An Existing Dilemma: What is Native Art?

Jon Shellenberger

Recently, an art contest was held at a State Fair in Colorado. The winning prize? A piece of digital art, and people across the United States are furious (for more about the event, please check out This occurrence underlines a valid issue in the art world, and even more specifically, in the Native art world. Last year, a well-established Native artist called out some of my work. He questioned if my ledger art was ledger art or art at all. I didn't follow this artist, and this was brought to my attention by a friend. I soon discovered that he and several of his friends were my followers on Instagram. None of them ever liked or commented on my work on social media but had choice words about the type of work I produce. It would be a lie to say that it didn't affect me; it did and still does. However, there is a legitimate issue worth addressing since it does have historical roots.

The designation of “Native art” is nothing new in the United States. During the late 19th and early 20th Century, newly created museums hired predominately white ethnologists, archaeologists, and anthropologists to collect worthy examples of Native American material culture to bring back and showcase in their exhibits. During this period, anthropologists believed Native Americans were on their way to extinction, and anthropologists documented in exhaustive detail all aspects of Native life through the 1930s. In 1906, the establishment of the Antiquities Act legitimized archaeology as a profession. It also paved the way for the scientific excavation of "significant" archaeological sites. The act sought to protect archaeological sites from looting. However, it also created a power shift, handing archaeologists all the decision-making responsibilities over the fate of archaeological sites in the U.S.This was a dramatic shift from the field during the 1800s when archaeology was mainly a hobby for many.

When those first exhibits and collections were established, it wasn't through the lens of tribal consultation. Scientists and curators hand-picked what they thought represented an aesthetic worthy of display for a non-native audience. Conferring with Native Americans wasn't even a thought. Archaeological and human remains were assumed insignificant to the people they belonged to and any Tribal protest was ignored. Therefore, museums in the United States are built on a foundation of colonialism with a "power-over" dynamic that persists today. Museums are trying to improve the space for Native voices and going through different pathways to avoid this dilemma. However, cherry-picking still occurs on the exhibit and collection levels. There isn't a way to completely decolonize museum spaces.

Having conducted anthropological/archaeological fieldwork for the last 20 years, I am no stranger to museums and their function. I know the hard work that goes into them and the curators' constraints when trying to create an exhibit. I have helped with several educational exhibits throughout my years and have seen the hard work of museum staff pour into them.

This behind-the-scenes perspective has undoubtedly helped shape my opinion of Native art and how it's defined. When I walk into a museum or gallery full of Native art or artifacts, my first questions are not about the pieces themselves but the positions of power at the museum or gallery. Who was making the decisions, and why did they make these decisions? Better yet, what does it mean if I perpetuate a system driven heavily by non-Native curators who have themselves picked the items for display? There is a dangerous dynamic occurring in the Native art world where the museums and galleries are selecting who and who does not get an exhibit. The consequence is the existing definition of Native art as we understand it today, shaped primarily by non-native gallery owners and museum faculty and staff. 

I wouldn't have mentioned this topic if I hadn't recently communicated with a Native artist who produces beautifully painted portraits. They said they frequently question why they don't create “real” Native art, meaning why they don't bead, quill, or produce "traditional" Native art. There doesn't seem to be any escape from this dilemma. Digital art isn't real Native art, paintings and drawings aren't real Native art, and I don’t want to get into the issues surrounding what constitutes “traditional” versus “contemporary” Native art. Let’s say there's more than one.

When we ask what art is or what Native art is, we need to know where that definition comes from and how it was formed. We need to be open to the idea that defining art has always been an issue and is no different in the realm of Native art. However, within the realm of Native art, an additional colonialist component is worthy of acknowledgment. Museums need to be a place of giving back to Native communities instead of extracting what is deemed beautiful and essential. Highlighting and spotlighting specific Native artists requires leaving other artists and works of art in the dark. It's exclusionary, and to a community-oriented population, it is very individualistic. The artists making it happen today are worthy of their recognition. However, while doing this, we must also listen to their voices and vision for their work. Often, we pedestal people, and they cease being people only to represent their body of work for its aesthetic values. This is especially true for Natives, who face tokenism daily. When we do this, we ignore all cultural relevance and meaning. Native art was always a shared practice that occurred on the community level. Creating spaces where Native youth, elders, and adults can share ideas and discuss issues important to the community is critical to cultural transmission. I'll go out on a limb and say there is no decadence in Native art. It always has a purpose for the people.

As I told my audience at the one art exhibit, I was hand selected for, "there are thousands of Native artists that you have never heard of, seen, or met that could be shown here today, many of which are far more talented than me. I never considered myself an artist. We just grew up making things, and that's what we did. We never questioned it. We created out of necessity."

There is power in representation but also in picking what is represented. If all we are is an accumulation of pretty pictures and artifacts, we cease to be human. Nothing is more dehumanizing than taking from Native communities that which is sacred and stripping them of their sovereign voices and identities.


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  • This really helped put into words the sentiments I was feeling towards this topic. it has impacted my understanding and viewpoints a lot.
    Thank you.

    Kae Hernandez

  • Thankyou this has been a huge impact with me, as a person who is between what native artists want to sell and their desire to find just the right buyers

    Bever Branson

  • Sticks n stones

    Rosanna Sampson

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