Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: Indigenous Art at the YUAG

“Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art is on view at the YUAG.

By Yilin Chen

After ascending the monochromatic, geometrically pristine staircase of the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG), I reach the fourth floor. The first thing that leaps out at me is a wall of vibrant purple hue. Titled “Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art,” the exhibition features over 90 works of drawings, photography, textiles, woodwork, pottery, and basketry from over 40 Indigenous nations.

Curated by Katherine Nova McCleary (Little Shell Chippewa-Cree) ’18, Leah Tamar Shrestinian ’18 and Joseph Zordan (Bad River Ojibwe) ’19, the exhibition marks one of many firsts for the University. It is the first major Indigenous art exhibition to ever go on view at the YUAG. It is also the first initiative to foster a direct conversation about Indigenous art between the YUAG, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Of course, it was no easy task. Bringing the exhibition from concept to reality required a critical examination of Yale’s relationship with Indigenous art, as well as an open discussion around best practices for educating the public.

As McCleary and Shrestinian point out in their introduction to the exhibition catalogue, “Indigenous North American art is an enduring yet under-recognized presence at Yale University.” Yale was founded on land that belonged to the Quinnipiac people, and its institutional establishment was inextricably connected with the Quinnipiac peoples’ displacement. Generations of Yale scholars and alumni have amassed a sizable collection of Indigenous objects, the majority of which are held at the Peabody.

“Those who collected these objects . . . often believed they were helping to preserve Indigenous cultures by doing so—a practice known as ‘salvage anthropology’—even as settler institutions were dispossessing Indigenous nations of their lands and forcing them to abandon their cultural practices,” the curators wrote. They argued that the act of removing art from their communities threatened present and future Indigenous art practices.

After sorting through thousands of objects scattered in the three major institutions, the curators carefully compiled a list of artworks to put on view. According to Laurence Kanter, the Chief Curator at the YUAG, the process involved considering the role of the objects within their original contexts and cultural practices. For example, if the object was meant to be buried or was part of a living ritual, he explained that the museum has no right to display it.

What came to life is an exhibition that honors the cultural story and aesthetic value of Indigenous objects. Under the umbrella of “Place, Nations, Generations, Beings,” four thematic sections respectively highlight the relationship between Indigenous people and their lands, the expression of nationhood and sovereignty, the transmission of traditions and values from one generation to the next, and the significance of non-human entities and spirits.

Featured prominently on one side of the gallery, First Teachers Balance the Universe anchors the exhibition. This 2015 work by Marrie Watt (Seneca) consists of two embroidered wool blankets that situate the Seneca creation story of Sky Woman in the context of twenty-first-century popular culture and technological advancements. The rich colors of the threads stand out against a dark background, imbuing the gallery space with the energy of their bright purple, pink, blue, and red hues. These are exactly the colors dominating the gallery room, each corresponding to a theme in the exhibition title.

Marie Watt, First Teachers Balance the Universe (2015), reclaimed wool blankets, thread and embroidery floss. (Photo: YUAG)

“We didn’t want to choose earthy colors, because they often make the space feel darker and visitors would tend to associate Indigenous people more with nature. We wanted to steer away from that implicit messaging,” Shrestinian said.

Such “implicit messaging,” or misrepresentation, was a central reason for the curators’ efforts to move Indigenous art from the Peabody to the YUAG: they hoped to convey that Indigenous art is art, not artifact. Zordan emphasized the way that the setting could influence visitors’ perception of Indigenous works. In a natural history setting, people consider them as anthropological artifacts, putting them into conversation with ancient history and natural specimens. In a gallery setting, where Indigenous objects are displayed alongside European and Asian art, people are drawn to ponder their aesthetic value and the singularity of individual works and artists.

Turning a corner, I find myself gazing at framed photos hung on a light pink wall. They are portraits of Indigenous people, part of Will Wilson’s (Diné [Navajo]) Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange project in 2012. In response to his predecessors who sought to “document” Indigenous people before a settler-imagined extinction, Wilson chooses to highlight each person’s unique identities by allowing the subjects to take control: they can choose their clothes and poses and write their own captions. These captions showcase a variety of roles that each individual is proud of: Citizen of Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, Delegate to UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Matriarch of Wonderful Family (Grandmother, Companion, Mother, Sister), Lifelong Sundancer, Defender of Mother Earth, Vietnam Veteran. Wilson gifts the tintype (a photograph on tin plate that’s produced on the spot) to the participant, then reproduces the images with their permission.

Photos from the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange project of artist Will Wilson (Diné [Navajo]) (Photo: YUAG)
Similar to Wilson’s project, the YUAG exhibition itself is a collaborative endeavor that directly engages with the voices of Indigenous people. In close collaboration with Yale’s Native American Cultural Center, the curators established an all-Native student advisory group. The committee had open discussions about the selection of objects, the appropriate language for the labels, and the presentation of Indigenous artworks in a gallery setting. Drawing on their personal backgrounds and community connections, the Indigenous students provided crucial knowledge that helped the curators address the misrepresentation of Native people.

“The students were our best critics because they were willing to be honest with us in a way that other people might not be,” McCleary said.

According to Anna Smist ’21 (Sac & Fox, Seminole, and Muscogee Creek), who was part of the student advisory committee, the members were able to directly influence curatorial decisions and interact with Indigenous objects. “I think the conversations were really good on both sides,” Smist said. “As Native students, we were able to see the work the curators were doing. And on their end, they were able to think about how to make their work accessible to an audience that is not as familiar with our world.” Smist continued to explore Indigenous art after her participation in the advisory group. Over the summer of 2019, she curated an exhibition titled “Misunderstood! Indigenous Art and Poetry as Political Resistance” at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman, Oklahoma.

Following the suggestion of the advisory council, the curators chose to use “Artist Once Known” instead of the conventional phrase “Unknown Artist” to identify artists whose names weren’t recorded in the Yale archives. They aimed to acknowledge that these artists once occupied an important place in their respective nations. Even though their exact identities might be difficult to pinpoint, their artistic practices and cultural legacies continue to make an impact on their communities.

The scope of the Native people who were consulted extended beyond Yale’s campus. Zordan described his interaction with the Mohegan nation, which gave him an opportunity to ask questions such as “How can Yale continue to work with you through this exhibition? How do you want to be represented? What do you feel is important to communicate?” Specifically, the curators stressed that there is no unified, monolithic Native American voice. Each artwork and community should be approached on a case-by-case basis.

In April 2019, as a direct result of the student curators’ recommendations, the YUAG, the Peabody, the Beinecke, and the History of Art Department convened Yale’s first Advisory Council on Native Arts and Cultures. The meeting brought together Indigenous scholars and community members as well as non-Indigenous experts. Because there was no previously available infrastructure for such a Council at Yale, the curators had to build it from scratch, and the Council was only able to meet towards the end of the curation process. Nevertheless, participants provided first-hand knowledge and discussed the future possibilities for Indigenous art at Yale.

Yale is certainly not the first institution to assemble an Advisory Council, yet it aims to carry out the task with a level of respect and openness that might be lacking elsewhere. “The unfortunate reality is that in a number of cases [at other museums], the recommendations of the Advisory Councils were respectfully collected, but selectively followed,” Kanter said. “Yale did not want to go down that path because [the advice of the Council] is not a shopping list. It quickly became clear to everyone [in the Council] that . . . Yale wanted to know what the greatest number of people think is the right way to approach any given issue.”

While receiving suggestions from Indigenous communities, the curators collaborated with the photography department at the YUAG to return the favor. They took extra photographs of the objects and sent the photographs back to their original communities so that the people could have them as records. Shrestinian explained that they wanted to “make the exhibit relevant for Indigenous nations, not just for people at Yale.”

McCleary echoed this sentiment by expressing her wish to center Indigenous voices and audiences in the gallery space. “It can be tricky to navigate,” she added, “because you want to find the balance between educating non-Indigenous people and making Indigenous people feel that they belong.”

Indigenous artworks in the exhibition are chosen for their aesthetic beauty and cultural narrative. This bowl, made of shimmering clay, expresses the connection that artist Clarence Cruz (Ohkay Owingeh) feels to the earth. (Photo: Yilin Chen)

In the exhibition room, captions become a medium to bring forward Indigenous voices. They include quotations from Indigenous artists explaining the inspiration for their work and Indigenous scholars detailing cultural practices. One quotation from Kim Tallbear (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate), Associate Professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, reads, “[for Indigenous peoples,] ‘objects’ and ‘forces’ such as stones, thunder, or stars are . . . sentient and knowing persons.” It explains a facet of Indigenous beliefs that would otherwise be inaccessible for visitors.

Adding quotations is only one approach among many. In order to foster a stronger sense of belonging for Indigenous audiences, Shrestinian expressed her hope to see Indigenous languages in similar exhibitions in the future. She cited the examples of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, who prepared full labels in the language of the Indigenous artists, and the Art Gallery of Ontario, who used the language of the Indigenous people whose land they settled in addition to English and French captions.

As I approach the opposite end of the gallery, I notice Yale’s land acknowledgment, written in a sans-serif white font on a bright red wall. It honors the Indigenous peoples that once resided in what is now the state of Connecticut long before the establishment of Yale. Next to the wall is a 2017 bowl by artist Justin Scott (Mohegan) that echoes the Mohegan basket near the entrance to the exhibition. The Mohegan tribe is one of many Indigenous nations in Connecticut. Scott’s bowl, in addition to reiterating the land acknowledgment, represents a new chapter in the Yale-Mohegan relationship: it was gifted to Yale to mark the return of hundreds of objects from the Yale Peabody to the Mohegan people in 2017. Embedded within the wooden bowl is a circle of wampum, a purple and white shell that Northeastern Indigenous nations often use in their jewelry. It inspired the extensive use of purple in the gallery space as an additional layer of land acknowledgment.

Throughout the exhibition, labels actively inform visitors of the circumstances in which Indigenous artworks were produced and the collecting practices of non-Indigenous people. Even the legal acquisition of objects in the past two centuries is inseparable from violent assimilationist practices. “Many of the works were created under duress,” Zordan said. Oftentimes, Native artists were forced to participate in a settler-colonial economy where they made artworks for a non-Indigenous market in order to survive. In some cases, they were forced to make art while in captivity.

In the process of confronting the hardships that Indigenous people had to endure, the exhibition celebrates the artistic prowess and communal identities that unite these objects.

“I think the exhibition has done something remarkable,” Kanter said. “I can’t congratulate the students enough. Unlike most museums and collections, this isn’t just a selection of interesting objects to put on view. The students went to great lengths to reanimate those objects. They become more than just trophies or relics of past activity. They are vital objects that offer an illustration of, as well as a portal to, the world they came from. I don’t know another museum that has done that.”

He smiled genially. “This may be my naivete, but I’ve been around museums for 40 years.”

The exhibition will remain on view through June 21, 2020. Yet long before the end or even the inception of the exhibition, the curators and members of the student advisory group had been actively compiling a list of best practices for Yale institutions displaying Indigenous art. Going forward, they suggest that the YUAG and the History of Art Department hire professionals with expertise in Native art and curation. Their recommendations include a permanent Advisory Council, a reconfigured display of Indigenous art at the Peabody, a separate Indigenous North American Art Department at the YUAG, and public artworks on campus that acknowledge the original inhabitants of Yale’s land. These measures could all help the University reevaluate its relationship with Native American culture, as well as how Yale represents it.

“We’re making headway,” Kanter said, “but there are challenges to this.” He described the extended timeline that’s required to find an expert curator or faculty member. The number of competent applicants is scarce, it takes time to train a less qualified applicant, and many existing experts of Indigenous art are already employed at other institutions and will be reluctant to relocate. For example, when the History of Art Department advertised a postdoctoral position in Native American Art, it took almost a year to fill it.

Although the proposed changes will undeniably take time, Kanter expressed his optimism about bringing them to fruition. “We’re all definitely determined to not let the momentum die out,” he concluded.

It’s almost closing time when I leave: the security guard pacing in the room seems to be wondering what’s taking me so long. As I step out of the door, I think about the legacies of this exhibition that extend beyond the fourth floor of the YUAG. Tomorrow the vibrant purple will once again await the arrival of curious visitors. It waits to tell a story of 200 years of Indigenous art, a story molded into glistening bowls and woven into radiant textiles.


Yilin Chen is a first-year in Timothy Dwight College. She can be contacted at yilin.chen@yale.edu.