Five Native American Artists, in Their Own Words
Native women have created art for centuries, but individual artists have long been unrecognized. Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists is a collection of contemporary and classic works by Native American Women that celebrates the creators. Our Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery shares images of many of the artworks and videos from the exhibition on their website. Here are just a few highlights, including commentary from the artists themselves.
1. Ramona Sakiestewa's "Nebula 22 & 23"
Ramona Sakiestewa (Hopi) uses tapestry weaving, an enduring tradition of her community, to create art inspired by images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Her vibrant artwork depicts bursts of light, energy, growth, and nature.
Sakiestewa says, "I'm very interested in deep space. The cosmos and stars. Because that's a scientific vocabulary that Indigenous people in the Americas have had. Our cultures are based in really deep science."
2. Joyce, Juanita, and Jessa Rae Growing Thunder's "Give Away Horses"
Three generations of artists came together to create "Give Away Horses." Joyce (grandmother), Juanita (daughter), and Jessa Rae Growing Thunder (granddaughter) (Dakhóta/Nakoda) are highly accomplished, well-respected, and prolific bead and quill artists.
In a conversation with all three artists, Jessa Rae Growing Thunder said, "My grandma right here, she's a legacy. She grew up in a beautiful time on the Reservation in Montana. She grew up with all her grandmas. And they were all bead-workers... In this family you're kind of born into it [beading], because it's just part of the everyday life."
3. Kelly Church's "Sustaining Traditions–Digital Memories"
Kelly Church (Ottawa/Pottawatomi) created an ash basket, inspired by traditional weaving practices. Church dyed her basket green to represent an insect, the emerald ash borer, that is destroying ash trees throughout the Upper Midwest. Inside the basket is a flash drive. Church says the flash drive contains "all the teachings of the past, all of the things happening today, and all of the things we need to do in the future to sustain this tradition [basket weaving]."
Church says, "It's combining the old traditions of the past with the new technology of today, trying to teach in a way that we have always taught, but also teaching in a way that the children or the future people understand."
4. Cherish Parrish's "The Next Generation–Carriers of Culture"
In "The Next Generation–Carriers of Culture," Cherish Parrish (Ottawa/Pottawatomi) wove a basket into the life-size shape of a pregnant woman in her third trimester. She combines the idea of passing on traditional practices and honoring the legacy of Indigenous women who came before her. Like Church, Parrish wove this piece from spring wood and heartwood harvested from black ash trees.
Parrish says weaving is, "a generational gift that needs to be passed on and . . . nothing . . . speaks to that quite like pregnancy and motherhood. Being a carrier of culture, that's what you are as a Native woman."
5. Nellie Two Bear Gates (Gathering of Clouds Woman)'s "Valise"
The art shared in Hearts of our People represents Native women from past, present, and future. Nellie Two Bear Gates (Iháƞktȟuƞwaƞna Dakhóta, Standing Rock Reservation) created this valise from 1880–1910. She suffered a torturous separation from her family when she was forcibly sent to boarding school in Missouri. When she returned to Standing Rock, her home reservation, she ignored her boarding school lessons and instead deeply reembraced her Dakhóta culture. This valise depicts key aspects of Dakhóta culture—either marriage between two families or a woman's coming-of-age ceremony.
Her granddaughter, Susan Power, says, "The stories she chose to tell, with glittering beads, were Dakhóta."
Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery is organized in collaboration with our National Museum of the American Indian. Support has been provided, in part, by the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative. Support the initiative to help us present diverse, untold American stories.
Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty (Dakhóta/Nakoda), Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty (Dakhóta/Nakoda), and Jessa Rae Growing Thunder (Dakhóta/Nakoda), Give Away Horses (dress and accessories), 2006, deer hide, glass beads, canvas, thread, leather, moose hide, German silver, porcupine quills, feathers, elk hide, brass bells, ribbon, silk ribbons, and brass thimbles, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, 26/5818-5821. Photo by NMAI Photo Services. © J Growing Thunder