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The Often-Overlooked Aspect of Native American Art: Women

Although most outsiders don’t realize it, Native American art is largely the product of women’s work. “This material culture stems from a Native female understanding of the world, her own identity, who her people are, and how this knowledge can be passed on,” says Kiowa beadwork artist Teri Greeves. To illustrate this often-overlooked aspect of Native art, Greeves and the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Jill Ahlberg Yohe organized an exhibition of some-120 works conceived over the span of a millennium by female artists from indigenous nations that, collectively, represent all regions of Native North America.



Native American art, acrylic on canvas, black background with pattern of flora and fauna in blue red green purple yellow white
Christi Belcourt; Michif, b. 1966; The Wisdom of the Universe, 2014; Acrylic on canvas; 67 5/16 × 111 in.; Collection Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Purchased with funds donated by Greg Latremoille, 2014; 2014/6; © Christi Belcourt


Titled Hearts of Our People: Native American Women Artists, the show, which opened at MIA on June 2, 2019, includes contemporary works such as Santa Clara Pueblo artist Rose B. Simpson’s Maria, a customized 1984 Chevrolet El Camino; Romanesque 19th-century sculpture by Edmonia Lewis; and ancient pottery by the Hohokam and Mimbres tribes. “No one other than the individual who comes from the community that’s created these works can speak to it,” says Greeves, citing the importance of the Native Exhibition Advisory Board (a panel of 21 Native and non-Native female artists and scholars) in selecting the works on view. The final assemblage was organized into three overarching themes that connect each object: relationships, power, and legacy.



custom painted 1985 El Camino, black on black, with cloudy sky background
Maria, 2014. 1985 Chevy El Camino. Bodywork and customization by artist. Designs inspired by traditional Tewa black on black pottery, named after Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo. Photographed by Kate Russell.



“When you see a dress made for a young woman, you’re seeing four deer taken by her uncle, tanned by her aunt, and beaded by her mother,” Greeves continues. “She wore it understanding her relationship to the deer sacrificed for her, the trade routes that brought her the beads, and the love of her family.” While the show reaches across time, media, and Native communities, it’s by no means a definitive study of Native American women’s art. “It’s the first step toward a conversation around Native art we hope will continue in art institutes,” Greeves says. “This is barely the tip of the iceberg.”

Hearts of Our People: Native American Women Artists; Dorothy Grant with Robert Davidson, Hummingbird Dress, 1989, Wool
Dorothy Grant with Robert Davidson, Hummingbird Dress, 1989, Wool, Denver Art Museum Collection: Native Arts acquisition fund, 2010.490 Photograph © Denver Art Museum, ©1989 Dorothy Grant and Robert Davidson.


Hearts of Our People: Native American Women Artists; Ramona Sakiestewa, Hopi, “Nebula 23,” (diptych), 2009, Tapestry, wool warp and dyed wool weft
Ramona Sakiestewa, Hopi, Nebula 23, (diptych), 2009, Tapestry, wool warp and dyed wool weft. Collection of Carl and Marilynn Thomas, © 2009 Ramona L. Sakiestewa Image: Courtesy of Tai Modern Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.


Hearts of Our People: Native American Women Artists; Nez Perce artist, Bag, 1900s. Corn husk, yarn, rawhide, wool. Denver Art Museum Collection: Gift of Dr. Charles J. Norton, 1986.261 Photograph © Denver Art Museum
Nez Perce artist, Bag, 1900s. Corn husk, yarn, rawhide, wool. Denver Art Museum Collection: Gift of Dr. Charles J. Norton, 1986.261 Photograph © Denver Art Museum.

Hearts of Our People: Native American Women Artists; Jamie Okuma, Luiseno/Shoshone-Bannock, “Adaption II,” 2012. Shoes designed by Christian Louboutin. Leather, glass beads, porcupine quills, sterling silver cones, brass sequins, chicken feathers, cloth, deer rawhide, buckskin, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Bequest of Virginia Doneghy, by exchange 2012. 68.1 A, B, © 2012 Jamie Okuma.
Jamie Okuma, Luiseno/Shoshone-Bannock, Adaption II, 2012. Shoes designed by Christian Louboutin. Leather, glass beads, porcupine quills, sterling silver cones, brass sequins, chicken feathers, cloth, deer rawhide, buckskin, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Bequest of Virginia Doneghy, by exchange 2012. 68.1 A, B, © 2012 Jamie Okuma.


Hearts of Our People: Native American Women Artists; Cherish Parrish, Gun Lake Band of Pottawatami, “The Next Generation—Carriers of Culture,” 2018; black ash and sweet grass.
Cherish Parrish, Gun Lake Band of Pottawatami, The Next Generation—Carriers of Culture, 2018; black ash and sweet grass



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