Indigenous art. Indigenous perspectives.

First American Art Magazine’s Top Ten Native Art Events of 2019


The politics of the last year have been volatile, particularly for Indigenous peoples of Brazil, Colombia, and Bolivia. It is profoundly important that those of us with media platforms use our voices to advocate for fellow Indigenous peoples of the Americas, both to provide hope for the future when the darkness can seem overwhelming and to embody and share Indigenous worldviews for future generations.

The arts are one platform where Native people can communicate our perspectives with each other and the greater world at large. Indigenous artists shared their visions of sustainability and resilience throughout 2019, and below are ten events the writers, editors, advisors, and supporters of First American Art Magazine found most inspiring.

1. Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, Minneapolis Institute of Art

This breathtakingly beautiful traveling exhibition directly addresses genocide, warfare, displacement, and the human-caused mass extinction of species worldwide in a way that challenges the viewer but offers them examples of hope through generations of Indigenous women who have survived these horrors firsthand. These women artists, historical and living, create fearless artworks of love and generosity while they nurture upcoming generations. Co-curated by Jill Ahlberg Yohe, PhD, associate curator of Native American art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), and Teri Greeves (Kiowa), beadwork artist, Hearts of Our People was also shaped by a 21-woman advisory board comprised of Native and non-Native artists and scholars.

While Native women artists have certainly been featured in traveling exhibitions before, Hearts of Our People marks the first survey of Native women’s art. Works from Canada and the United States, coast to coast, spanning 1,000 years and embracing all media, form the ambitious exhibition. Forty-two artists and scholars contributed to a 343-page catalogue ideally suited to serve as a textbook, as well. Hearts of Our People opened at Mia and then the Frist Art Museum in Nashville in 2019; it will show at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, from February 21 through May 17, 2020, and at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from June 28 through September 20, 2020.

2. Joy Harjo Chosen as United States Poet Laureate

The most populous and second-largest country in the Americas has never had an Indigenous national poet laureate until the United States chose Joy Harjo (Muscogee) to serve as its 23rd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry (official title). A jazz saxophonist, professor, author, and painter, Harjo has published nine books of poetry as well as a children’s book, a memoir, and several plays. In an era of increasing erasure of Indigenous peoples from popular culture, Harjo sees poetry as means of finding one’s voice and told NPR that she’s driven by “justice and healing and transformation: The idea that you can … transform the images of our people from being non-human to human beings, and the ability to transform experiences that could potentially destroy a people, a family, a person to experiences that build connection and community.” She hopes her position will create “healing of people speaking to each other, with each other.”

3. Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel, National Gallery of Canada

The second exhibition in the National Gallery of Canada’s ambitious series showcasing contemporary international Indigenous art, Àbadakone includes works by 70 artists from 40 Indigenous nations across the globe. Àbadakone is an Algonquin word translating as “continuous fire,” and draws upon themes of “continuity, activation, and relatedness,” according to the curatorial statement. Greg A. Hill (Mohawk), Christine Lalonde, and Rachelle Dickenson co-curated the exhibition and consulted with Candice Hopkins (Carcross/Tagish), Ariel Smith (Cree), Carla Taunton, and an international advisory panel. Àbadakone will be on view through April 5, 2020.

4. Yamagata University’s Institute of Nasca Rediscovers 143 Nazca Geoglyphs in Peru

Japanese researchers at the Institute of Nasca at Yamagata University rediscovered 142 long-forgotten geoglyphs among the famous Nazca Lines in southern Peru. IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence system, programmed to scan satellite imagery, identified an additional geoglyph, as well. Dating from 100 BCE to 300 CE, these monumental earth artworks feature lines, fish, birds, monkeys, snakes, and even human-like figures. The largest of these spans 197 feet in length.

Nazca geoglyph

The humanoid geoglyph rediscovered by IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence. Image courtesy of Yamagata University. Used with permission.

Institute of Nasca’s Discovery

5. Indigenous Inclusion at the Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art

The longest-running survey of new American art, the Whitney Biennial featured a critical mass of Indigenous artists for the first time in 2019. Curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley co-curated this 79th edition of the Whitney Biennial that included Indigenous artists Thirza Cuthand (Plains Cree), Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk), Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Unangax), Adam Khalil (Sault Ste. Marie Ojibwe), Zach Khalil (Sault Ste. Marie Ojibwe), Caroline Monnet (Algonquin), and Jackson Polys (Tlingit), Jeffrey Gibson (Choctaw/Cherokee), Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache) and the late James Luna (Payómkawichum/Ipi, 1950–2018). Galanin was one of the first of many artists who pulled their work from the show to protest the vice-chairman of the museum’s board, Warren Kanders, who owns Safariland, a tear gas manufacturer, and Sierra Bullets. The protests resulted in Kanders resigning from the museum board.

Nicholas Galanin

Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Unangax), “White Noise, American Prayer Rug,” 2018.

6. The UNESCO Designating Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park as a World Heritage Site

Known to the Blackfoot Confederacy as Áísínai’pi, or “it is pictured/written,” Writing-on-Stone houses thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs, some dating back at least to 2250 BCE, and is the largest concentration of these rock art forms in the Northern Plains. Alberta designated the site as a provincial park in 1957, Canada named it a national historic site in 2004, and UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site in 2019. This designation will serve to protect this Blackfoot sacred site for future generations.


Unknown Blackfoot artists, Petroglyphs at Writing-on-Stone, Alberta, Canada. Photo: Matthias Süßen (CC BY-SA 3.0).

7. Laughter and Resilience: Humor in Native American Art, Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian

Humor has always carried Indigenous peoples through dark times and good. Curator Denise Neil, PhD (Delaware Tribe/Cherokee Nation), took a fresh approach to the idea of Indian Humor and examining it in all its complexity in this exhibition—including the inexplicable but enduring hold SpongeBob SquarePants has over Santa Fe Indigenous art.

Thirty-five Native artists, primarily from the Southwest, produced 61 works from broad jests to subtle jabs, divided into Whimsy, Tricksters, Satire and Parody, and Cartoons and Cartoonists. Laughter and Resilience will remain on view through October 4, 2020.

Jason Garcia

Jason Garcia (Santa Clara Tewa), “Beans Again,” mineral pigments, ceramic tile. Photo: Addison Doty.

8. When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California, Crocker Art Museum

California is home to one of the largest number of Native peoples and Native tribes in the United States, and once had more linguistic diversity than all of Europe. Even so, Indigenous Californians often feel invisible in their own lands. This ambitious traveling exhibition launched by the late Frank LaPeña (Nomtipom Wintu, 1937–2019) privileges Indigenous California perspectives while also incorporating works by Native peoples who moved to California.

The vibrant exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue, panel discussions, art market, and daylong symposium spotlighting several generations of Californian artist-activists.

Geri Montano

Geri Montano (Navajo/Comanche), “A Is for Apple; I Is NOT for Indian,” collection of the Crocker Museum. © Geri Montano.

9. Di Wae Powa: They Came Back, Poeh Cultural Center

Tewa ceramics that were collected in the 19th and 20th centuries have sat quietly, for decades, in the storage units of east coast museums and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian collections in Suitland, Maryland. It was there that the former Governor of Pojoaque Pueblo, George Rivera, and former NMAI curator, Bruce Bernstein, proposed a long-term loan to bring 100 of these clay vessels back to their home communities in an exhibition, Di Wae Powa: They Came Back, at the Poeh Cultural Center in Pojoaque. Teams from six Tewa pueblos worked for years with NMAI staff to research and plan the loan and exhibition in a powerful example of tribal-museum collaboration. The extraordinary ceramics, representing a vast range of styles and techniques, are sure to inspire new insights and new art forms in their home communities.

10. The founding of Hoċokata Ti

After 30 years of planning, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) of southern Minnesota opened the doors to its new cultural center this summer. Hoċokata Ti serves as an educational facility for visitors and a gathering place for community members. The Dakota language is used throughout the center, which also features a gift store, library, hiking trails, and botanical gardens with plants that are culturally significant to the Mdewakanton people. For visitors, a 3,805-square-foot public exhibition, Mdewakanton: Dwellers of the Spirit Lake, shares the history of the community from a Dakota perspective and features artworks on loan from the Smithsonian Institute.

Hocokata Ti

Hocokata Ti, Shapoee, Minnesota. Image courtesy of Goff Public.

Annual Top Ten Native Art Events

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