The new ground-breaking exhibit, “Hearts of Our People,” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), offers a look at how the legacy, relationships, and power of Native women creators are linked over generations.

Elders in many Native communities are respected for what they know and what they can pass along. Even for women who have not been respected or recognized, the exhibit offers a glimpse at those who have quietly kept traditions alive, making sure that future generations know how to carry their culture forward.

Women have long been leaders in creating Native art — although mostly men have been recognized. It connects this art to the artists' names. It is common to have heard Native creators referred to only as “Lakota artist” or “Pueblo potter” — or have become familiar with art forms as diverse as weaving, pottery, and jewelry-making simply as “Native art.” The exhibit will travel nationally as the first ever devoted to recognizing Native women's art.

At a related three-hour Mia symposium in June, themes of the exhibit were explained. Jolene Richards said that whether we are talking about embryos, beads, seeds, or plants, it is Native women artists in particular that create an intergenerational transfer of knowledge that keeps identities, communities, and cultures alive. Despite centuries of Native displacement and genocide, and resulting trauma, Richards pointed out, it is largely women who have stood in the creative spaces to say: “You can’t wipe us out.”

One of the curators, Terri Greeves, says women show power as leaders spiritually, artistically, socially, economically, and through physical strength of creation. The power of creation encompasses women who experience childbirth, the young woman in this exhibit who made an entire car herself, and those who carry clay long distances to transform it into new life. Greeves says it is in using self expression, giving knowledge, and speaking up for ourselves that we accept our power as women to create this world. 

Native artist Ellen Neel learned to carve and paint from her grandfather, and was selling her art by the age of 12. This economic strength also led to her abilities as an advocate. Ellen Neel’s granddaughter, Lou-Ann, was told that ‘women don’t carve.’ Though she didn’t believe that was true, the impact of the message — and being harassed in classes — was powerful. She gave her tools to her brother. Decades passed. Recently, Lou-Ann decided the message she had absorbed from fellow male students was wrong, and she got her carving tools back from her brother.She has since carved a totem pole that greets visitors at the Vancouver International Airport.

Lou-Ann Neel created a mosaic in the exhibit called “Childhood,” which puts together 3,000 images of Native children who were forced to attend boarding schools to become assimilated into white culture in the 20th century. These children were not recorded by name. Lou-Ann herself was one of those children. For her, the photos “represent the dispossessed. Generation after generation lined up, row after row, mimicking the same impersonal blueprint of the residential school building, and each dorm room.”

What Neel did with those images is recreate them in the form of a portrait that represents her nephew Daniel, in regalia made for his naming ceremony when he was young. The portrait, she says, reflects “a world where children were treasured and acknowledged within our families [through] ceremonies that ensure children never have to wonder whether they are loved or whether they belong.”

“Hearts of Our People” will be at Mia through August 18.

Marianne Nicolson's art reflects territorial endurance. Her “Bax'wana'tsi: The Container for Souls” shows both the fragility of history in its glass box on a pedestal, and also suggests larger-than-life contents, with light projections radiating from within the box that paint the walls with designs and photographs of her female relatives. “In order for my generation to move forward, we must look back.”