The term artist historically didn’t exist in many Native American languages. But those cultures still highly prized art by valuing the workmanship and designs of useful items created by everyday artisans.
Though Native American cultures vary vastly from tribe to tribe, many have continued their heritage through art. Today’s Native American artworks range in topic from traditions and customs to modern reflections on life as a human being.
Groups can admire the work of exemplary Native American artists at these six museums that promote contemporary native art.
Five Civilized Tribes Museum
Traci Rabbit tries to represent the way it feels to be female. The Native American artist depicts women who are fiercely dignified, yet gentle and passionate. Rabbit is among the artists celebrated at the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
The museum examines the history and contemporary lives of the groups that became known as the Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek and Seminole. These tribes were forcibly removed from their land and sent to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.
The museum’s exhibits remember this tragic period as well as the contributions made by members of the five tribes. Exhibits on the tribal members’ lives, history and culture are downstairs; upstairs highlights artifacts mixed in from rotating contemporary art and the museum’s permanent collection of 800 items of traditional Native American art.
Artists displayed in the museum create work coveted by museums and private collectors alike, such as Benjamin Harjo Jr., the Picasso of Native American art. The museum holds the world’s largest collection of Jerome Tiger originals, including “Stickballer,” his only major sculpture.
Each year, the museum hosts art competitions for tribal members in painting, pottery, gourd art, sculpture and more. Guests can see the top competitors from the previous competitions.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 1870 museum building has previously served as the house of the superintendent of the Five Civilized Tribes, an orphanage and a dance hall.
Museum Favorite: Visitors can buy art directly from Native American artists at the Art Under the Oaks market. Held on the museum grounds each April, the event draws artists from all five tribes to showcase their wares along with traditional singing and dancing.
The Hopi tribe used carved wooden figures called kachina dolls to teach young girls about the immortal beings they believed served as messengers between humans and the spirit world. Historic and modern kachina dolls are on display at the Heard Museum.
The museum works to advance Native American art with 11 exhibit galleries. Focused on the art and traditions of the Southwest, the collection ranges from 500 B.C. to the present.
Founded in 1929, the museum started small and grew over the years to amass one of the country’s most formidable collections of Native American art. In the exhibits, first-person perspectives, such as “Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories,” help tell stories from the area’s tribes. The emotional exhibit uses multimedia stations to tell stories about the controversial practice of removing children from their homes and placing them in boarding schools.
About 200,000 visitors a year learn about the myriad cultures and artwork of Southwestern tribes. After touring the galleries, guests can grab a Southwest-inspired meal at the Courtyard Cafe or relax in the museum’s outdoor gardens.
Museum Favorite: The Heard Museum Shop offers traditional and contemporary Native American-made artwork: Authentic pottery, paintings, sculptures and kachina dolls are available. The museum also features the smaller Books and More store for souvenirs, gift items and reading materials on native art and culture.
Iroquois Indian Museum
Howes Cave, New York
According to Iroquois tradition, a woman once fell from the cloud world and ended up creating the planet Earth. Groups can hear the Iroquois tribe’s fascinating creation story and admire its cultural contributions at the Iroquois Indian Museum.
When a group arrives, an Iroquois cultural educator welcomes them and introduces the group to the Iroquois tribe. These guides often share personal experiences about growing up, maintaining Iroquois traditions and their own responsibilities as elders.
Far from staying in the past, the museum explains how the past helps shape its creative present. The main-floor exhibits begin with the archaeology of the Schoharie Valley and an orientation film of the role of art in the tribe today.
Contemporary Iroquois art exhibits rotate, since only a small percentage of the museum’s collection is on display at one time. In April, the museum will release a thought-provoking art exhibit called “Identity/Identify,” with Iroquois artists exploring tribal designations.
The museum presents art from all six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora.
Among the acclaimed pieces is the haunting “Three Sisters” series of antler sculptures by Stanley Hill Sr., and the intricate “Pope Basket” by Mary Adams.
Museum Favorite: Groups can attempt their own piece of Native American art to take home with a traditional cornhusk craft. The museum also offers beadwork and pottery programs for nearly all ages. The Tools of the Hunt experience engages groups with examples of early Iroquois technology.
National Museum of the American Indian
The art begins before visitors walk through the front doors of the National Museum of the American Indian. Designed by Native American architects, the museum’s architecture mimics rock formations with its curvilinear structure and limestone material.
Inside, the museum’s collection represents more than 12,000 years of history across 1,200 indigenous cultures from the Americas. The modern and contemporary art collection shows the versatile creativity of different tribes.
Groups also understand the historical context for modern Native American art by viewing the museum’s Native American objects, photographs and media. Permanent exhibits examine indigenous religions, ceremonies and contemporary struggles.
The museum’s exhibit “Return to a Native Place: Algonquian People of the Chesapeake” focuses on local Native American traditions. Ceremonial objects, maps and displays paint a picture of the Native Americans prevalent in the D.C. area.
Gallery tours reveal the museum’s background and its current exhibition items. Public tours can be combined with daily screenings of “Who We Are,” an introductory film about the museum, for a comprehensive visit.
Museum Favorite: Fry bread and corn “totopos” keep the foodies coming to the Mitsitam Native Food Cafe. The acclaimed restaurant serves indigenous cuisines of the Americas at five regional-food stations.
Travelers might not expect Southwestern pueblo architecture in the Midwest, but there are a lot of surprises in store at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. The museum explores Western art with a focus on Native American art, history and culture.
The only Midwest museum that focuses on both Native American and Western art, the Eiteljorg boasts both an extensive permanent collection and a partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, which provides greater access to rare works.
Tours lead groups through exhibits of art and cultural objects that represent the native peoples of Indiana and beyond. Contemporary and traditional art feature native beadwork, glasswork, textiles, pottery and mixed media from many tribes.
The museum also offers contemporary pieces from the wider Western tradition, with works by T.C. Cannon, Andy Warhol and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Groups can include a Western-style meal at the Museum Cafe. The Frank and Katrina Basile Museum store sells native art, jewelry, books and other items.
Museum Favorite: Groups that visit after spring 2022 will see the results of a major renovation of the Eiteljorg Museum’s second-floor Native American art galleries. Though the second floor’s exhibits will temporarily close in spring 2021, when they reopen, guests will see an exhibit space that provides a more complete picture of Native American art in the Great Lakes region. During the renovation, the native artwork will be incorporated into other parts of the museum.
Institute of American Indian Arts’ Museum of Contemporary Native Arts
Santa Fe, New Mexico
The Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) began gathering an art collection out of a student honors program. With the help of outside donors and artists, the collection continued to grow until the number of pieces necessitated a museum in 1972. Twenty years later, the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts moved to downtown Santa Fe, New Mexico, inside a renovated 1922 Pueblo Revival-style building.
The museum stewards 7,500 artworks in various media. The modern art gallery hosts rotating exhibits such as “Experimental Expression: Printmaking,” which runs through July 2021. The exhibit showcases the diversity of expression in contemporary Chickasaw art.
Another current exhibit, “Live Long and Prosper: Indigenous Futurism in Contemporary Native Art,” runs through July. This science-fiction-themed exhibit highlights the use of cosmology and science as part of tribal history and life.
Groups can tour these and other fascinating exhibits for a deeper understanding of each gallery. Prominent artists on display include Tony Abeyta, George Morrison and Truman Lowe.
The IAIA is the only higher-learning institution dedicated to contemporary Native American art.
Museum Favorite: Run by the museum, the Allan Houser Sculpture Garden allows groups to explore 80 works by renowned sculptor Allan Houser. The 15-acre site sits 25 minutes from Santa Fe amid panoramic mountain vistas.