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Unintentional Inclusion and Indigenous Art

11.3 / On Being Included

Unintentional Inclusion and Indigenous Art

By Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora) May 14, 2020

Dedicated to artist and scholar, Truman Lowe (Wakajahųkga) Ho-Chunk (1944-2019).


Academically trained artists like George Longfish, a Tuscarora/Seneca artist from the Six Nations territory or Ohsweken just outside of Hamilton, Ontario, called for the inclusion of Indigenous artists in institutions like the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) from the early 1960s onward. The 1980s marked the most visible moment for a call for inclusion in art-world centers with the contemporaneous rise of the categorization of oppressed peoples within the United States. The subjugated discourse labeled as “identity politics” masked the intellectual complexity of this work and continues to compromise the integral inclusion of Indigenous art in museums, art criticism, and private collections. During the so-called “culture wars” of the 1980-90s, it felt like there was solidarity between what was identified as Asian, African, Latinx, and Native American artists, but there have been unequal inclusions.1

What is the current state of the inclusion of Indigenous art in academia, commercial galleries, artist-run centers, and museums alike—at the Met, MOMA, the Whitney, the equivalent spaces in other nations? The space which used to be labeled "American Indian," "Native American," or now more commonly "Indigenous," alludes to the politics of the settler state relationship. It is precisely this distinction that complicates the alliance of oppressed racialized peoples in the Americas. There continues to be a murky understanding of Indigenous communities and nations in relationship to settler spaces, which impacts understanding our art.

Longfish and contemporaries like G. Peter Jemison (Seneca), and Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith (Salish/Kootenai) carved open a space in the United States for the inclusion of Indigenous artists, thereby enabling the expectation today to accommodate our distinct worldviews as informing our art. Indebted to mid-twentieth century activism, some progress can be seen in the inclusion of Indigenous artists, curators, and writers in national institutions like Wanda Nanibush (Anishinaabe), curator of Indigenous art at the Art Gallery of Ontario; Megan Tamati-Quennell (Maori), curator of modern and contemporary Maori and Indigenous art at Te Papa in Aotearoa (New Zealand); and Kathleen Ash-Milby (Diné), former curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and recently appointed curator of Native art at the Portland Art Museum. Independent curator Lee-Ann Martin (Mohawk) played a major role in pushing open national museums like the Canadian Museum of History (formerly, the Canadian Museum of Civilization) with exhibitions like INDIGENA: Perspectives of Indigenous People on Five Hundred Years (1992); and internationally, Candice Hopkins (Carcross/Tagish) curated an Indigenous section in documenta 14, South as a State of Mind (2016). Contemporaneous to these efforts, under the direction of W. Richard West, Jr., the former director of NMAI, curators Gerald McMaster (Cree), Truman Lowe (Ho-Chunk) and Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche) made strategic interventions at the Venice Biennale with a conference Vision, Space, Desire: Global Perspective and Cultural Hybridity (2005). The modest mention of a few underscores the gains that have been achieved, but I argue that inclusion in art-world spaces isn’t only for the benefit of arts patrons, but has a profound impact for Indigenous peoples. The global visible presence of Indigenous art and makers is critical for the resurgence of Indigenous knowledge, asserting our sovereignty as discrete political and cultural communities and nations.

Yet, within art-world centers, inclusion of Indigenous art is complicated by a number of factors including an ongoing omission of Indigenous nationhood expressed as sovereignty.2 There are different interpretations by Indigenous peoples in North America of their legal relationship to the settler states of Canada and the United States. Traditional governments like the Haudenosaunee and Hopi continue to see ourselves as citizens of our own nations and separate, not quasi-sovereign, from the United States and Canada.3 We refer to our treaty relationship with the United States as defining the recognition of our political and cultural autonomy. Not all Indigenous peoples in North America articulate their relationship to the settler states in this way, but it is a critical factor in understanding the equitable inclusion of Indigenous art in all facets of the art world.

As Indigenous peoples, we have to challenge ourselves to understand the traditional teachings that informed our ancestor’s worldviews as a collective project, requiring a community of people engaging in a framework of ideas, not individuals working in isolation. This is challenging because most Indigenous peoples live away from our communities, forming new communities in urban spaces, or what Reyna Ramirez refers to as “Native hubs.”4 Yet, it remains critical that our land base or homelands remain secure. Constantly under threat, we have to continue strategic relationship-building while challenging settler states to recognize our sovereign nationhood as center to the ongoing formulation of Indigenous “place-based” knowledge. Place-based in this case can extend beyond the boundaries of nation territories, but also needs to recognize the power in land stewardship. Commonwealth countries continue with policies of assimilation of Indigenous peoples yet the arts appear to be supported, albeit in service of nation-state narratives. In contrast, in the US, Indigenous traditional governance is being strangled out financially with little or no support for contemporary Indigenous art. Yet the support of our art and artists remains a cultural priority within our communities without equitable infrastructure or control of institutional spaces.

Ironically, the framework of the nation-state was applicable in the late twentieth century but has given way to a need to understand these issues from a global perspective, especially as it relates to Indigenous art. By nation-state, I am referring to the settler spaces of Australia, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Canada, Sami adjacent nations of Finland, Norway, and Sweden, and the United States. Such understanding does not preclude the wide range of expression amongst Indigenous artists critiquing colonization, capitalism, racial and sexual tensions, sustainability, and other pertinent issues, but instead, specifically recognizes Indigenous artists that push boundaries to challenge or disrupt post-Enlightenment or European constructions of reality as critical for imagining and informing Indigenous space.

It’s difficult to think about historic societal inequity during the time of a pandemic. What will the art world look like after COVID-19? The “we are all in this together” emphasis in media is upended by the historic legacy of germ genocide due to the historic processes of colonialism against Indigenous peoples.5 The voice of a young Diné/Navajo woman Kim Smith epitomizes this moment: "And that’s what we’re here for, ultimately, as young people, to be able to sacrifice ourselves, sacrifice our well-being, so that more of our people don’t get sick. And the reality is, that our ancestors sacrificed so much more for us to continue to be here."6 As Indigenous peoples, there is a common thread of gratitude to our ancestors for our continued survivance.7 The insistence that we continue to assert our understanding of life is affirmed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a resolution that was passed in 2007 by the United Nations seeking collaboration with settler states to support Indigenous governance and culture.8 UNDRIP is an attempt to call attention to Indigenous autonomy globally and emphasizes the need to support Indigenous cultural expressions.

Tanning hides as part of Ábadakone / Continuous Fire / Feu continuel. National Gallery of Canada, November 2019.

The United Nations declared 2019 the year of Indigenous languages,9 followed by the proclamation by the General Assembly of 2022-2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages.10 The affirmation of Indigenous languages underscores the resurgence of traditional knowledge in Indigenous communities. Many artists have deployed the use of Indigenous languages and concepts as a strategy to insert multiple epistemologies in the analysis of their work. For example, the appropriation of an Algonquin word meaning “the fire continues to burn" or "continuous fire” represents the second iteration of a global Indigenous curated exhibition initiated with Sakahán in 2013 at the National Gallery of Canada. Ábadakone / Continuous Fire / Feu continuel opened in November 2019 with the aroma of smoking hides as visitors were invited to learn, then pass on the knowledge of scraping hides as an attempt to experience the importance of community participation as an Indigenous tenet. Ábadakone situates ongoing colonial structures while foregrounding art about Indigenous experiences. The impulse to curate Indigenous epistemological depth into exhibits came out of community-supported spaces with curators like Tom Hill (Mohawk) and the exhibition Godi'nigoha': The Women's Mind (1997) at Woodland Cultural Center, Six Nations, Ontario.

The 22nd Biennale of Sydney made history with the appointment of the first Indigenous artist as artistic director, Brook Andrew. The Biennale title, NIRIN WIR, or “edge of the sky,” drew upon Andrew’s Wiradjuri heritage as the thematic center for what he asserts, “creativity is an important means of truth-telling, of directly addressing unresolved anxieties that stalk our times and ourselves. More importantly, it is a place from which to see the world through different eyes, to embrace our many edges and imagine pride in sociologically and harmonious self-defined futures.”12 Further, in this international art-world space, on the website and physical installations, the recognition of Indigenous territorial authority was acknowledged as follows: “We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation; Boorooberongal people of the Dharug Nation; the Bidiagal and Gamaygal people, on whose ancestral lands and waters NIRIN gathers.”13 The call for Indigenous territorial recognition or land acknowledgement is seen as a step toward reconciliation or as described by University of Toronto professor Karyn Recollet (Cree), “an activation of Indigenous culture.”14 Land acknowledgements are both performative and strategic, but need to be resolved with tangible benefits to Indigenous peoples.

If the only measure of success for Indigenous artists is the secondary sale of Indigenous art at Sotheby’s, then contemporary Indigenous art hasn’t created much of an impact. If academia is the other end of the scale, there isn’t a uniform methodological imperative that requires the “indigenization” of art education. As part of overall academic reform due to consistent activism, Canadian and Aotearoa (New Zealand) post-secondary institutions do include classes in Indigenous art history and the hiring of Indigenous artists in MFA programs. Within the field of art history, post and neo-colonial theory are requirements for critical analysis. The transit of Indigenous art and curation in global exhibitions is perhaps most revealing concerning the inclusion of Indigenous art. It reveals the suppression of the recognition of Indigenous nationhood within settler states, while simultaneously acknowledging the resurgence of hundreds of Indigenous worldviews as “art.” Unexpectedly, increased artworld visibility invigorates the return, contemplation, and investigation of traditional knowledge within our communities. The use of Indigenous concepts in our languages, the ongoing deconstruction of colonization, the interrogation of history and all of the other big questions in the world today that artists bring to our attention for Indigenous communities, create a dynamic circle of renewal. Recognition or inclusion in art-world spaces is an incidental benefit.


  1. For an understanding of cultural diversity in the arts see: Lucy R. Lippard, Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990).
  2. Jolene Rickard, “Diversifying Sovereignty and the Reception of Indigenous Art,” Art Journal 76, no. 2 (2017): 81.
  3. See Jolene Rickard, “Visualizing Sovereignty in the Time of Biometric Sensors,” in Eric Cheyfitz, eds. “Sovereignty, Indigeneity, and the Law,” South Atlantic Quarterly 110, no. 2 (2011): 292–581.
  4. Renya K. Ramirez, Native Hubs: Culture, Community, and Belonging in Silicon Valley and Beyond (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).
  5. "Native American Heritage Month: Germs, Genocides, and America's Indigenous Peoples," US Official News, November 22, 2017, https://link-gale com.proxy.library.cornell.edu/apps/doc/A515349685/STND?u=cornell&sid=STND&xid=19f7a24a.
  6. Democracy Now!, "COVID-19 & Indian Country: Pandemic Exposes Navajo Nation’s Water Access Crisis & Health Disparities," accessed April 15, 2020, https://www.democracynow.org/.
  7. Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor defines survivance as “an active sense of presence, the continuation of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy and victimry” in Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), vii.
  8. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs on Indigenous Peoples, UNDRIP “is the most comprehensive international instrument on the rights of indigenous peoples. It establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world and it elaborates on existing human rights standards and fundamental freedoms as they apply to the specific situation of indigenous peoples.” https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html 
  9. As reported on January 14, 2019, “In 2016, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution (A/RES/71/178) proclaiming 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages, based on a recommendation by the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. At the time, the Permanent Forum expressed concern that 40 percent of the world’s estimated 6,700 languages were in danger of disappearing—the majority belonging to indigenous peoples.” https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/news/2019/01/iyil/.
  10.  Press release, December 18, 2019, UN General Assembly plenary session, https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/ga12231.doc.htm.
  11. Greg A. Hill, et al., Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art (Ottawa, Ontario: National Gallery of Canada, 2013).
  12. Andrew Frost, “Sydney biennale 2020: First Nations art upends Eurocentrism in powerful, occasionally confounding show,” The Guardian, March 12, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/mar/13/sydney-biennale-2020-first-nations-art-upends-eurocentrism-in-powerful-occasionally-confounding-show.
  13. See 22nd Biennale of Sydney website, accessed April 5, 2020, https://www.biennaleofsydney.art/.
  14. As reported by Ramna Shahzad, "What is the significance of acknowledging the Indigenous land we stand on?,” CBC News, July 15, 2017, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/territorial-acknowledgements-indigenous-1.4175136.

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