Native Soil

Native Soil

If you read the writing on the wall, you can’t enter Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art at the Yale University Art Gallery without confronting a central issue—the fact that the land on which Yale (and, indeed, most of us) resides once belonged to the indigenous peoples of what we now call Connecticut. A simple statement at each end of the exhibition lists the nations of those people—“the Eastern Pequot, Golden Hill Paugussett, Mashantucket Pequot, Mohegan, Niantic, Quinnipiac, Schaghticoke, and other Algonquian-speaking peoples”—and acknowledges and honors their stewardship of this land.

sponsored by

The Yale School of Music presents Catherine Russell

The statement is accompanied at each entrance by a single object—in the west end of the gallery, a wood-splint Mohegan basket (ca. 1860s) with painted designs symbolizing that nation’s conceptions of the universe, and in the east end, a carved maple bowl in which a single quahog shell is embedded. In this untitled 2017 piece by Mohegan artist Justin Scott, the wood grain swirls like water into a vortex of dark orange heartwood as the purple-striped shell hovers above it like a moon or a star. The whirlpool image may not be what the artist intended. But this is not an exhibition most viewers will be able to swim through easily.

In fact, it was designed to slow visitors down, with no singular route around the freestanding display cases, wall panels or peninsular display shelf, says co-curator Joseph Zordan, a recent Yale graduate and a member of the Bad River Ojibwe nation. “Also within our design is leaving a lot of open space so people can really take their time and interact with these objects,” he says.

The exhibition’s anchor is a large pair of embroidered textiles by Marie Watt (Seneca, 2015). Titled First Teachers Balance the Universe, Part I: Things That Fly (Predator) and First Teachers Balance the Universe, Part II: Things That Fly (Prey), Watt’s pieces hang on the wall like a pair of huge outstretched wings, their fringed edges echoing the feathered edges of the wings of a giant eagle embroidered in shimmering blue floss in Prey. Predator is a similarly stitched, missile-bearing Air Force jet that seems to be racing toward the eagle, which looks over its shoulder at the oncoming craft. These shapes are echoed in background stitches of pink and red, which also depict flocks of tiny birds as well as miniature rockets, hot air balloons, satellites, UFOs, drones and even the Goodyear blimp—references, we’re told, to places the artist has lived. They’re also reminders of how cluttered the skies have become with manmade creations. Watt’s pieces were stitched by sewing circles working together—sometimes using patterns, sometimes not—to create the images on repurposed Pendleton plaid blankets.

Place, Nations, Generations, Beings offers up a balance of contemporary works like these and the art of earlier centuries, including pieces made for the tourist market that arose as a result of displacement and forced cultural assimilation that disrupted traditional indigenous economies. One display case focuses attention on some of these items: moccasins beaded with a floral design and the word “Alaska,” a miniature totem pole and a miniature canoe with paddles. The small-scale replicas were not only good for tourist sales but also a way for artists to “practice and maintain these important designs for future generations, keeping this vital knowledge alive,” the object label says.

Many of the pieces are labeled “Artist Once Known” rather than “Unknown” or “Anonymous,” a designation Yale students insisted on using. “It’s a simple way of acknowledging that these people existed,” Madeleine Freeman, a Yale undergraduate and a member of the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations, told a gallery tour. Pots made by artists whose names were once connected to their work sit beside those of contemporary potters and reflect a lineage of traditions and knowledge. Bowl (2019) by Robert P. Tenorio of the Santo Domingo Pueblo shares a case with two early 20th-century pots made by members of his nation. The new piece is made of clay the same color as its ancestors’, echoing as well their scale, their orange-brown highlights, their stylized animal figures, their painted black bands alternating thick and thin.

Other contemporary pieces reference the past in other ways. Our Lands Are Not Lines on Paper (Shan Goshorn, Eastern Band of Cherokee, 2012) is a basket woven of strips from a settlers’ map and a black-and-white photograph of the Great Smoky Mountains. The photograph’s gray tones are extended by the topographical lines and dashed boundary marks of the map, which forms a zig-zagging pattern across the image. Words from the map emerge from the strips: “limit,” “boundary,” and a fragment of “Cherokee” that suggests the word “broke.” The design “recalls the Cherokee interpretation of place—defined by natural landmarks,” its object label tells us, in contrast with the drawn boundaries on the settler map now woven into the natural landscape.

Place, Nations, Generations, Beings also confronts a shameful chapter in indigenous history through the story of “revered Cherokee figure” Peggy Scott Vann (1783-1820). In stark white lettering on the purple wall behind the case displaying her woven baskets are the names of some of the hundreds of Africans she and her husband enslaved.

Part of what makes the show important is that most of its pieces have never been exhibited before. Undergraduates in internships with the Native American Arts Initiative, created following a surge of conversations about race on campus in 2016, took on the task of studying the university’s collection of indigenous art, which was scattered among four campus institutions, and recommending ways to improve its display and interpretation. The current exhibition arose from that work and was curated by undergraduates Katherine Nova McCleary (Little Shell Chippewa-Cree), Leah Tamar Shrestinian and Zordan, all of whom persisted beyond graduation to bring it to fruition.

An essay by McCleary and Shrestinian in the catalog documents how the university’s collection came to be through means both legal and illegal, ethical and unethical, and notes the many tangled questions that arose in the course of creating the exhibition. Place is just one way in which Yale has begun grappling with its acquisition of indigenous art. Another was the return in November of 2017, following protracted negotiations, of hundreds of objects in the Peabody Museum of Natural History’s collection to the Mohegan nation, “marking a turning point in their relationship,” McCleary and Shrestinian write.

Meandering among the 90 drawings, photographs, bowls, baskets, blankets, articles of clothing, cradles, containers and other objects, as Zordan suggests, is thus a complex exercise in viewership. You might admire the intricate beadwork of a bandolier bag in one moment, wonder in the next how it was used, then question whether your access to it was fairly obtained. At the same time, the exhibition allows indigenous Yale students and visitors to see many otherwise familiar objects in a new way, Zordan says.

There’s no easy route through Place, Nations, Generations, Beings, but it’s a journey worth taking.

Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art
Yale University Art Gallery – 1111 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Fri 10am-5pm, Thurs 10am-8pm, Sat-Sun 11am-5pm through June 21, 2020
(203) 432-0601…

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1, 3, 4, 5 and 8 photographed by Dan Mims. Images 2, 6 and 7 provided courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Photo Key:

1. Eye-Dazzler Blanket, late 19th century.
2. Casey Camp Horinek, Citizen of Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, “Zhutni,”
Tribal Councilwoman, Leader of Scalp Dance Society, Sundancer, Delegate to UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Matriarch of Wonderful Family (Grandmother, Companion, Mother, Sister), Defender of Mother Earth
by Will Wilson, 2016.
3. Bowl by Wallace Nez, 1999.
4. A wider view near the start of the exhibition.
5. Sea Monster Mask by Richard Hunt, 1999.
6. Indifferent by Julie Buffalohead, 2017.
7. Untitled by Johnny Kit Elswa, 1883.
8. First Teachers Balance the Universe, Part I: Things That Fly (Predator) and First Teachers Balance the Universe, Part II: Things That Fly (Prey) by Marie Watt, 2015.

More Stories