Essay

Hearts of Our People

A pink and blue Osage Wedding Coat lined with images of historic moments. A woven green and copper egg made from the fibres of a threatened tree. These are just a few pieces of art featured in a new exhibit dedicated to celebrating the individual talents and cultures of Native American women.

Historically, museums have presented pieces of Native American art as unknown examples of cultures, when the artworks were created by female artists from any number of different Nations-but now these artists are finally getting their time to shine.

“Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” spans more than a thousand years of Indigenous women’s art, displaying the work of 115 artists from more than 50 Native nations across the United States and Canada. Important themes resonate through artwork that illustrates the traditions of Native cultures along with Native women artists’ responses to the changing world.

The 82 works represent a multiplicity of media, such as textiles, beadwork, and sculpture and each piece tell a story of the creative forces-the mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters-behind Native American art. What’s more, the exhibit provides a long-overdue space for representing and acknowledging individual Native cultures.

To bring the Native women artists’ cultures to the forefront, descriptions of the pieces are written in both English and each artist’s Native language. To further illuminate their identities and life experiences, many of the pieces are accompanied by videos of interviews with the artists.

“It was really important for us to non-anonymize these women, to tell the story about their complex lives,” said Jill Ahlberg Yohe, one of the two organizers of the exhibition. “In many ways, some of these women were not master artists, but they were diplomats, entrepreneurs, and formidable women.” Here’s a closer look at two of the Native women artists.

Ramona Sakiestewa knew she wanted to be an artist when she was 7 years old. “Drawing and making things was my way of creating order and having a purpose,” Sakiestewa said. She taught herself how to weave in the double-sided style of her Hopi culture. Her weaving skills transformed into a successful business, and her leadership skills advanced into directing state and regional Native American arts councils that support Native artists.

Her bright, multilayered tapestries in the travelling exhibit were inspired by images from the Hubble Space Telescope. “I’m very interested in deep space: the cosmos and stars, because that’s a scientific vocabulary that Indigenous people in the Americas have had,” she explained.

Reflected throughout “Hearts of Our People” are real stories of devastation, hardship, and resilience. For example, Ottawa and Pottawatomi artist Kelly Church is motivated by the disaster of the emerald ash borer, a green beetle whose larvae have killed millions of ash trees in North America. Weaving ash wood into baskets is one of her Nation’s oldest traditions, and the beetle threatens it.

For her artwork, Church wove ash wood and copper into a green egg with a surprise inside-a USB flash drive. The drive contains all the knowledge needed to teach others the ash weaving traditions of her Nation. “I was looking ahead to the future. If we lose all of our ash resources, we lose the tradition that we’ve held onto for so long,” Church said.

These stories provide a glimpse into the vast array of Native women artists celebrated in “Hearts of Our People.” Organizers hope the exhibit inspires more significant shows that include both historic and contemporary Native art, creating lasting platforms that allow Native women to speak for themselves and share their Nations’ knowledge. Osage artist Anita Fields, whose art is also featured in the exhibit, calls this the “continuum of knowledge”-the passing on from one generation to the next.

“The continuum keeps our culture[s] moving,” Fields said. “The makers and the creators are keeping things alive.”

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