from home, and [I’m speaking] as someone who works from home (I’m Cherokee living in the Cherokee Nation). That’s something that is really difficult to do, because oftentimes there are artists who give you a lot of pushback when you speak critically about their works. Not in terms of value-laden judgments, but speaking about the work and where you think the work fits. So I think criticism and artists’ response to criticism needs to grow and become more robust. We need more people writing. We need more of an academic dialogue about the art that’s happening, because I think that’s part and parcel of establishing the impact of pieces as they’re happening.

Gibson:  Hearing you say that, I realize that just hasn’t been done yet. I mean there is a lot of scholarship that’s been written. But the difference of those histories being within museology, anthropology, archeology, it’s a huge leap to suddenly just be working from the perspective of contemporary art. Whoever’s going to take on that role, it’s daunting, clearly, because there’s no context for them, and they’re going to get pushback. So I think as artists we have to embrace it and encourage it.

And, I’ve said this before, it’s like when you’re doing something new, you’re going to make mistakes in public. You’re going to make mistakes in museums, you’re going to  make mistakes in galleries, and that’s just where we’re at. There’s no way around that. We can’t guarantee a successful exhibition. We can’t guarantee a successful publication. And that’s why I think the most interesting subject is all of these really intensely thoughtful attempts at making it happen. And that really is reflective of what artists have always done, no matter who you are.

White Hawk: You guys have brought up some awesome, valid, and valuable points. Luzene, was there anything you wanted to add?

Hill: I agree. Our working together and supporting each other and supporting each other with criticism and with push is important in going forward and making things known to institutions. Getting collectors to buy our work: I think it helps if there’s work in museums that’s being displayed intelligently, because collectors are looking, I assume, for validation for what they’re putting their money into. So it’s sort of a circle, because I know that institutions depend on collectors and collections being donated, but I think that having the scholarship and having the exposure, and having the exposure in prominent institutions, is going to help bring that up. It’s hard, but it’s all got to be a rounded, supportive effort of all of us equally working toward the same goal.

White Hawk: One of the pieces that stands out for me most is the word “sustained.” You know, the idea of all of those efforts working in continuity, continuously. It can’t be one-off programming or one show every few years or one piece of literature every few years or one review, or even [something created] around a historical event, like you’re talking about, Kathleen. The idea is to have sustained inclusion for folks to remember and continue to reach out and make sure that our voices are included within the larger American artistic narrative. And Jeffrey, all of the points that you brought up around criticism and writing, coming from both within our communities and outside of our communities, and for artists to be willing and open to the growth that that can bring, is really important.

One thing that I think about, and what is a challenge for us within our own community, is this idea of how to maintain. Sometimes the value systems are really different between our community teachings and our worldviews and how we live and operate when we are amongst our communities, and the value systems that the mainstream contemporary art world is based upon. It’s really challenging for us as artists to fulfill both of those things, but I think it’s a great challenge, in regards to what you’re talking about, your efforts of writing and that writing coming from us and being willing to dig into contemporary art’s narrative.

I’ve always told young artists to go to grad school because I think we’ll have the most gains if we can speak both languages—if we can talk to our community members, be strong contributing community members, and at the same time be able to speak to and understand the language and the narratives and the values and the history within mainstream arts field as well. If we can speak both languages, we have the best opportunity to speak to both audiences, and to pull out those intersections and how those things are so intertwined and related.

Gibson: Like I said, Kathleen and I have been talking since 2002, and for many of my non-Native peers, artists, curators, and otherwise, the Native arts world is incredibly exclusive. They do not feel as though they are allowed in. Exhibitions that I’ve been included in that are Native-curated exhibitions, they are not invited to take part. So even though the topics and subjects might make a really interesting conversation, I think that that’s a shift that would benefit everybody—for Native arts curators and writers to also speak about artists who are not Native, speak about them in tandem, compare them. My work probably has more in common, let’s say, with a non-Native painter or sculptor than it does with a basket or an appliqué skirt. But, so many times, that’s been what’s been presented to me.

And I understand it. I don’t want to negate that in any way, that is for something else. Those are my inspirations, that’s what I’ve looked at, that’s what I’m referring to, many times. But I think to talk about patterns, to talk about color, to talk about formalism, to talk about economies, communities, spirituality in a broader way would make a much more compelling exhibition for a broader audience.

White Hawk: I really appreciate that, Jeffrey. We try so hard to make sure that our own voices are being lifted and that we all have opportunity in all roles, right? Artists, curators, academics, we’re all trying to make sure that we’re pulling in all players when we do things, large things, markets or whatever. But, you know, in order for our voices to be an active and continuous part of the larger, national dialogue, we do need to make sure that we’re being inclusive as we’re asking for inclusivity.

Gibson: Right, right.

White Hawk: And one thing that it makes me think about, too, is, it always breaks my heart when I hear scholars and academics, people of color who are in the field in whatever that they do, and in their research we are so often forgotten. I hear people of color talk about black, Asian, Hispanic, or LGBTQ, and so often we’re not included in those lists. In research, in talking about things, in conversations, and us making an active effort to make sure that we’re bringing those folks into our world can hopefully only help people remember to include us in those important conversations as well.

Tehee: That’s a wonderful observation: indigenous identity is intersectional. I mean, I’m more than just an indigenous person. There’s a lot of other things that are going on in my life, and so often you see that forgotten about. And I think very recently with the Cherokee Nation, with Freedmen being granted citizenship, and Freedmen descendants being granted citizenship, it points to the erasure of the Black Indian experience more largely across Indian country. And I find that troubling. And also sometimes erasures of LGBTQ experiences …

So, I definitely have to agree with everything that you said, and I love everything that Jeffrey said as well, and I think it’s really difficult to talk about inclusivity without decontextualizing things that need contextualizing. That’s a very subtle thing to do, and it’s a sophisticated balance to walk in a lot of ways. If we’re able to create sustained growth of academic dialogue, of collectors, and of the market in general for American Indians making American Indian art, making it more inclusive, then hopefully those things will result as a growth in those areas.

Gibson: What Candessa just said is an amazing subject. The need to decontextualize things that need contextualizing, that as a subject, whether it’s an artwork or an exhibition or a piece of writing, is a much more interesting perspective to have to talk about our artworks, rather than just repeating that we’re underrepresented or people aren’t paying attention to us. We have really interesting things, and that’s what needs to be put forward. What are the kind of meaty things to be fleshed out in an exhibition, to be fleshed out in a catalogue? I think that’s brilliant.

White Hawk: Yeah. I agree. So, are there other short-term or long-term actions that you feel curators, administrators, funders, buyers, et cetera, should or could do to increase their understanding and inclusion of Native artists within the contemporary arts field?

Ash-Milby: I definitely want to reiterate that I think reexamining our definitions of what American art is and thinking about our collections and museums, that’s an important long-term step. But I also think museums can think not just about organizing their own exhibition of Native art—because that’s a big commitment and that’s a long-term thing; you don’t want it to just be a one-off thing—I think that museums should be looking at traveling exhibitions that are already out there. I don’t think that museums necessarily have to reinvent the wheel every single time. I know that there’s a really important exhibition of the artist T.C. Cannon that’s out there traveling. We’re traveling the Kay WalkingStick exhibition. There are some really good exhibitions out there, and there have been times when it’s been difficult to get venues to pay attention to these amazing things.

T.C. Cannon (Kiowa and Caddo), Two Guns Arikara, 1974–77. Anne Aberbach Collection
© 2018 Estate of T. C. Cannon. Photo: Thosh Collins, courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum

There are multiple levels where museums can get involved. It doesn’t have to be everything all at once; it can be building and doing that research and consulting with those people who already have the expertise, and then bringing that in house.

Hill: That’s a great idea. It’s a very good point, because it’s out there and it’s already ready-made for you to embrace.

Tehee: Yeah. I would say: short-term, hire more Indians. We need more writing in the field, we need more collectors buying Indian art, and I think it’s really interesting that oftentimes “American” is—and this has been written about within the field of anthropology—a metonym for “white.” And I’m really glad to hear that people are beginning to question that, and  I just really hope to see  more indigenous curation.

The point about traveling exhibits is really wonderful. There’s a great exhibit that’s traveling contemporary Southeastern art. It’s called Return from Exile. It started in Georgia, it’s traveled to Oklahoma and New Mexico, and it’s traveling to North Carolina as it finishes up its run. But it’s independently curated. It’s out of the Southeastern Indian Artists Association, and it’s got some really wonderful work in there. And it’s been gaining some attention and some momentum during its run. But if they had waited on someone to curate this traveling exhibit for them, it wouldn’t’ve happened. So they had to do it themselves with independent curators. To see an exhibition like that gain larger national-level attention would be wonderful.

White Hawk: Are there any points we haven’t hit on yet, as far as short-term actions or long-term actions?

Gibson: Every artist is afraid at the beginning of their career. How do you move forward? How do you start stuff? But you just have to be aggressive. You have to write and ask people for studio visits. You have to ask people for critique and get your online presence as up to date as possible, because it’s the way that people can see your work. I wasn’t familiar with Luzene’s work before we were introduced, maybe a little over a month and half ago, and I was blown away. It’s such fantastic work and deserves much more recognition. I’d love to see it here in New York.

That’s the other thing: I have chosen to remain in New York because of it being one of the art capitals of the world. I always felt it was important for me to find a voice in this context. But I also understand very much, and appreciate, people working within their communities. It’s just the nature of how I grew up. It makes sense for me to be here. And because artists are so far spread out, I plan on doing studio visits with other artists via Skype, just so I can get to know more about what they’re doing. I think our community needs to be somehow collected in a way where we’re familiar with what each other is doing.

Hill: Thank you, Jeffrey, for that wonderful validation. And with that in mind, I’m truly grateful to several organizations, like First Peoples Fund and NACF [Native Arts & Cultures Foundation] and the Eiteljorg Museum, because they’re making an effort to bring us together, and that has been enormously expanding for me, to have the opportunity to meet other artists and get more familiar with their work.

That’s important, and helping those organizations grow support is helping—you know, it’s trickle-down—and that just increases our exposure with each other and to other markets, too.

White Hawk: I’m just going  reiterate: [I urge] places, people, endeavors that are looking into working with Native artists that don’t feel they have the history yet, or the full understanding of the field, to really lean on those that do. There are curators, like Kathleen and others throughout Canada and United States, that are extremely familiar with the field and know how to navigate both what it means to work in a larger institution, with both contemporary art history and Native artists and that history as well. Lean on those folks to rely on the fact that we have a very tight net of connectivity between all of us. So if you tap into a few really good folks, chances are you have a long string of people available to work with just through those few people. I really encourage people to remember that most of those people also know the non-Native arts field very well.

Even though we may have expertise within the Native arts field, it doesn’t mean that that’s the only thing that we are familiar with. We have familiarity with the arts at large, nationally and internationally. That’s something that I hope places will remember. And what you said, Candessa: make an effort, hire indigenous people, hire Native people, hire them in all aspects of what you’re doing. Not just artists, but remember that there are our art professionals out there and that they’re valuable contributions to what you’re doing.

A familiar rebuke for lack of representation of Native artists and art professionals in the field is a perceived lack of availability, or a lack of familiarity with who those players are. So, for people who aren’t familiar with our field, are there artists or curators or writers that you guys want to suggest as starting points for people when they start their research, or do you have suggestions for how to break into their own endeavors of research of Native artists and arts professionals?

Ash-Milby: Well, one place to start would be to look at the work of some of the institutions that have been doing publications and exhibitions of contemporary Native art, and even just going to their websites and looking at previous exhibitions to get an idea of who organized the show as well as the artists themselves and any associated publications. So I would include MoCNA, the Museum of Contemporary Native American Art in Santa Fe. I would include the Denver Art Museum, the Peabody Essex Museum, the Philbrook Museum, and, obviously, Eiteljorg has a series of publications going back to 1999, which is a wonderful place to start and see who’s very active in the field and some doing wonderful work. At the National Museum of the American Indian, we have all of our previous exhibitions listed online. So that’s a good place to start: looking at the work that’s already been done and who the contributors were to those projects.

Meryl 2 (2010) by Meryl McMaster, subject of a 2015 solo show at the National Museum of the American Indian. Photo courtesy the artist and Bockley Gallery

White Hawk: Great. Thank you, Kathleen. Anyone else?

Gibson: I would agree with Kathleen. That’s the way that I actually find out stuff. Just look at the last five years of programming of all of those people, and, you know, online just very easy. Also, Wendy Red Star had started a number of interviews online, called [Contemporary North American Indigenous Artists], and those were really fantastic. They were just unedited interviews with artists in their studios. And also I would include the Canadian museums and institutions. I think they have a different context to understand how it’s been encouraged to have there be more representation in a national way.

White Hawk:  Yeah. There’s a thriving indigenous arts field in Canada. I admire and often look from afar, and sometimes I feel like we’re running to catch up to some of the gains that they’ve made. You know, this Jimmie Durham show is traveling to Canada after the Whitney, so that’s something that I mentioned to the curators, that [those in the Indigenous Canadian arts scene] are also going to want to dig into this conversation. It’s not something they’re going to want to shy away from.

Okay, so this last question wasn’t a question of my own, but I was really appreciative that it came from someone who works within the Walker, someone who’s thinking through what it means to be an employee there. The question is: “How can healing be facilitated on the institutional side—for a long history of exclusion and for, in particular to the Walker, recent cases of retraumatizing Native people?” The question went on, but that was the gist of it: how can healing be facilitated from within the institution? So my followup is: you know there are Native artists now, as well as professionals who are going to refrain from working with institutions that are traveling this exhibition and other places that have intentionally or unintentionally excluded or offended Native people through their practices or programming. What can these institutions do to mend or begin to truly start reciprocal relationships with Native artists and communities, and why is that important?

Ash-Milby: We’ve talked about a lot of things that these museums can do: look at their collecting policies, look at their framing of artists within their museum, and start to look at artists who’ve been excluded, engaging experts in the field that exist already. You don’t have to start from scratch. It’s never too late. We don’t need to give up on institutions. This is an ongoing dialogue, and I couldn’t do my work if I gave up. We have to persist.

Tehee: I completely agree with that. I was struck with a statement that someone made during my graduate school studies: “Institutions move at the speed of continental drift.” I found that to be very true as I have tried to negotiate my career. I think there is some burden on the institution to make sure that they are consulting with indigenous communities, with indigenous peoples, artists, and curators. On the other hand, I am wary of expecting very much of any institution, and, as a Indian woman, I just don’t trust monolithic agencies. You know the old joke: “I’m here from the government, you can trust me.” In some ways, I feel like that applies to some of these large-scale organizations and institutions as well. I always approached them with a sense of wariness and suspicion, and I would wager I’m not the only one, and that’s not limited to indigenous people.

So, in terms of how an institution can kind of effect healing, I definitely think dialogue, conversation, and consultation is a major first step.

Hill: And a lot of listening on their part.

Gibson: I agree with Candessa a lot. I don’t necessarily look toward institutions for healing. I think that’s what makes me really thankful about our communities, because I feel really fortunate that those communities exist. I feel like they nurture me to go back in and negotiate and fight for things with people who might not otherwise know anything about me or our communities or our world views. So if institutions are approached with ideas, and big ideas that are really interesting to pursue, it’s only in their best interest to produce them. Artists should not be afraid to let their work get really complex, don’t be afraid for it to get really ambitious, out-scaled. You know, think huge.

Jeffrey Gibson, IN NUMBERS TOO BIG TO IGNORE, 2016. Glass beads, artificial sinew, copper jingles, metal studs, repurposed wool army blanket, wood. 60 x 42 inches. Photo courtesy the artist

I’ve always tried to realize that I am doing this on behalf of a larger community. Sometimes I forget that. For the artist it becomes very much about us and the artist and the moment, but really it began and continues to be inspired by doing it on behalf of a larger community. And maybe that’s what makes us very different from a lot of contemporary artists.

White Hawk: We talked about this already, but regular and sustained efforts are what’s key for me. Actions speak louder than words. You can say you’re sorry, and say we’re going to include you, but we watch these larger institutions regularly, continuously, and I feel like so often we just see that lack of inclusion, lack of representation, over and over and over again. This kind of healing is achieved through building relationships. Through understanding one another and sustained, continuous efforts of making sure that all parties are at the table and included in the conversation. I think that’s how you have reciprocal and productive relationships.

Another thing that I think is really important is that when you bring Native folks in, trust the authority of what they say. Trust that they know their communities best, that they know the topic best. You trust their authority in that knowledge when institutions are getting to know those communities. That’s huge: trusting and giving them agency—and not giving them agency, but recognizing their own agency. Recognizing their own expertise in who they are and their knowledge of their communities.

Something that could be an important gesture as well is: each place recognizing, embracing, where they are on the landscape. Where that place is located and who the indigenous folks are of that place, and what their history has been, what that institution’s history has been in that land, in that locale, and the institutions around them. How has their presence affected, supported, or had ill effects on indigenous peoples locally? Those are all things I think about when this person asked this question. And Jeffrey, I really agree with you. I know that we get our healing elsewhere; we get our healing within our own communities. We go to work, we get hurt, we come back and recoup and get out there and do it again.

But, I think that building good, positive relationships is a part of national healing. Luzene, I don’t think you responded to that one, did you?

Hill: About paying attention, and recognizing, I agree. Recognizing our sovereignty. Because when that isn’t recognized, it dismisses us. And Native people have been dismissed in many areas, in many different ways. And we feel that. So, listening and recognizing our authority and our sovereignty as a culture.

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