Dos and Don’ts for Art Galleries Showcasing Native American Art

Indigenous curators in Minnesota weigh in after the “Scaffold” controversy

Dezbah, by Leah Rose Kolakowski at All My Relations Arts
Dezbah, by Leah Rose Kolakowski at All My Relations Arts

photo by Leah Rose Kolakowski

On a late-winter evening, several indigenous women gather around a white platform at All My Relations Arts, a small Native American art gallery on Franklin Avenue in south Minneapolis. The miniature figure of a woman, laid on her back with legs in the air, sits atop a column at the podium’s center. From between her thighs, a red ribbon trails down to the platform. One by one, each woman takes a strip of crimson fabric from a basket and adds to a symbolic puddle fanning out around the column’s base.

It’s the opening night of “Bring Her Home,” a show featuring photographs, paintings, woven art, and the installation described above exploring an epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) in North America. (Estimates range from 1,200 to more than 4,000 women affected from 1980 to 2012, according to CBC News.)   

At the end of the night, curator Angela Two Stars speaks about the lingering impact of MMIW. “They’re still with us,” she says. “We carry them with us in our hearts.”

Some women wipe away tears. Many approach to thank her. The show is a success.

Do: Explore challenging topics

The subject matter of “Bring Her Home” is arguably just as graphic as “Scaffold,” a piece featured in the Walker Art Center’s reopening of its outdoor sculpture garden near downtown Minneapolis. Designed by white Los Angeles artist Sam Durant, “Scaffold” was an interactive wooden structure inspired by the 1862 hangings of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, the largest public execution in U.S. history. Native Americans protested, citing the museum’s and artist’s failure to consult Natives about how the work would affect them.

“Scaffold” was dismantled and symbolically buried. The Walker apologized. But soon after, the museum defended a Jimmie Durham retrospective exhibit despite objections from a group of Cherokee artists who challenged Durham’s claim to Cherokee heritage.

Native American shawl art.

photo Lost Birds Return by Chholing Taha

Both media-frenzied situations raised serious discussion but did not reach consensus. How should galleries and artists handle the narratives of Native Americans—if at all?

Two Stars describes “Bring Her Home” with the same language many Native American activists used to describe their response to Durant’s structure: “pain,” “triggering,” and “trauma.” According to a statement, Durant did not anticipate their reaction to “Scaffold” and never asked for an indigenous perspective.

In contrast, when All My Relations asked Two Stars, a Native woman, to curate a show about MMIW, her first thought was of being 9 years old when her grandmother was murdered. In her public call for submissions, Two Stars shared her story to let artists know “there was empathy,” she says.

Don’t: Focus on victimhood

Still, Two Stars’ identity was not enough. Gallery arts director and artist Rory Wakemup contacted the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center and the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition to gauge interest in a show about MMIW. Both approved, but MIWRC encouraged them not to focus on victimhood. Two Stars calls such work “victim art.”

She balked, for instance, before including an excerpt submitted from a graphic novel. One of the panels depicted a hand half-buried in the dirt—illustrating a hasty burial. Two Stars at first worried that the image would not be sensitive enough to spectators impacted by MMIW, but ultimately she decided to include it.

“I acknowledge that art does have the power to confront the audience with something uncomfortable,” she says. More importantly, the excerpt sends an uplifting message overall. The last panel shows a contingent of confident young Native women delivering a call to action: Never forget these women.

"Bring Her Home: Stolen Daughters of Turtle Island" features new work from Shan Goshorn, Luzene Hill, Laura Youngbird, Kayeri Akweks, Hillary Kempenich, Chholing Taha, Cara Romero, and more—on view at All My Relations Arts until April 20.
“Bring Her Home: Stolen Daughters of Turtle Island” features new work from Shan Goshorn, Luzene Hill, Laura Youngbird, Kayeri Akweks, Hillary Kempenich, Chholing Taha, Cara Romero, and more—on view at All My Relations Arts until April 20.

photo Did You forget? by Kayeri Akweks

Some in the art world, defenders of “Scaffold” included, have argued that art should know no boundaries—that it can, and should, elicit any reaction. But trauma, while subject to many definitions, evokes mental distress, not the type of deep reflection Durant had hoped to inspire. Meanwhile, at the opening-night event of “Bring Her Home,” All My Relations had mental-health professionals onsite.

Do: Research the history

Art is not purely abstract, either. Artists can, and do, depict history in their work without firsthand knowledge, calling their art’s authenticity into question. Durham’s disputed claim to Cherokee ancestry means that his work since the ’70s, often exploring colonial oppression of Natives, disseminates false history, according to some Cherokee community members.

“We’re not just representing ourselves as individuals,” Two Stars says. “We’re representing our tribes, our families, our histories.” She stumbled upon the name of the show, “Bring Her Home,” while looking at “missing person” posters and posts on Facebook about MMIW. Many families seeking reunion or closure wrote, “We just want to bring her home.”

Had Durant done similar research, could “Scaffold” have gone up without public outcry? Originally installed in Germany, the structure drew a different reaction than it did standing 80 miles from Mankato, where the hangings took place. Shortly after the structure’s reveal, Wakemup hosted a private meeting of elders at All My Relations. If Durant had consulted them, Wakemup would have suggested that Durant keep kids from playing on the piece by roping it off. “That’s like monumentalizing the largest mass execution in U.S. history and then trivializing it into a playground,” he says.

Don’t: Operate in a vacuum

Wakemup stresses that Durant could have successfully collaborated with local Native artists. Effective indigenous art is rarely entrusted to a single vision, he adds. “We check ourselves. I check myself. I call my elders or my friends, family, whoever.” In some Native languages, he points out, the words “art” and “culture” are linked. Art is “a catalyst for people to group together.”

Two Stars took that angle during long phone conversations with artists exhibiting in “Bring Her Home.” “There was one artist, I could sense hesitation,” she says. The artist had personal experience with MMIW, too. So, Two Stars reassured her that her work would be safe.

“It’s really needed for others who have been through this type of experience, to come here, and to see it,” she says, “and to not feel so isolated.”