Museums Now Recognizing Native American Art As American Art

Jul 13, 2017

Kay WalkingStick, Venere Alpina, 1997, oil on canvas (left), steel mesh over acrylic and wax, plastic stones (right).
Credit Lee Stalsworth, Fine Art through Photography, LLC (Courtesy American Federation of Arts)

In April, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City announced that it would put its Native American art collections in the same wing as other American art. At first, it sounds obvious - of course they would put American art with other American art - but until a few years ago, this was a revolutionary idea. 


“The 20th century actually has a rich history of American Indian art and artists creating splendid and wonderful things," says David Penney, the associate director for museum scholarship and exhibitions at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

“But it’s been difficult for those 20th century, and now 21st century, traditions to be recognized.”

Penney will give a talk on indigenous art in museums Thursday, July 20th at 6:30 p.m. at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. He also helped curate one of the exhibits on display at the KIA by Native American artist Kay Walkingstick. It runs through September 10th.

The talk is also to celebrate the KIA's new Native American photography exhibit "Our People, Our Land, Our Images" which opens Saturday, July 15th.

Penney says, in the past, many art museums viewed Native works as fossils from a disappearing culture.

“Helping to form the American character on the frontier and then disappear from the stage. A great deal of American government policy towards American Indians was intended toward assimilation - to convert American Indians into American citizens,” Penney explains. 

But now, Penney says, more museums are making an effort to give Native Americans a voice in the United States’ rich art history. Museums have also worked to return collections that weren’t really theirs to take.

“Certain categories of objects - ceremonial objects, sacred objects, even human remains or the objects that were buried with human remains - kind of entered into that art market as well as kind of equivalents and they never should have,” says Penney.

In order for museums to integrate Native American art into their collections, Penney says they also have to be open to more types of art. He says if you take a look around the major museums in the U.S., you’ll see a lot of painting and sculpture in their American collections:

“What they’re leaving out often are the work made by women - fiber arts, ceramic arts. So they’re really only showing kind of a small slice of American art based on prejudices of a couple generations ago. That’s changing as well. We’re seeing a lot more fiber arts, and ceramics, and decorative arts, and folk art made in the United States in those large museums.”

Meanwhile, some tribes have started their own museums. Penney says there are more than 50 tribal-run art museums across the country - including one in Michigan, the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways in Mt. Pleasant.

“Often these museums are really focused on their local communities. They offer culture revitalization and language activities," says Penney. 

"And they try to tell their own story. The story of their own community through history. The story of engagement with the United States, story of struggles for sovereignty, story about the struggles for cultural revitalization.”

Museums are also starting to give modern Native American artists more recognition. Artists like Kay Walkingstick.

Penney says Walkingstick was steeped in the New York art scene of the 1960s and 70s - between the era of modernism and postmodernism. In the early 1990s, she started to bring her Cherokee ancestry into her work.

“She really focused on landscape and the idea of native place," says Penney. "And created a whole series of these spectacular paintings that kind of reclaims that American landscape tradition through a native perspective.”