What Constitutes “Native American Art” and Why Does It Exist?

Students in my ART 4763: Native American Art and Material Culture course regularly make use of interviews in the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program’s Oklahoma Native Artists Project. Last fall, I asked students to bring together interviews from the Project with interviews or artists’ statements published elsewhere, in thematic discussions that explore the range and diversity of Native artists’ experiences. Over the next few weeks, in conjunction with the Oklahoma Arts Conference, where Project director Julie Pearson-Little Thunder and I will be presenting about uses of Project interviews, I’ll be sharing some of the students’ papers on the blog. In this post, Zakery Frick takes a closer look at how people define Native American art, and what that means for contemporary artists.

Many people interpret the idea of art differently, but when it comes to what identifies “Native American Art,” the question’s intentions alter. Instead of asking things like “why did you choose this color?” or “what was the reasoning behind this medium?”, questions like “how is this representative of a tribal setting?” or “I thought Native artists only painted and made jewelry?” get asked. Artists of all types struggle with identity, but sometimes it can be especially hard to break a perceived identity that is put upon you, such as being a Native American artist and what that constitutes.

There are some artists, such as Gina Gray, who use what would be considered a more “traditional” form. Gray was a painter and a printmaker from the Osage Tribe, and she started at a young age, becoming something of a prodigy. She was educated in designated Indian institutes including the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), and was tutored early on by a retired Native arts teacher. Gray was in an environment that was centered on Native art her whole life, and her most prestigious works are ones that could be considered traditional for a contemporary artist—close to what people often think represents Native American art.


‘Clan Seeker’ by Gina Gray.

However, not all artists of Native American heritage have had the same experience. In fact, several have had lives that wouldn’t be classified as traditional at all, and their art represents that. D. G. Smalling is a great example of this, as he was raised more in Africa and Europe and taught European styles of art, even though he is of Native American descent. He lived in Switzerland, near Geneva, where he took art classes and education. When asked about where he saw his first piece of Native art, he said “I have no idea. My grandfather, more than likely. He kept things on his desk. That’s probably where it was. I had blankets made for me, so actually that would have been the first because those were my birth blankets.”

Smalling is an artist who identifies himself as a Native American artist, but not by the style of art he does. His most famous form of art is a unique form of drawing he calls one-line, where he makes a picture using only a single line and never letting his pen up until it is finished. He doesn’t use a traditional technique though, or any traditional tools. Just a pen and a piece of paper, and I respect this artist for doing his own form instead of relying on one that is already defined.

Another thing many people consider when they are determining if they think something is Native or not is the content. Everyone knows the icon of a Native American chief with a huge feather headdress smoking on a peace pipe, and since Native American artists are still unknown to a lot of people outside of the states in which they are prominent, that stereotype is all they have to go off of. But many artists are using their talents to try and change these ideals, especially politically.

Many Native American artists are political activists in some way, and Shan Goshorn is no different. She has used her works to make political points in the past, such as Sealed Fate: Treaty of New Echota Protest Basket (2009), woven from digitized strips of the New Echota Treaty, along with the 40,000 signatures of Cherokees who objected to the treaty. I consider this work to be a great example of how Native artists are just as equally powerful and influential as any other artist when it comes to political means. Activist art has existed across the world in every culture, including Native American ones. Native American art is just as powerful politically as any other form of art. It has the same strong effect on people’s feelings when they see it, which is what many agree art should do – elicit an emotional response from the viewer.

Another approach, which has been taken by Harry Fonseca, has been not only to explore other cultures’ art, but also to combine their ideals and forms with his own work. For example, his series titled “Coyote” is a series of pictures done in a style similar to what you would see painted on rock walls or other natural forms, but they usually depict a coyote character in modern, Americanized clothing. In his culture, the coyote is seen as a trickster, similar to how Loki is the god of tricks and mischief in Nordic mythology. By putting his character in the clothes of American culture, Fonseca is essentially calling whatever the coyote is wearing a lie.

Fonseca’s paintings work as political pieces, but they also show how arts from different cultures blend together, making it hard to distinguish between them. Fonseca’s work has European American symbols, but is done in a more recognizable Native American form (rough paintings on natural surfaces). He creates his paintings on canvas, but mimics the look of rock painting with how he paints his figures, which again mixes the mediums.

And finally some pieces of pure abstraction, with no affiliation or association with any one culture. Joe Feddersen, who is an abstract painter by trade, started off making pieces that had nothing whatsoever to do with human symbols or constructs. In fact, the closest thing he associates them with is our images of space and the galaxy. Examples of abstract paintings and drawings can be found throughout history and across cultures, and I feel they are a way of linking everyone together in an equal understanding. You need no knowledge of political issues, or of the timeframe the person who made the piece was in; abstraction is the opposite of specific cultural identification in most cases.


Joe Feddersen, “Urban Vernacular: Cul de Sac,” 2008.

To me, the idea of “Native American art” is more of a stigma than an identifier. The phrase itself just reinforces the idea that it should be judged or viewed differently than other cultural pieces – that it isn’t on the same level as something that was painted by an artist of the Renaissance simply because it’s Native American. Native American artists themselves aren’t even sure how to identify Native American art, and frankly I don’t think it should be identified in most cases.

In Feddersen’s or Smalling’s cases, they don’t need a Native American identifier. They are unique artists in their own right, and the only cases where I feel having Native American ties really add to something is when it is making a political statement of some sort, which is why I included Goshorn and Fonseca in this discussion. Their pieces wouldn’t make much sense without knowing the political backstory of their pieces, and their Native American heritage. But having a broad term for these pieces I feel is not helpful to the art itself, nor the artists, because it could make someone feel that they are forced into an artistic category simply based on their bloodlines, even if they want to do something that would be seen as culturally completely different. The whole point of art today is a sense of freedom and creativity, and having labels for these things stifles that.

Student essays posted on the blog are edited only for length and clarity. Image sources: Alex Jacobs, “Farewell, Laughing Sister: Osage Artist Gina Gray Walks On,” Indian Country Today Media Network; Froelick Gallery, Joe Fedderson artist page.



About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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