Since I was a child my mother assembled my dresses, intricately detailed with colorful ribbon, cloth diamond-shaped accents, billowing sleeves and a few ruffles at the bottom. I prided myself in wearing the best regalia in all of Oklahoma; of course, any Native kid with a talented mother would say the same. My mother is one of many contemporary Native artists who practice traditional forms of beadwork, blacksmithing, painting, sculpting, carving, sewing and more. In my hometown of Oklahoma City, there is a wide variety of Native art in galleries and art walks downtown, and of course, at powwows across the state all year long. As a result, Native American art has always been a part of my life.
For the last three years, I worked as a Gallery Guide at the Yale University Art Gallery, where “Native American” art is underdeveloped and an afterthought. Art collectors seeking to capture the “vanishing race” have oftentimes acquired art by desecrating burial sites, attending closed ceremonies, or by making unfair deals with Indigenous peoples. Many works on public display at the YUAG are made predominantly by European settlers — including the ones I describe below.
The “Native American” objects on display are often offensive and unnecessary for public viewing. For example, weathervanes line the entrance of the YUAG’s American Decorative Arts gallery. One such weathervane depicts a stereotypical Native American silhouette holding a bow and arrow. It is riddled with bullet holes, which are likely the result of target practice and not the artist’s intentions.
During one of our Gallery Guide training sessions, I called attention to the display of the object. The stereotypical Native American imagery homogenizes over 500 different nations and appropriates specific tribal regalia and customs, creating an unintelligent representation of Native Americans. The bullet holes further dehumanize Native people and remind me of the violence perpetrated by settler colonialism and colonial institutions. I was told that most weathervanes on the art market have bullet holes.
Months later, the curators replaced the object with another weathervane. This one depicts a red-skinned Native American man without bullet holes. The swapping for this piece demonstrates the Gallery does not understand meaningful Indigenous representation (which has consequences in anti-Indigenous rhetoric). The use of red plays upon the stereotype that Native Americans have red or copper-colored skin, and is often the imagery that accompanies the slur: R*dsk*n. This slur is derived from hundreds of years of settlers brutally collecting and selling Native American scalps and genitalia.
Additionally, a vase housed within the American Decorative Arts gallery depicts a Pawnee woman and its title name features the use of the slur: Sq**w. This term has historically been used to denote Native American women and sexualize them. The few depictions of Native American people in the Gallery are represented as caricatures and captioned with slurs, effectively educating the non-Native public on how to dehumanize and homogenize Native Americans.
Yale occupies the ancestral homelands of the Quinnapiac, Paugusset and other Algonquian speaking peoples. Today, Quinnipiac and Paugusset community members, children, as well as many of Yale’s Native American students, visit the YUAG only to be met with images of defeat, death and white-washed histories. European depictions of Indigenous people and objects that visualize violence perpetrated against Native people do not provide the meaningful, educational art experience Yale should promote.
Meanwhile, the recent exhibit “Place, Nations, Generations, and Beings: 200 Years of Native North American Art” educates on authentic Native American art and the painful history behind Yale’s acquisition of these materials. Unlike ever before, “Place, Nations, Generations, Beings” made me feel much more comfortable as a Native person in the YUAG. The exhibit was only possible through the hard — oftentimes volunteer — work of Native students and allies. The inclusion of multiple Indigenous people, nations and tribes has created a space that is informative and respectful of Native artists and patrons.
Ultimately, I hope that the YUAG and other Yale institutions will release Native cultural objects and art forms to the Native Nations to which the art belongs. Only those knowledgeable of Native languages, cultures and art can truthfully care for these materials. So long as Yale holds Native art in their archives, Native communities remain robbed of material stories, traditions and knowledge. This is not to say that the YUAG should not display Native art; instead, the YUAG should employ its resources to acquire contemporary Native works which speak to Indigeneity today, and establish consent between the artist and the museum.
MADELEINE FREEMAN is a senior in Benjamin Franklin College, and is affiliated with the Choctaw/Chickasaw nations. Contact her/them at firstname.lastname@example.org.