UP CLOSE: “Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art”

“Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art”

Published on April 23, 2019

At the outset of spring, Book Trader Cafe’s expansive, floor-length windows allow the afternoon sun to slice across the room. The light is harsh, straining the eyesight of those who occupy the too-small tables. Katherine McCleary ’18 sits at the corner of two tables pushed together — a necessary feat for a conversation amongst four people. With her back facing west, she is rendered a silhouette.

“In the fall of 2015, as all stories start,” McCleary, who is Little Shell Chippewa-Cree, said, “there were a lot of discussions about representations of race and ethnicity on campus.”

She shared knowing glances and a giggle with the other two students around the table — Leah Shrestinian ’18 and Joseph Zordan ’19, who is Bad River Ojibwe. McCleary and Shrestinian have acquired their degrees and Zordan is finishing his last semester, but all three have remained on campus in order to finish one final project at Yale: curating the largest exhibit of indigenous North American art to ever go on view at the Yale University Art Gallery, or YUAG. The exhibit, which was recently titled “Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art” will be on view at the YUAG from November 1, 2019 to June 21, 2020.

The process behind this exhibit has taken years — years of activist efforts from on-campus Native American students and professors, years of grappling with institutional barriers and pushback, years of dedicated work by the student curators and centuries of history to contend with.

The student curators had three distinct goals, which foster conversations that will fundamentally alter the ways in which Yale institutions interact with and exhibit indigenous art.


In the fall of 2015, McCleary, Shrestinian and Zordan, two sophomores and a first year, respectively, participated in one of the largest waves of on-campus activism Yale had ever witnessed. Next Yale — a coalition of Yale students of color and their allies — formed in 2015 in response to various controversies: the alleged exclusion of black women from a Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity party, a letter from a Yale administrator concerning cultural appropriation and the debate surrounding the renaming of what is now Grace Hopper College.

In early November of that year, Next Yale presented a variety of demands to the Yale administration. The list included issues the University is still contending with today — including the first demand on Next Yale’s list: the promotion of the Program of Ethnicity, Race and Migration into a comprehensive department. In section 4b, Next Yale requested that the University acknowledge it was founded on Quinnipiac land by installing a monument designed by a Native artist.

Following the report, some of the requests — like the resignation of Nicholas and Erika Christakis from their master and associate master positions in Silliman College — were met, while some — like the art installation — were not. Ned Blackhawk, a member of the Te-Moak of Western Shoshone and a professor of history and American studies, noted that “these initiatives were interrelated by the same social pressures and processes that brought heightened attention to the Peabody, to the YUAG, to the name of the colleges.” He added that students’ heightened scrutiny of campus issues necessitated change.

“Ned Blackhawk was the one Native tenured professor at Yale, and other students in the past have been talking to these institutions for a really long time,” Shrestinian said. “2015 made the institutions realize that they had to pay attention, but the activism surrounding misrepresentation of Native people on campus has been ongoing.”

The only demands in Next Yale’s list that specifically concerned Native students were the requests for a monument installation and the promotion of Native American studies to program status under an ethnicity, race and migration department. Yet the misrepresentation of indigenous people extended to other areas of campus, primarily in the University’s galleries and cultural institutions.

“Native students feel that we are misrepresented in the Gallery and the Peabody,” McCleary said. “Because there has been a lack of commitment to Native art on campus, a lot of objects have been attributed to the incorrect nation and catalogued in ways that made them difficult to research.”

In response to the activist environment students fostered on campus, the YUAG and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History initiated the Native American Art Initiative Summer Internship in 2016 — a paid internship that involved spending time at the YUAG, the Peabody, the Denver Art Museum in Colorado and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Wyoming. The internship required students to conduct research regarding each institution’s collections management policies, education practices and interpretations of those collections. The internship also included compiling a report of recommendations for best practices in engaging with Native art.

McCleary and Shrestinian were the two students chosen for the internship. The two looked through the Native art that each institution housed, noting the gaps in and the representation of the collections. At the end of the summer, they authored recommendations for the best practices of both the YUAG and the Peabody. Zordan spent the summer of 2018 participating in a similar internship for which he spent time at both Yale Center for British Art and the National Museum of the American Indian in order to construct a report for the former institution.

Yet this work did not ensure that representation of indigenous people in those institutions would improve. In the fall of 2016, a series of football programs commemorating the 100th Yale-Dartmouth football game printed by Yale Athletics included historical programs that depicted racist images of indigenous people. Later that semester, the YUAG commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Peabody with an exhibit entitled “Yosemite: Exploring the Incomparable Valley.” An article posted in online arts magazine Hyperallergic described the exhibit as “rather discreet with historical events,” with wall texts referring “almost casually to the annihilation of Native Americans, unwilling to let this distract viewers from the exhibit’s noble message” of Manifest Destiny.

The Association of Native Americans at Yale released statements responding to both events. Thomas Beckett, who was the director of athletics during the time of the controversy, released a statement in a schoolwide email noting that the images were offensive and that his department would “continue to work with any and all members of the Yale community to address this topic in any way possible.” Soon after, the directors of both the YUAG and the Peabody reached out to the Association of Native Americans and the groups proceeded with discussions that allowed staff to acquire a better understanding of how Native students were affected by the harmful depictions.

Following these discussions, the YUAG’s chief curator, Laurence Kanter, approached McCleary about the possibility of curating an exhibit. McCleary chose Shrestinian and Zordan to join her in the curatorial process and their work began.

Marie Watt, Seneca Nation, First Teachers Balance the Universe Part I: Things That Fly (Predator) and First Teachers Balance the Universe Part II: Things That Fly (Prey), 2015. Reclaimed wool blankets, embroidery floss, and thread. Yale University Art Gallery, Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund


Curating the largest exhibit of Native North American art that the YUAG has ever presented required pulling objects from three Yale institutions — the YUAG, the Peabody and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

“There is not very much Native art in the Art Gallery — most indigenous art on campus is in [Peabody Museum of Natural History] collections, which reinforces ideas and misconceptions about indigenous people as being part of the past,” Shrestinian said. “So, I think the move of indigenous art from the natural history museum to an art museum is one of our major goals.”

The group acquainted themselves with the collections at all three institutions, spending most of their time at the Peabody. The curators noted that Peabody staff members were always willing to assist, but the sheer amount of objects in its collections required months of research. Zordan described this process as sorting through wooden drawers and finding what intrigued them. The tediousness is a function of the way collections in natural history museums are often structured.

According to George Miles, the curator of the Beinecke’s Collection of Western Americana, “libraries anticipate that collections will be accessed” and often have comprehensive catalogues of their holdings, as well as staff members like himself who are deeply acquainted with a specific sect of the library’s collections. Therefore, choosing items from the Beinecke primarily involved discussions with Miles about the various prints, ledgers and photographs in the collection. Miles, the Beinecke curator who worked most closely with the students, added that he is “excited to see Yale’s collections talking to each other.”

“Beinecke’s exhibit spaces couldn’t do this material justice,” Miles said. “To treat this material as creative expression, as art, is exciting.”

After selecting about 400 objects and uploading the images into a Google Drive, the group embarked on an elimination process.

“We decided not to use a lot of objects based on concerns about where they came from, how they were obtained and not having enough information about that object to make an informed curatorial choice,” Shrestinian said. “But, we have been able to give find the names of the artists who made many of the objects and find out what nations they came from by reaching out to different scholars and community members.”

The curatorial process not only involved bringing together three separate Yale institutions, but also required a disparate, wide-reaching support system of various professors and mentors. In order to gain some knowledge in Native art history, McCleary and Zordan took an undergraduate survey course instructed by visiting professor Ruth Phillips in the department of the history of art in 2017. In order to spend more time with the project, the student curators enrolled in independent study courses with art history professor Edward S. Cooke Jr. and anthropology faculty member Kelly Fayard, who is also dean of the Native American Cultural Center.

Phillips said her course focused on “historic art made in traditional genres and media” through the 20th century. These traditions are often referred to in scholarship as “post-contact” periods of production, though Phillips noted that the divisions between “pre-contact” and “post-contact” periods are misleading functions of the structure of literature addressing Native art.

“The challenge is partly to eliminate those barriers and embrace continuities,” Phillips said. “When you’re teaching, you have to take into account the ways that our knowledge and museum practices have developed and responded to those kind of divisions. It’s a good moment to be teaching, because there has been a real post-colonial critique of modern collecting processes.”

The curators incorporated these post-colonial critiques and their knowledge of history and museum practices into their independent studies with Cooke and Fayard. In these directed reading courses, the curators adopted the task of synthesizing their knowledge into a cohesive exhibit.

Cooke noted that he was impressed with the “thoroughness and deliberateness” with which the students approached their task.

“When you’re doing an exhibition, oftentimes you have ideas and then you have objects — the two don’t always align with one another,” Cooke said. “What I believed would be a useful exercise that semester was to really get them thinking. You test ideas out on objects. Sometimes the objects will bear the weight, sometimes they’ll take it in a different direction and you have to recalibrate — it’s a process I often refer to as going from the outside, inside and back out again. Good exhibitions really come from that kind of interaction.”

The curators also engaged in extracurricular trips to help inform their decisions. In the fall of 2017, the curators travelled to Montreal and Ottawa in order to tour the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of History, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and a First Nations Arts exhibition at the Carleton University Art Museum. The students — accompanied by Phillips, Blackhawk and five other students in the Yale Group for the Study of Native America, an interdisciplinary working group interested in topics relating to Native America — took the trip as an opportunity to study contemporary curatorial practices in Canadian museums, which are known for engaging more thoroughly with indigenous communities than museums in the United States.

Cooke noted that this trip was a “crystallizing moment” for the curators.

“They came back with this idea of willingness and a confidence to just talk about Native art at Yale,” Cooke said. “Just the simplicity of this — the story is not simple, but the simplicity of the organizing principle allowed them to delve further into it.”

In order to have fruitful conversations about Native art at Yale, the curators felt it was crucial to engage with the communities of Native people on campus. The curators established an all-Native student advisory committee that they consulted throughout the process.

Richard Hunt (Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw), Sea Monster Mask, 1999. Wood, plastic, textile, and paint. Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, inv. no. YPM ANT.256928. Photo: Div. of Anthropology, Yale Peabody Museum, 2009

According to Anna Smist ’21, who is Sac & Fox and Seminole and a member of the student advisory committee, all of its members share the goal of addressing misrepresentation and the question of what constitutes fine art.

The committee has engaged in conversations about the specific language that should be used in the exhibit’s title and captions, helped make decisions about what objects should be included and is currently considering how to keep the exhibit’s legacy alive on campus after the curators leave Yale. In part, the committee has served as a way for first- and second-year students to heighten their involvement in on-campus efforts to address misrepresentation of Native people.

“The advisory group, and this entire project, comes from not wanting to depict Native groups as a monolith,” Smist said. “People tend to look at them as static peoples — but all of us are very different. … Every member of the student advisory group is Native, but we don’t all look the same, and neither do our tribes or the art that comes from our tribes. I think this project provides the diversity and appropriate representation that all of us need to feel in order to feel connected to this place.”


The attitudinal shift influencing how Yale institutions exhibit Native art has also taken place across indigenous art scholarship. According to Phillips, museums in both the American West and Canada have been engaging with Native art for a while, but the “context in which the students are working is a very active one at this moment, specifically in the eastern part of the United States.”

When Phillips arrived as a visiting professor at Yale, discussions surrounding indigenous art were prominent in the museum world. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston put up an exhibit of Native art in April 2018 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art followed suit in October 2018. At the time, Blackhawk, who also brought 30 students to the opening of the Met’s exhibition, served on an advisory committee at the museum and authored an article for the exhibition catalog called “The Radical Potential of Indigenous Art History.”

Blackhawk noted that today, many American museums are beginning to realize that they house vast collections of Native art but lack the professional specialists to manage them appropriately.

“Many of these academic institutions pride themselves on providing — they pridefully provide — what they consider to be very robust, humanistic understandings of the development of American history and culture,” Blackhawk said. “But those visions of what constitutes American art and culture have often ignored non-Europeans. In the last couple of decades, activists and individuals have sought a more capacious understanding of art history and in those understandings, community-based, vernacular or everyday items can be seen as representative of American experience, as well.”

The shifts occurring in academic and cultural institutions have been tangible, according to active scholars in the field. Nadia Jackinsky — an indigenous art scholar and employee at The CIRI foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to maintain pride in culture and heritage among Alaska Natives through education — said that as a graduate student, museums would not allow her to access Native objects in their collections.

“I think there’s a lot of interest in trying to figure out what it means to be doing art history from an indigenous perspective,” Jackinsky said. “It’s starting to change the way people teach art history classes, as well, because there’s this understanding that you can’t just learn about history from reading books. You can’t just learn about indigenous art history by looking at objects — it involves deeper discussions with communities, understanding the holistic aspects of art and not just the formal qualities.”

Curating from a perspective that respects indigenous people involves incorporating those communities into curatorial decisions and establishing community trust. In addition to reaching out to local Native communities, the curators integrated the community into their decision-making process by hosting public discussions at the YUAG.

The goal of the first discussion, which took place Sept. 27, 2018, was to introduce the exhibit and its themes to the public. The discussion provided an avenue for members of the community to learn about art curation and the importance of the curators’ goals. The second discussion, which occurred Feb. 21, 2019, was a panel discussion with Montreal-based curator and critic Lindsay Nixon. With Nixon, the group focused on topics at the forefront of contemporary indigenous art curation, including gender, sexuality and kinship.

The curators said they are excited to create a space in the gallery for programming that exposes the subjectivity of curation. They stand by the notions that no single authoritative voice can dictate how to interact with objects and that curatorial decisions are informed by the specific experiences and voices of those involved.

The exhibit will be both communal and individual, thematically broad and specific. It contends with histories and possible futures while pushing back against chronological narratives. According to the curators, an important element of this dialogue between the modern and the historical is an attention to Yale’s role in settler-colonialism — a type of colonialism that functions through the replacement of indigenous populations with a settler society that develops a distinctive identity and sovereignty. Many natural history museums in the United States built their collections during the late 19th-century, a period of extreme duress for indigenous people in the country. This period included forced relocations, reservations, boarding schools and intense assimilation. Anthropologists of the time perpetuated the idea that indigenous people were disappearing to justify seizing as many cultural objects as possible.

While working with the Peabody, the curators helped initiate discussions about how to address these histories. In the report they presented to the museum following their summer internship, McCleary and Shrestinian suggested that the Peabody renovate the Connecticut Native Americans Exhibition in collaboration with local Native communities, among other initiatives. According to David Heiser, the director of student programs at the Peabody, the museum is planning to reinstall the exhibition during the full Peabody renovation scheduled for June 2020.

“We are actively thinking about what it means to be an institution stewarding such objects, what our responsibilities are and how we best share our collections with our visitors and with others,” said David Skelly, the director of the Peabody. “We are well aware that this is an ongoing project for institutions like ours.”

Skelly added that though the Peabody is not an art museum, it does identify as a “museum of culture.”

“We have exhibitions on cultures of the past and also of the present,” Skelly said. “The ways that we can display objects and develop narratives differ in some important ways from an art museum. Neither is better than the other. They are just different missions.”

In response, the curators noted that the exhibit is intended to incite further thought among members of the Yale community in regard to these topics.

“We understand that the Peabody considers itself to be a museum of culture,” Shrestinian said. “One of the questions we hope our exhibition will prompt the Yale community to think about is which cultures? Which cultures’ historical and contemporary arts are displayed in natural history museums instead of art museums? And what are the implications of that?”


The end of this semester also marks the end of the curators’ time at Yale. Although they plan to return to campus for the exhibition, the group will no longer live in New Haven. Yet this process will not be over once the exhibit goes on view. The curators have initiated conversations with the potential to enable projects like theirs for many years to come. One way to ensure the longevity of the curators’ initiatives is to implement institutional structures such as an advisory council.

“Like a lot of our work, we were sort of building the infrastructure for there to be an exhibition of Native art, while also making the exhibit,” Shrestinian said. “So, ideally, an advisory council would be in place before someone tried to curate an exhibit, because it would streamline the process, but also because it’s best practice to curate with indigenous people at all levels of planning an exhibition or installation. We did that in a lot of informal ways, but there weren’t the formal resources in place when we started the project.”

Implementing temporary advisory councils to assist with ethical curatorial practices has become common practice in recent years. Scholars like Jackinsky, Phillips and Blackhawk have all served on temporary advisory councils in museums and universities across the country. The council for Yale’s Native art exhibit is funded for two years via a Mellon grant and is scheduled to convene at the University on April 24 and 25 — with the second day entirely devoted to discussions regarding curatorial practices; the staffing of scholars devoted to indigenous art and history; and the structure of a potential permanent advising body.

The all-Native council is comprised of 11 advisers from across the country. Some of the them include Brian Vallo, governor of Pueblo of Acoma; Greg Hill, the senior curator of indigenous art at the National Gallery of Canada; and Jamie Powell, the associate curator of Native American art at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth University. According to Smist, many Native students are hoping that the council’s discussions will result in the appointment of a Native art curator at Yale.

The advisory council was organized by Phillips and Kaitlin McCormick, the current Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow in Native American art and curation.

“At the end of day 2, we’re looking to gain advice from them on what direction to take the advisory council as a more permanent body,” McCormick said. “This meeting is an introduction to this process — we’re hoping to get advice on how to form a more permanent group of people, what that might look like and how the consultation process will go once we have a permanent group of advisers.”

The committee also plans to discuss the feasibility of implementing a permanent council that could advise multiple institutions across campus.

For future students, the presence of professionals who focus on indigenous art history and curation will provide the support required to embark on further projects. According to the professors who worked with the curators, McCleary, Shrestinian and Zordan accomplished most of the project on their own. Their remarkable focus drove this project, but an ideal future would include more assistance from University faculty and museum staff.

“That’s part of the reason why we think this exhibition is so important,” McCleary said. “We believe that there should be a permanent department devoted to indigenous North American art at the gallery and that indigenous art should be presented in a gallery space and not in a natural history space. That department should have a full-time, paid staff working on this — not three undergraduates.”


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