For generations, Native Americans have been passing down their stories and traditions through art and literature. You can find them in the dances to thank spirits for a bountiful season and the sound of ancient voices in the wind as men and women drum, weave and harvest.
And while museums have done a fantastic job at highlighting the recorded history of Native American communities, a closer look into the contemporary art and mythology of Indigenous nations has yet to be embraced by many collections. For group travelers wanting to learn more about modern Native American voices and perspectives, here are five new exhibits and experiences highlighting Indigenous storytelling, music and traditions.
Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories
With a collection of over 24 million objects rotating in and out of its halls, the Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH) is one of Chicago’s largest and most beloved museums.
The newest addition to the museum is Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories, a massive permanent exhibit dedicated to telling the story of Indigenous people through words, music, dance and art. Alaka Wali, the museum curator, worked with an advisory committee of 11 Native American scholars, museum professionals, artists and community people to guide the creation of Native Truths.
“They really guided the whole process of how we came up with the stories we wanted to tell and then selecting the objects to showcase,” said Wali.
The final result is a massive exhibit featuring a mix of historical objects from the museum’s collection paired with contemporary objects by over 100 contemporary Native artists.
“From the beginning, we wanted to make this hall a representation of present-day Native American concerns,” said Wali. “And part of that was to get across the message that Native peoples were never erased and are still with us. They’re still thriving, and so that’s what this exhibit is about: those stories about how they did that.”
The result is an exhibition that combines the old and the new.
“We have over 50 artworks that we commissioned and purchased for this exhibition plus a number of historical pieces that connect and speak to each other,” said Wali. “This includes examples of present-day contemporary beadwork by Karen Ann Hoffman, an Onida artist, sitting next to a pair of moccasins that were made probably in the late 19th century, providing a juxtaposition between the old and the new.”
As Wali puts it, the exhibit is “almost too big to describe with words” and contains not only works of art but also benches built using pine gifted by the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin and large, colorful photographs taken by Native American photographers covering the walls.
Dedicated to celebrating the local history and culture of Longmont and the St. Vrain Valley in Colorado, the Longmont Museum contains over 30,000 artifacts, photographs and documents.
The museum’s new contemporary Native American art exhibition, called Duality, is a labor of love by artist and guest curator Gregg Deal from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.
“For Gregg, Duality was all about being a native person from this continent and having tradition in ceremony but also living in contemporary American society,” said exhibitions curator Jared Thompson.
From vibrant paintings and intrinsic ceramics to sculpture, video and delicate beadwork, the exhibit features the work of 15 artists bringing a modern look into Native American art.
“Many people tend to think of Native Americans in the past and not in a modern sense,” Thompson said. “Duality is hoping to challenge that perception by providing a snapshot into what contemporary art looks like now among Native American communities.”
Notable examples featured in the exhibit include sand paintings by JayCee Beyale, who Thompson said is a great example of the duality of modern Native Americans. “He’s actually Navajo, a nation with a tradition of sand painting, but he is also Buddhist, which also has a tradition in sand painting,” Thompson said.
There’s also the work of New Mexico ceramicist Virgil Ortiz.
“He comes from a long line of potters, and his work is just so beautifully crafted,” Thompson said. “And he was heavily influenced by sci-fi, but also both his grandmother and mother were renowned Pueblo potters, and you can see both influences in his work.”
Creations of Spirit
High Desert Museum
The High Desert Museum, founded in 1982, interprets the region known as the High Desert, a massive basin spanning eight to 10 states including Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and even corners of Northern Arizona.
“We use art and history and culture and the natural world to tell these very rich, layered stories about the high desert, the story of a place,” said Heidi Hagemeier, director of communications for the museum.
The museum’s new exhibit, Creations of Spirit, embraces the Native American love of storytelling by combining nine historical objects on loan from the Smithsonian with seven original present-day creations. In addition to an interactive piece, there are also six other commissioned works displayed that are practical objects, including harvesting baskets, traditional Plateau flutes and a tule reed canoe and paddles. All these objects were used in Native communities before becoming part of the exhibit and will return to those communities to be used in education.
“It’s all about this concept of objects being imbued with spirit or personhood, so that the object is fulfilling its purpose when it’s in use,” said Hagemeier. “So a root gathering basket can be used to gather roots in the field and have dirt stains on them, and yet they’re also beautiful and artsy and a connection with your ancestors.”
Music, video and projections help create a completely immersive experience where stories almost come alive. “It really is kind of an immersive space that you come in,” said Hagemeier. “The tule reed canoe, which actually went out on the water, is against a projection of water and landscape, so it almost looks like it’s out in space. And you hear Philip Cash Cash, his flute playing. It’s all very special.”
Come Weave with Chill Baskets
Akwesasne, New York
The Akwesasne of New York are a nation of basket makers, with the ancestral knowledge of waving passed down among women for generations. “Weaving is part of our ancient history,” said Penny Peters, manager of Akwesasne Travel/Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe. “I think a part of it is just the families that have continued to pass it down and keep the passion for it alive.”
At the Come Weave with Chill Baskets workshop, visitors will have a chance to work directly with award-winning basket maker Carrie Hill to create their very own piece of art.
“Carrie follows that exact storyline of how weaving was passed from generation to generation, but she’s also put her modern-day twist on it, kind of added her own creative touches as an artisan,” Peter said.
The tour takes groups to Hill’s workshop, where she shares her tools, her family history and how her love for basketry was born — all while visitors work on their own weaving projects.
“Carrie talks about the sweet grass used for the baskets, how it’s picked and how it’s used,” Peter said. “Sweet grass is kind of endangered right now, so she talks a little bit about the fear of this tradition being lost because we don’t have any more trees.”
While the space inside Hill’s workshop fits about eight people comfortably, Peters said it’s possible to accommodate large groups and customize the visit. “We have done experiences where half of the group goes to the nearby lacrosse factory and half go to Carrie’s workshop, and then they switch.”
Group tours need to be arranged in advance by calling Akwesasne Travel directly.
Boundless at the Mead Art Museum
Originally created to house the fine-art collection of Amherst College, the Mead Art Museum is now home to over 20,000 objects including paintings, ceramics and historical artifacts from cultures around the world.
Set to debut in September, Boundless is the museum’s newest curated exhibit. The result of a dialogue between Frost Library, curators, students and members from local Native communities, the exhibit will explore the connection between Indigenous writers and the artists and illustrators bringing their words to life.
Both the library and Amherst College hold significant collections of Native American literary and cultural documents, including rare original books by 19th-century Dakota authors, works by poet and abstract painter Fritz Scholder, and ledger art by Lakota contemporary artist Dyani White Hawk. Some works of historical importance, like an exquisite 1887 copy of “History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan” with an original porcupine quill decoration on the cover, have never been part of an exhibition before.
For those involved in curating the exhibit, it’s been all about nourishing a better understanding of Indigenous literary history, which often doesn’t get the present-day recognition it deserves. Boundless is hoping to correct that by encouraging conversation among readers and art lovers alike.