Exhibiting the Colonized: Modern America’s Erasure of Contemporary Native American Art

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Native American art? If you’re anything like the majority of non-Native Americans, a vague jumble of pottery, baskets, and blankets probably sums up all you know about Native art. But what about prints, photographs, paintings, and all the other forms contemporary art can take? Native artists have been creating incredible, inventive contemporary art for decades, but most Americans have no clue.

Here’s a piece of contemporary art you’ve probably never seen before: “Animals out of Darkness,” a 1961 print made by Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak and displayed in “Decolonizing the Exhibition,” a show of modern Inuit art hosted by the Frances Lehman Loeb Gallery at Vassar College.

The reasons for this knowledge gap, said the artists, collectors, and curators on the panel Decolonizing the Exhibition: Four Perspectives on Indigenous Visual Culture in the Museum Space, are numerous. First off, very few museums exhibit contemporary Native art. Some own contemporary pieces but never let them out of storage, while others display only decades-old examples of “traditional crafts” that are often viewed from an ethnographic perspective—that is, not as works of art, but rather artifacts that provide information about the life ways of Native peoples.

For example, a look through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website revealed a single gallery containing the “art of Native North America,” part of a larger collection entitled “Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.” The most recent pieces in that gallery are “1970s-era tobacco bags.” By contrast, the American Wing has 73 galleries, while the Modern and Contemporary Art collection hosts over 12,000 works by a wide range of international artists dating from 1900 to the present. Although it would have been impossible to look through the combined 29,000 pieces in these two collections, the fact that the gallery of Native art is separate from both the American and the modern collections suggests that few to none of the works in the two latter collections are by Native artists.

The gallery of Native North American “artifacts” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In addition to this museum conundrum, the panelists pointed out that Native Art is rarely studied or discussed in academia. Sarah Sense, a Native artist with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art, said that she had never taken a course in Native art and had rarely seen any examples of it during her time in art school. Similarly, Pilar Jefferson, an art history major at Vassar, said that she had never discussed Native art in the classroom.

This erasure of contemporary Native artists has a range of negative consequences. By only exhibiting works that are generally over a century old, museums reinforce the Eurocentric narrative that Native Americans all died off or simply vanished after the arrival of European settlers. And by displaying Native art as ethnographic artifacts or traditional handicrafts, museums negate Native artists’ creativity and ability to respond to the modern world.

“Red Raven, Red Raven,” a screen print made by Tom Greyeyes, a contemporary Navajo artist, in response to Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto in the recent film adaptation of “The Lone Ranger.” This is one of many examples of Native artists critiquing the portrayal of Native Americans in popular media.

From both the panel and the exhibition of contemporary Inuit art in the Loeb Gallery, it quickly became clear that contemporary Native art is not only real but thriving, addressing everything from the incorporation of modern technology into traditional life ways to the portrayal of Native Americans in the media. Contemporary Native American pieces are not crafts or artifacts; they’re works of art.


To see more contemporary Native American art, check out the following links:

Tom Greyeyes’ blog

Sarah Sense’s website

The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts



Image 1: http://fllac.vassar.edu/exhibitions/2013-2014/decolonizing-the-exhibition.html

Image 2: http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/galleries/africa-oceania-and-the-americas/356

Image 3: http://greyeyesart.tumblr.com/post/40572705158/painting-yourself-red-still-wont-make-you-a-red#notes

The Metropolitan Museum of Art website

So You Want to Be an Archaeologist?

Popular media has taught us that anyone can be an archaeologist. It’s easy, right? All you need is a shovel, a couple buckets, and maybe a cool whip to fight off some Nazis, and you’re all set to discover some nifty caves and make a ton of money off golden idols! Right?

Time for an archaeological dig!

Well, not so fast. What Indiana Jones doesn’t show us are the years of study, fieldwork, and tedious lab work that go into archaeological study. And it definitely doesn’t show that if you want to be a respected archaeologist, you need to join a professional archaeological society and agree to abide by its standards of ethics.

That’s ridiculous, you say; the archaeological record is available to everyone and shouldn’t be restricted to a bunch of snooty professionals. I should be able to dig up whatever I please, you say, because history belongs to everyone!

Thing is, that’s not really true. There are a number of groups with specific cultural ownership of archaeological remains, and archaeologists have to respect that ownership and act accordingly.

First and foremost, the descendants of the group or culture being studied have a right to their history. This means a number of things for archaeologists. Firstly, graves should not be excavated without the permission of the descendant community, no matter how much information could be gained from the excavation. The pillaging of sacred Native American graves by white North American archaeologists in the past caused a great deal of backlash, resulting in legislation like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990. This also means that archaeologists need to maintain open and respectful communication with the descendant communities that they are working with, when both planning an archaeological project and interpreting its results.

Don’t be this guy. Bald eagles will get really mad at you.

Apart from descendant communities, the public has a right to the archaeological record. You can’t just dig stuff up, put it on a shelf, and not tell anyone about it; you could be hiding away new information that might change the way history is taught or help us think about some of the challenges facing the modern world. In its Principles of Archaeological Ethics, the Society for American Archaeology lists just a few of the possible audiences for archaeology, which include students, politicians, journalists, and many more. Archaeology should be a tool to promote learning and come to new understandings about the past and the present, not just to add to your collection.

Whoever put together this arrowhead collection was not complying with archaeological standards of ethics. These are artifacts, not wall décor!

Finally, future archaeologists have a right to the archaeological record, too. That’s why stewardship is the first principle in the SAA’s list; archaeologists are obligated to preserve sites so that future archaeologists with better technology and different perspectives can also learn from them.

So the next time you’re tempted to start digging for treasure, remember that the archaeological record doesn’t just belong to you, and put that shovel away.


Further Reading:

On NAGPRA: http://www.nps.gov/nagpra/

On the Society for American Archaeology’s ethical standards: http://www.saa.org/AbouttheSociety/PrinciplesofArchaeologicalEthics/tabid/203/Default.aspx


Ashmore, Wendy and Robert J. Sharer. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. New York: McGraw- Hill, 2012. Print.

National NAGPRA. National Park Service, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <http://www.nps.gov/nagpra/>.

“Principles of Archaeological Ethics.” Society for American Archaeology. SAA, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <http://www.saa.org/Default.aspx?TabId=203>.

Sabloff, Jeremy A. Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology in the Modern World. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc. 2008. Print. 

Image 1: http://static.ddmcdn.com/gif/archaeology-2.jpg

Image 2: http://publications.newberry.org/indiansofthemidwest/wp-content/gallery/nagpra151/research.jpg

Image 3: http://media.liveauctiongroup.net/i/8093/9734883_1.jpg?v=8CD0610F92B8410  

No Shovels Required: What the Surface Can Tell Us About the Past

When you think about archaeology, what immediately comes to mind? I’ll take one guess: digging. It seems obvious, right? If you want to learn about the past, you have to look at old stuff, and if you want to look at old stuff, you have to dig it up. Excavation is the best possible way to uncover history, right?

Not necessarily. All it took was one short fieldwork expedition to show me that you can learn an incredible amount about a site’s past without ever putting a shovel in the ground. In fact, you can discover a whole lot by just walking around.

Let’s take, for example, an out-of-the-way spot in upstate New York called Acorn Hill. Located just a few minutes’ drive away from the Ashokan Reservoir in the Catskill Mountains, this inconspicuous site contains a wealth of archaeological information.

 The Ashokan Reservoir in upstate New York, where I did my fieldwork.

Although the entire area is now forest, a well-trained eye can tell that parts of it were once used as farmland. How, you might ask? Well, the most obvious clues are the stone walls. Even a short walk in the woods will reveal a number of stone walls snaking through the trees. Although these walls have crumbled and fallen over the years, they can still tell us a lot about the ways that the land was used. Some, for example, have been blackened by smoke and soot, suggesting that they were once part of a house that had a chimney.

Sometimes the very stones in the walls can provide information. If the stones are large and piled together somewhat haphazardly, they were probably pulled out of the ground when a nearby field was plowed. And if the ground on one side of the walls seems smooth, even, and less rocky, it was probably a crop field. A lack of large, old trees can also suggest where fields once were.

This photo illustrates this pretty well. See how the ground on the far side of the wall is lumpier, rockier, and has bigger trees, while the ground closest to the camera is flatter and has fewer rocks and smaller trees? That flatter ground was probably a field.

That brings me to another set of fascinating clues about a landscape’s past: trees! They might seem even less exciting than stone walls—after all, Acorn Hill is pretty much covered with trees, and they’re not even manmade—but they can tell us a whole lot about the ways that the land was used.

Aside from looking at the age of the trees, we can learn a lot from examining the types and shapes of trees that we pass. Non-native trees, such as apples and pears, suggest human influence, as do clean-cut stumps. Wide trees with lots of low branches indicate that the land was once used as a pasture. Farmers often left one or two trees in an otherwise clear-cut pasture so that the animals could get some shade. So because there weren’t lots of other trees blocking the sun, pasture trees could spread out and use their lower branches to soak in extra light that forest trees didn’t get.

A tree in a pasture vs. trees in a forest. Note the differences in shape and number of low-lying branches.

So the next time you go for a walk in the woods, take a look at the ground underfoot and the trees overhead. You might be amazed by what you discover.


Image 1: http://www.northeastcycling.com/catskills_tour_files/ashokan_res_L.JPG

Image 2: http://rockpiles.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2009-11-05T06:17:00-05:00&max-results=20&start=20&by-date=false

Image 3: http://imgc.allpostersimages.com/images/P-473-488-90/61/6157/HPXG100Z/posters/frank-lukasseck-lime-tree-and-dandelion-in-pasture.jpg

Image 4: http://www.wallsave.com/wallpapers/1209×806/sunset-trees/416669/sunset-trees-forest-all-wonderfull-416669.jpg