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The scope of The Land Carries Our Ancestors has always been epic. How do you curate an exhibition about contemporary Native art in the United States? 

There are close to 600 tribes in this country alone, and every nation and culture is unique. 

Curator Jaune Quick-to-See Smith wants to highlight that exact point—the vastness and diversity of Native artists working today. She intentionally chose works by artists from a variety of regions, ages, genders, and mediums. 

We, as Native people, are not monoliths. We do, however, all share a connection to the land. 

In recent years I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Jaune and to listen to her perspective. I’ve long admired her work and especially her activist voice. Jaune’s contribution to the growing field of scholarship about Native art and art history cannot be denied, and I know she sees more work needs to be done. An active artist herself, she still dedicates much of her time and resources to adding to Native scholarship. I have witnessed Jaune’s desire to both correct and continue the conversation. The Land Carries Our Ancestors is one step in achieving that goal.

Artist and curator Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

As Jaune and I talked about this exhibition, we recognized that in many ways, landscape is an extremely useful entrée to the Native worldview. Land and place are tied to all things. History, making, ceremony, cooking, and gathering are all associated with place. For Jaune, the color blue, symbols and glyphs, animals, and the use of natural materials in art are all indicators of landscape. 

We also came to discern threads that weave their way throughout the exhibition. The connection to land, the trauma we have all experienced, and the humor we use as a tool all point toward hope and perseverance in the face of danger. Our very existence illustrates that truth. These recurring themes must be reconciled with our complex and often misunderstood Native identity and with our role and responsibility to our communities and this land. It is impossible and a mistake—to attempt to put each work into any one category. These works flow easily between themes. 

Native people also share the disruption that occurred after the European invasion. How do we remove colonized insertions into our communities that don’t align with who we are? How do we rediscover elements of our cultures that were systematically removed? And how do we create protocols and identity that accurately define who we are today? 

This work is done individually but for the whole. We have a word for this in Cherokee: ᎦᏚᎽ (Gadugi). The art that Jaune selected underscores how these artists bring their worldviews to their work—and offer it up to us as a gift. It’s vulnerable and powerful and beautiful.

The World Is a Sacred Place

Everything we do is tied to the land. As Jaune explains, “A sacred place is everything around us, from the land to the sky, in all four, all six directions: the cardinal directions, up and down.” 

In some tribes, we expand the sacred space to include center—seven directions—to mark where we are in relation to the land. The works in this exhibition do not necessarily fit into the mainstream European definition of landscape, with a horizon line and a blue sky.

“When I’m thinking about landscape, I’m thinking about the Native American holistic approach to landscape,” Jaune says. “Often in Native art you see a whole complex. There’s no sky, there’s no horizon line.”

Jaune and I discussed an unexpected example of a landscape: Kiowa Ah-Day, sneakers that Teri Greeves (Kiowa) beaded with dancers. “When I look at these shoes,” Jaune shares, “I think about people walking on the land. There are people dancing on the sides. You do a stomp dance, you do a grass dance. Everywhere we go on this land, we know it carries the dust of our ancestors. We know we come from that dust and will come back to it.” 

These shoes are a landscape because they depict the sacredness of dancing on the land. They celebrate both our world and Greeves as a mother thinking about her children leading their people into the future.

Warnings, Dystopian Views, and Humor

On the reservation in Montana where Jaune grew up, as elsewhere across the United States, treaties and negotiations, most significantly the Dawes Act of 1887, have resulted in a checkerboard pattern of land ownership. Where her tribe was once able to utilize the resources that the land provided, fence posts now mark private property. Landowners paint their fence posts orange, and if you cross a boundary, Jaune asserts, “you will be shot.” These fence posts represent dishonest dealings, the withholding of resources, and a type of individual ownership that is not part of the Native worldview. They signal danger. 

Such warning signs appear in numerous works here. The heavy machinery and coyote in Chris Pappan’s (Kanza/Lakota) Atom Heart Mother (Earth). The tanks in John Hitchcock’s (Comanche/Kiowa/European descent) Impact vs. Influence. The men wearing gas masks in Will Wilson’s (Diné) Auto-Immune Response no. 2 are similar to orange fence posts. They tell us to be watchful of present dangers and dystopian futures.

Jaune was talking about Diego Romero’s (Pueblo of Cochiti) Girl in the Anthropocene as we debated this concept over a video call with her son, Neal Ambrose-Smith, during a loud thunderstorm at my home. We discussed motherhood and the physical landscape in the work, which depicts a mother hanging laundry while her daughter looks on. Smokestacks loom in the background. As Jaune was searching for a word to describe the print, Neal said, “foreboding.” “It’s dystopian,” he continued, and we agreed.

What does this dystopian view mean in Native America? For us as Native people, Jaune observes, the hand we have been dealt means our cup is only half full. Humor and beauty make life survivable. 

Take Edward Curtis, Paparazzi: Chicken Hawks as an example. The late Jim Denomie (Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe, Ajijaak Clan) pokes fun at the ethnologist Edward Curtis and his efforts to photograph Native Americans. Denomie also adds hints of commercialism encroaching on the West, such as a Kentucky Fried Chicken sign on a covered wagon. Is his painting funny? Yes. Is it dystopian? Yes. Can it be both? Absolutely. 

These works help us, as Native people who have been saying these things for years, to laugh at how damn blunt we apparently need to be. This is Native art. This is Native land. This is a Native landscape.


Land, Sky, and Water

Jaune sees connections between landscapes and our sacred world. For Native people, land, sky, and water are landscapes to be respected. She explains, “It doesn’t matter where the landscape is located, water provides the life.” In his series of lithographs inspired by the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, Duwawisioma (Hopi Tribe), also known as Victor Masayesva Jr., honors the waters and the rains that refresh the land. 

Jaune is also quick to point out that polluted water, like that found at Standing Rock, may mean the difference between life and death. One of Cannupa Hanska Luger’s (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara/Lakota) most iconic works came from his time at Standing Rock. Mirror Shield Project is a powerful call to action. Luger says, “Whether working with institutions, communities, or the land itself, my work is inherently social and requires engagement.” Connection to the land and each other is essential to his work.

Through the land we also feel a connection to feminine power and matrilineal ancestry. The protective essence of the land emerges in Nicholas Galanin (Lingít/Unangax̂ ) and Merritt Johnson’s (unaffiliated) Creation with her Children, which is actually made from the land, with a head carved from wood. 

Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), Indian Canyon, 2019, archival pigment print, Courtesy of the artist. © Cara Romero

Indian Canyon, Cara Romero’s (Chemehuevi) photograph of a sacred landscape in Southern California, emphasizes the connection of our children with our ancestral lands. Romero describes the young Chemehuevi as a “time-traveling apparition” who is inseparable from the landscape and from those who came before us. We walk where our ancestors walked. 

How are we connected? How do we heed the warnings all around us? For Jeffrey Gibson (Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians/Cherokee Nation), who created the beaded punching bag TO FEEL MYSELF BELOVED ON THE EARTH, our connection to land extends to our health. He explains that we should see the elements of our natural environment as “our equal ancestors, living relatives, and as extensions of our own minds and bodies.”


Hózhó: Walk in Beauty

It may sound simple, but it’s worth noting: there is beauty through each of these works. The concept of beauty in the world around us is a Diné concept that resonates through all the work in the exhibition. And even when we see a balance of beauty with warning and heartbreak, it exists together and in tension. Both can be true. 

The reality that many Indigenous people continue to live under the weight and betrayal of the settler-colonizer nation-state underlies the lithograph No Place Like Hózhó by Demian DinéYazhi' (Diné), who contemplates Indigenous issues of detachment and longing as well as the importance of ancestral lands. In what DinéYazhi ́ describes as “a hopeful and regenerative reminder of the power of Indigenous resilience,” six traditional hogans encircle the word hózhó and emphasize its spiritual concept of beauty before us, beauty behind us, beauty around us.

Demian DinéYazhi' (Diné), No Place Like Hózhó, 2017, six-color lithograph, Crow's Shadow Institute of the Arts. © 2017 Demian DinéYazhi'. Photo by Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts

Brenda Mallory’s (Cherokee Nation) works of “repeated rhythmic forms,” such as The Plural of Nexus, are familiar to me. Mallory proposed a residency for several women Cherokee artists in western North Carolina, our original homelands. Most of these women do not currently live on our ancestral homeland. Brenda, a Cherokee Nation citizen, lives in Oregon. Her ancestors were forcibly removed to Oklahoma in 1838. 

I visited the artists in residence with Dakota Brown (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians), the director of education at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Dakota observed, “Those forms look like river cane.” Until spending time on that land, Brenda hadn’t realized how much river cane—a traditional material Cherokee people have used for centuries—had influenced her linear, repeating works. When I showed a photo of The Plural of Nexus to Dakota, we were all moved by the innate ancestral message Brenda Mallory was carrying inside her. 

Connecting to the land is the key to unlocking the ancestral knowledge and I would argue, to assisting humankind to reconnect to our planet. 

Jaune has spent decades sounding the alarm and holding us accountable in her work and her writing and her speaking. Her choices for each of these works are intentional. Together, they illustrate the intense power and beauty of land, the danger to it and therefore ourselves, and our unwavering hope that lies in that interconnected love.


Header image: Will Wilson (Diné), Auto-Immune Response no. 2, 2004, archival pigment print (digital carbon) on archival paper, courtesy of the artist

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Shana Bushyhead Condill (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians)

Shana is the executive director of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina. She previously worked at the National Gallery.

September 05, 2023