This spring, the Met announced that it would begin including Native American art in the American Art collection. Back in February, the Feminist Art Project presented its annual conference CROSSROADS: Art + Native Feminisms, a day of panels, performances, and dialogue. The event took place at the Museum for Arts and Design, a venue that embraces both craft and art — a categorical division that has historically been used to exclude artists of native ancestry from the mainstream art market. It was a day filled with ceremonies, deeply considered conversations, and moving performances, centering female, queer, and Indigenous experiences of the art world. Videos of the event have just been released and can be found here.
The day began with onscreen projections by The ReMatriate Project and an electric violin performance by Brooklyn-based Laura Ortman. There was a blessing of the space, and then Connie Tell, the director of FAP, introduced the three curators: Jaune-Quick-To-See Smith, Maria Hupfield, and Kat Griefen. They educated the audience about how to support the water protectors at Standing Rock and how to Divest from the Dakota Access Pipeline by passing out information to #defunddapl. Next, tobacco was poured into the four corners of the room to bless and purify the space.
The first panel, “The Struggle for Cultural Capital in Contemporary Native American Art,” was chaired by Diane Fraher, a filmmaker and the director of Amerinda Inc., and consisted of elders Gloria and Muriel Miguel, who are both part of the Spiderwoman Theatre Company, and Jaune-Quick-To-See Smith. They discussed Indigenous people’s fight against forced assimilation and the struggle for Native artists to be seen as contemporary: Speaking of herself and her peers being the first Indigenous women to be recognized at all in the art world, Jaune-Quick-To-See Smith said, “Our generation is the first to break the ‘buckskin ceiling.’”
Maria Hupfield introduced the afternoon with a Territorial Acknowledgement of the historically displaced Lenni Lenape here in New York City, home to the highest urban Indigenous population today. In a moment of performed cultural recovery, recent Lenape speaker and docent Vanessa Dion Fletcher was invited to the stage to introduce herself in Lenape and teach the audience to say “I am happy to meet you.”
The afternoon panels started with “The Problematics of Making Art While Native and Female.” Chair Andrea Carlson shared her experience of being a guest artist: “They think that Pocahontas is going to come and teach them about art.” Carly Feddersen showed slides of jewelry from her company Brainiac Broaches and told us that we are made of “starstuff and earthstuff.” Her sister, Ryan Elizabeth Feddersen, showed work from her series Coyote Now! and said, “In the Western world, art is an object to be exhibited and sold, but for us it’s about use, process, continuations of a practice, and a dialogue.”
Dr. Julie Nagam spoke about her appointment as Canadian Research Co-Chair in the History of Indigenous Art in North America in Winnipeg at both the University and the Art Museum. “I am there to indigenize the university and the gallery.” Grace Rosario Perkins, of the Black Salt Collective, which is made up of queer women of color, spoke about her work exploring personal narrative, assimilation, and code switching.
Charlene Teters, an artist and activist best known for her work against the use of American Indian mascots, spoke about objectification: “It is rare [for Native artists] to be seen as a full-fledged human being.” Her piece “Mound: To the Heroes” is a photo mural of the flag raising at Iwo Jima with only the Pima man, Ira Hayes, left. The juxtaposition of the Native American and the flag just out of his reach is a metaphor for indigenous struggles for basic human rights on their own land.
The next panel, “Kinship, Decolonial Love, and Community Art Practice,” was chaired by Lindsay Nixon, the Indigenous Editor at Large for Canadian Art. She spoke of “decolonizing love” and a project called “Decolonize Me,” which she described as a critique of commercialization and an action of reconciliation. The panelists included Tarah Hogue, whose grunt gallery in Vancouver has been showing work since 1984 and whose performance-art based #callresponse project supports the work of Indigenous North American women artists working locally across the continent; Marcella Ernest, whose work has been shown twice as an off-site project during the Venice Biannale, and whose interests lie in pop culture, cultural preservation, and building community support and visibility for indigenous women in same-sex relationships; and Lyncia Begay, who spoke about cultural appropriation, land, gender, and heteronormativity.
The final panelist, Dayna Danger, was beading a leather mask during the discussion. She said she wants to show off her community, which includes two-spirit, queer, and BDSM people, and spoke about who you center in your work. As a “white-presenting” artist, she wants to make space and give power to those who need it. She talked about a performance with naked people doused in baby oil who wear antlers as strap-ons. In response to a white cis male critic, she said, “I don’t care about that critique. You’re right, it’s not for you.”
The last segment of the day was a presentation called “The Teaching Is in the Making: Locating Anishaabe Feminism as Art Praxis,” which featured the work of independent artist Leanna Marshall, Celeste Pedri-Smith from Laurentian University, curator of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery Nadia Kurd, and Crystal Migwans from Columbia University, who introduced the work as a “transmission of knowledge.” This was followed by Leanna Marshall‘s singing and spoken-word performance NIMAMAATA MIYAW.
Crossroads allowed attendees to share in a sacred space, one where process and materials are about a struggle to exist. The room was filled with elders and academics, knowledge carriers and artists. The ideas that were shared and discussed — dignity for humans and non-humans, land recovery, self-determination, and social relations — demonstrated solidarity and encouraged me to honor and question my ancestors. It was an important day of power and community-building, articulating connections between violence against women and violence against the land. The event was an ambitious, disturbing, and brilliant contribution to North American art and art history.