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Casey Camp Horinek, Citizen of Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, “Zhutni,” Tribal Councilwoman, Leader of Scalp Dance Society, Sundancer, Delegate to UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Matriarch of Wonderful Family (Grandmother, Companion, Mother, Sister), Defender of Mother Earth, 2016. Archival pigment print from wet-plate collodion scan by Will Wilson (Diné [Navajo]) Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library )
Untitled, 1883, ink on paper by Johnny Kit Elswa (Haida). Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library )
Sea Monster Mask, 1999, red cedar with pigment and metal by Richard Hunt (Kwakwaka’wakw) Courtesy of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History )
Untitled, 2017, maple with quahog shell by Justin Scott (Mohegan) Courtesy of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History )
Our Lands Are Not Lines on Paper, 2012, Arches watercolor paper splints with archival inks and acrylic by Shan Goshorn (Eastern Band of Cherokee) Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery )
Indifferent, 2017, acrylic, ink, graphite, and collage on Lokta paper by Julie Buffalohead (Ponca) Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery )
Deer in a Forest, ca. 1930–40. Gouache on paperboard by Pop Chalee (Merina Lujan; Taos Pueblo) Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library )
Coiled Basket Tray, 1932, deer grass and sumac attributed to Pablino Lubo (Cahuilla) Courtesy of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History )
Storage Jar, ca. late 19th century, earthenware with pigment by Arroh-a-och (Laguna Pueblo) Courtesy of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History )
Cradle, ca. 1880–1900, deerskin, glass beads, and wood with brass, by an artist once known (Lakota) Courtesy of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History )
Pot, ca. 1920–25, earthenware by Maria Martinez (P’ohwhóge Owingeh [San Ildefonso Pueblo]) Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery )
Moccasins, ca. early- to mid-20th century, moose hide, glass beads, and fur by an artist once known (Dené) Courtesy of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History )
Vest, ca. late 19th century, hide (possibly deer), porcupine quills, linen, and velvet by an artist once known (Dakota) Courtesy of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History )
Aazhooningwa’on (Bandolier Bag), ca. early 20th century, wool, glass beads, and cotton by an artist once known (Anishinaabe) Courtesy of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History )
First Teachers Balance the Universe, Part I: Things That Fly (Predator) and First Teachers Balance the Universe, Part II: Things That Fly (Prey), 2015. Reclaimed wool blankets, embroidery floss, and thread by Marie Watt (Seneca) (Photo by Aaron Johansonet courtesy of Marie Watt Studio )
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Just a few weeks ago, Katherine Nova McCleary saw three years of work and a lifetime of experience culminate in Yale University Art Gallery’s first major exhibition of indigenous North American art.
The exhibit includes an earthernware storage jar made by Laguna Pueblo artist Arroh-a-och, a coiled basket made of deer grass and sumac attributed to Cahuilla artist Pablino Lubo, archival pigment prints by Diné (Navajo) photographer Will Wilson; a sea monster mask made of red cedar with pigment and metal by Kwakwaka’wakw artist Richard Hunt, and an acrylic, ink, graphite, and collage on Lokta paper titled Indifferent, made by Ponca artist Julie Buffalohead, among many other works of art..
McCleary watched as the artworks, representing more than 40 indigenous nations, took their rightful places among the other treasures in the gallery.
“It’s really amazing to see the objects with adequate lighting and enough space to breath. These objects, 99 percent of them have never been on view in an exhibition like this before. Before this, most of them were only really seen in dark collection spaces that were cramped,” she says. “It is just awesome to see them in this space, in all their glory.”
McCleary, who is Little Shell Chippewa-Cree and who graduated from Yale in 2018, curated the exhibit with fellow 2018 graduate Leah Tamar Shrestinian and Joseph Zordan, who is Bad River and Red Cliff Ojibwe who will graduate this year. Much of the work they chose for the exhibit, titled Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art, was collected between 1870 and 1930.
That being the case, why is it only now that this exhibit is being offered to the public?
“I think we...” McCleary starts. She pauses, then starts again. “I’m not sure. For years, indigenous students and staff at Yale have been saying, ‘Where is the indigenous art in the gallery? Why is it only represented in natural history museums?’ We need to be represented, not only in the natural history museum, but also multiple places on campus. We’ve been saying that for years.”
So, when did that change?
“In the fall of 2015, which, as my generation of students say, all stories start,” she says, giving a little laugh.
Safe and Thoughtful? Or Censure and Prohibition?
In fall 2015, a group of Yale administrators representing a variety of committees and offices drafted and then sent out a letter offering students guidance about Halloween costumes. Students were advised to avoid blackface, turbans, and mock Native American headdresses. Students were encouraged to be “safe and thoughtful.”
Then came another email from a faculty member and administrator who wondered if the guidance was misguided, making the university feel like a place of “censure and prohibition.”
The conversation, fueled by outrage, turned into protests.
Open letters of condemnation.
There was a heated, expletive-laden confrontation captured on video that went viral.
A racially charged debate? At Yale?
There was international news coverage
Some students spoke out, explaining they had been welcomed to Yale. They expected to be treated with respect for their hard-earned accomplishments upon their arrival. Instead, they soon felt marginalized and exhausted from life there, including having to explain—again and again—why things like blackface and mock headdresses were reductive, crude, and offensive. In addition to their demanding school and, in some cases, work, schedules, they were charged with educating their fellow classmates, staff, and faculty how to be culturally aware and sensitive.
Again. And again. And again.
After the international news coverage moved on, the underlying issues remained a topic of discussion at Yale, one that, in some cases, moved toward solutions and common ground around the idea of respect. There was advocacy for more accurate representation in the curriculum, for more indigenous professors, for recognition of ethnic studies as a department, for recognition that Yale itself was built on land once inhabited by the Quinnipiacs, who made their home along the shore from Milford to Madison and were later moved onto reservations from East Haven to Madison, among other locations.
In October of this year, Yale’s Office of the Secretary and Vice President of Student Life released a statement that tiptoed towards some sort of recognition of the Quinnipiacs, saying “that indigenous peoples and nations...have stewarded through generations the lands and waterways of what is now the state of Connecticut.”
McCleary and her co-curators, as Halloween came and went this year, got ready to stage their exhibition.
‘We Knew We had to Do Better’
“So all of these conversations and these protests sort of spurred the gallery and the Peabody [Museum of Natural History] to think more critically about how we were presenting works by artists of color,” McCleary says.
What they found is that the works of indigenous artists, when presented, were often characterized as primitive and were offered without the name of the artist specified. An internship was created to examine and address the issues identified.
Through that internship, McCleary and Shrestinian were hired, allowing them to work with the gallery and the Peabody about how better to collect and present the work of indigenous artists. After a huge meeting, the two women were offered the opportunity to curate an exhibit. Zordan later joined the team of curators.
“We knew we had to do better,” McCleary says.
So, if the 2015 protests showed Yale, New Haven, and the rest of the world how indigenous students and their families and nations did not want to be represented, the new exhibit is a thoughtful example of how they do.
The curators are careful to distinguish between tribes and nations, rather than lumping them all together. They consulted with and gave homage to Connecticut tribes, making sure they were included in the exhibit on their own terms. For works where the names of artists had not been recorded or had been lost, the curators use the term “Artist Once Known,” rather than “unknown,” reflecting the idea that these artists were once known to and revered by their communities and, also, reflecting the hope that perhaps their names will once again become known to the world, as more people see these works and connect with them.
The exhibit showcases respect for these works, the people who made them, and their nations. It also, quite simply, showcases beautiful works of art.
The exhibit includes a Lakota cradle by an artist once known, made in about 1880 to 1900 of deerskin, glass beads, wood, and brass. It is at once delicate, ornate, sturdy, and useful. It could have been used with the baby lying down or propped up. McCleary says the cradle speaks to the idea that, particularly after having been pushed off their lands, family bonds served as the basis for indigenous sovereignty.
“The cradle represents that bond, from the mother or aunt to the future child. With the Lakota cradle, we talk not only about the worth that the aunt or maybe the grandmother has put in the object, but also the passing of knowledge through an object like a cradle. The Lakota artist designed it so the mother could prop it up, so the child could watch what the mother is doing. Still, today, in Lakota culture there is that process of engaging the child.”
McCleary points to a photo from The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, taken by Diné Navajo photographer Will Wilson of a woman, titled “Casey Camp Horinek, Citizen Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, “Zhutni,” Tribal Councilwoman, Leader of Scalp Dance Society, Sundancer, Delegate to UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Matriarch of Wonderful Family (Grandmother, Companion, Mother, Sister), Defender of Mother Earth.” Wilson’s subjects wrote their own labels.
“The photographer allows folks to choose how want to dress and pose, and enabled them to write their own caption,” McCleary says.
Also on display is a I-hya Talu-tsa River Cane Basket by Peggy Scott Vann (Margaret Ann Crutchfield), a Cherokee, likely made between 1810 and 1815. The baskets, which languished in a closet in a historical society for decades, are remarkable in part for being made of river cane.
“Post removal, artists who were relocated didn’t have as much access to river cane because they were in new environments farther west,” says exhibit curator Shrestinian. “For people who stayed in their homelands, river cane also became more scarce because of settler encroachment and unsustainable practices settlers introduced to the land. It was easier for artists to harvest white oak to make baskets. Cherokee artists did work with white oak before removal, but it became a more prevalent practice after...Artists still went to great lengths to harvest river cane and today there are revitalization projects run by organizations in southeast indigenous nations to help the plant flourish again.”
Shrestinian took part in the internship in her sophomore year with McCleary that planted the seeds for this exhibit. “because I was interested in understanding and correcting imbalances in representation on campus,” she says.
While working on the exhibit, she says she learned the importance of paying attention to whose land you are on.
“Wherever you are in the United States and in North America more broadly, you are on indigenous land and there are local contemporary indigenous nations that you can be supporting,” she says.
She also learned a lot about the nation-to-nation relationships indigenous nations have with settler states like the United States and Canada. These relationships, like the nations themselves, are not like cookies cut from the same cutter.
“Indigenous nations are sovereign nations with their own citizens, methods of governance, and rules of law. It’s important for non-indigenous people to respect and uphold indigenous sovereignty, and it’s exciting to see how indigenous artists express sovereignty in their work,” she says.
Lives of Their Own
Zordan, who is Bad River and Red Cliff Ojibwe, says that in Nishnaabemowin, the language for the Ojibwe, there is a division in nouns that distinguish whether an object is animate or inanimate.
“The nouns that are animate are much wider than what one would traditionally think of as animate within English. Certain rocks, objects, waterways, are seen as animate living things. It’s been interesting seeing how this concept of an expanded vocabulary of animacy, one that was once mocked and derided as primitive, has begun to be adopted within certain branches of the academy. So many works of art have lives of their own, and affect us in ways far beyond what their maker intended.”
He says the exhibit included multiple community consultations with Connecticut’s Mohegan nation leaders including Chief Many Hearts Lynn Malerba, Chairman John Roberge, and Medicine Woman and Tribal Historian Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel.
“It was an honor to learn more about Algonquian relatives from such knowledgeable and generous people, and also how to best move forward within our own curation process in a way that was respectful and sensitive to how they wanted to be represented, seen, and included,” he says.
He also learned how many different forms sovereignty can take for indigenous people, from scholars such as Joanne Barker and Jolene Rickard.
“When we look to sovereignty beyond the legal and into things such as visual sovereignty, embodied sovereignty...There is a sense of how deep conceptions of nationhood are,” he says.
McCleary says she hopes “our non-indigenous audiences will leave the exhibition with a desire to learn more about whose land they live on and think critically about their assumptions of indigenous people and art. I hope our indigenous audiences will feel heard and accurately represented in the exhibition. And I hope indigenous students at Yale will leave feeling inspired to research the existing collections of indigenous art and get involved in curatorial work.”
Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art will be on view through June 21 at the Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street, New Haven. The gallery, free and open to the public, is closed Mondays and major holidays. For more information about related programs visit artgallery.yale.edu.
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