Landmark exhibition 'Hearts of Our People' showcases the female power behind most Native artwork

Rose B. Simpson (Santa Clara Pueblo), 'Maria,' 2014

Rose B. Simpson (Santa Clara Pueblo), 'Maria,' 2014 Photo by Kate Russell

Selling art at her mother’s trading post on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, Teri Greeves came to recognize Native artists as primarily women.

While that conclusion is widely accepted in Native communities, most literature and exhibitions on Native art have historically overlooked this, as well as the distinct identities of the artists. Instead of interviewing contemporary makers, white male anthropologists chose to talk mostly to Native men, and often credited works to entire cultures, like Navajo or Dakota, instead of the individuals.

“Those old white anthropologists didn’t even talk to their own women. They weren’t about to talk to our women,” says Greeves.

Unlike Greeves, who grew up around formidable Native women artists, it took Jill Ahlberg Yohe, associate curator of Native American Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, years of research to identify the massive disconnect between Native art and the western presentation of it. After she did, she started talking about correcting the narrative and, in 2013, she asked Greeves to co-curate a show about Native women artists.

That night, Greeves lay awake with the realization that she could not possibly speak for Native women of all communities. To bring in those perspectives and distribute power more evenly, Greeves and Ahlberg Yohe created an advisory board of 21 people, made up mostly of Native women artists and scholars.

The end product, “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists,” opens this Sunday at Mia. The board has spent the past four years deeply involved in the creative process.

“I feel like I’m having my third baby but I’ve been pregnant for four years rather than nine months,” Ahlberg Yohe says.

One of the three exhibition themes, “legacy,” refers to the passing down of artistic knowledge and technique through the women in families. The strong pull to continue the work of female relatives is evident in Greeves’ own life; she became a beadworker like her grandmother, and is working to bring Native women’s art to the American public like her mother did at the trading post.

L-R: Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty, Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty, and Jessa Rae Growing Thunder (all Dakota/Nakoda), 'Give Away Horses (dress and accessories),' 2006. Jamie Okuma (Luiseno/Shoshone-Bannock), 'Adaption II,' 2012.

L-R: Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty, Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty, and Jessa Rae Growing Thunder (all Dakota/Nakoda), 'Give Away Horses (dress and accessories),' 2006. Jamie Okuma (Luiseno/Shoshone-Bannock), 'Adaption II,' 2012.

Through legacy, innovation is also made possible, and that pushes back on the antiquated framing of Native art. Building off of the work of their ancestors and integrating new materials, women continue to redefine what Native art looks like. For example, Native women were first introduced to beads through colonialism, but they took them and created a medium distinctly Native.

“That’s part of the genius of what these women were and are doing,” Greeves says. “It’s how they fold this world into themselves and it gets processed out into their communities as a form of identity and pride.”

“Power,” another exhibition theme, speaks to the importance of women to the communities they help uplift. Most Native communities were built on equality between the genders; it was only through a western paradigm that power was stripped from the women.

The strength of Native women artists is on full display in Rose B. Simpson’s Maria. Simpson challenges gender norms with a Chevy El Camino that she built entirely herself. The exterior references the traditional Tewa black on black pottery that artist Maria Martinez popularized. Martinez was one of the first Native women artists to achieve widespread recognition within her lifetime. The strength of Simpson’s car mirrors the power of both artists.

The third theme of the exhibition is “relationships,” but it goes beyond human interactions, encapsulating all of the spiritual ties that guide Native women artists. There is prayer, communication, and intense love that goes into Native women’s art, making it devotional by nature, both in ancient and contemporary works.

D.Y. Begay (Navajo), 'NáhookǫsjíHai (Winter in the North) / Biboon Giiwedinong (It Is Winter in the North),' 2019

D.Y. Begay (Navajo), 'NáhookǫsjíHai (Winter in the North) / Biboon Giiwedinong (It Is Winter in the North),' 2019

D.Y. Begay and Anita Fields each poured some of that love into works that were commissioned by Mia for the exhibition. Begay, an acclaimed Navajo weaver, spent a week in Grand Portage observing the winter landscape for her piece, Winter in the North/It Is Winter in the North. Despite the cold, she loved her time there, and produced a piece that breathes warmth into the frozen landscape.

Fields, a well-known Osage artist, created an Osage wedding coat with a wide variety of materials, including clay buttons, silk, wool, and feathers. The story of the wedding coat emphasizes the adaptability and innovation of Native women artists. President Thomas Jefferson gave military jackets to Osage leaders in 1804 as an act of diplomacy, but they were too small for the Native men. Instead of letting them go to waste, Osage women embellished the jackets with Native details, and wore them for special occasions. Fields’ adaptation brings this story into a contemporary light.

At times, Greeves and Ahlberg Yohe have been overwhelmed by the scope of “Hearts of Our People.” As the first thematic exhibition focused on the contributions of Native women, there is way more content available than there is space in the museum’s Target Gallery. The collection spans ancient works to the present, and features a wide range of media. Ahlberg Yohe says that getting the works down to the final 117 was “brutal.”

“You have to reframe it and you have to think this isn't comprehensive,” Ahlberg Yohe says. “This is just the beginning. This is the first of many, many shows celebrating Native women artists.”


"Hearts of Our People"
Minneapolis Institute of Art
June 2 through August 18
$20; free for Native guests (RSVP at 612-870-3000)
Click here for more information and to buy tickets.