Four Badass Indigenous Artists Who Are Reclaiming Their History

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Today’s the day that we celebrate some Italian guy who got into a boat and (probably drunkenly) stumbled his way to the Americas, also known as Columbus Day. Be sure to read up on what Christopher Columbus actually did and wonder why we still celebrate him. The only answer that I can come up with is that this day is the tangible, greasy residue of a racist and imperialist past that our nation has yet to fully shed.

White Squaw Series by Wendy Red Star

But alas, out of injustice comes activism. Today, contemporary Native American artists use their platforms to confront a deeply rooted prejudice that portrays Native Americans as lost in time, unchanged, and silent. These awe-inspiring artists are far from silent. They're working across mediums to shatter stereotypes and take names.

1. Wendy Red Star 

Indian Summer- Four Seasons by Wendy Red Star

At first glance, Wendy Red Star’s artwork doesn't seem to be lashing out against stereotypes of Native American culture. She sits majestically in traditional Crow clothing, poised within "natural" surroundings, that are actually constructed dioramas of sorts—the cardboard cutout deer is a dead giveaway. These scenes depict authentic imagery (Wendy in her traditional Crow elk tooth dress) set against highly artificial imagery in order to challenge stereotypes, often in a satirical or ironic way.

Her work addresses the idea that Native people are seen as a nonexistent, eradicated, and lost in history—a notion that many people still hold. She doesn’t confront these issues with anger but instead, utilizes humor, which is something that she considers to be much more powerful and effective. In her words, "It's universal. People can connect with the work that way. Then they can be open to talking about race."

Walks in the Dark by Wendy Red Star

Often, Red Star opts to flip stereotypes completely on their head by depicting herself in hyper-futuristic scenes, again, combating the idea that Native people only exist in the past.

2. Sarah Sense 

You may see recognizable images in Sarah Sense's work, but these aren't your average photographs. A lover of basket-weaving from an early age, Sense began studying these intricate designs very closely, eventually hatching the idea to incorporate these revered traditional techniques into her own artwork. Only, Sense doesn't create baskets. She cuts images into strips before weaving them together using traditional Chitimacha weaving patterns. The result is truly breathtaking.

Cowgirls and Indians No. 4 by Sarah Sense

She deconstructs notions of race and gender through her literal deconstructions, as can be seen in the work above that juxtaposes cowgirls with Native Americans. She works to unify—to entwine the world, so that we can know each other's stories a little bit better. I see things coming from north, south, east, and west and colliding,” she says, “and then quite literally being woven together.”

3. Mercedes Dorame

The Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe, which Mercedes Dorame is a part, is one of the two-hundred tribes not recognized by the federal government. As a result, they have no reservation land--no place to gather, perform ceremonies, and bury their dead. It wasn't until she was in college that Dorame discovered a passage from a book in the library stating that the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe had been wiped out by disease. The sight of these words stirred something within her, as her very existence is proof that they hadn't been wiped out. Could it be that the average person walked around Los Angeles is completely unaware that there are still Native people alive today?

In the Beginning was Fox and Cinnamon (left) and Smoke to Water (right) by Mercedes Dorame

Dorame's work (some of which was purchased by SFMOMA!) investigates this very question through her beautifully and meticulously composed photographs that act out certain Native American rituals, bringing back to life these customs and traditions that, although considered to be dead, are very much alive. Dorame hopes that these scenes will inspire people to learn more and investigate the past (and present) of those Indigenous to the area. 

4. Nicholas Galanin

Of Tinglit and Aleut heritage, Nicholas Galanin grew up in Sitka, Alaska. He devoted himself to jewelry making early on, creating work inspired by his upbringing as the son of a woodcarver and grandson of a metal smith. He made a name for himself with his jewelry, but his more recent work is more conceptual in nature.

Operation Geronimo by Nicholas Galanin

Take this recent photo series, in which he takes a bright, Andy Warhol-ian pop-color palette to depict stereotypical images of Native Americans. Galanin wants viewers to see the connection that he's making between his Native culture and contemporary imagery, but he doesn't want to tell us what to make of it. He believes that each person should decide what they want to take away from the images that he's bringing into existence.

Happy Indigenous Peoples Day! We all know that fool Columbus was only good for one thing:

By Rose Cannon

Rose Cannon