Shifting the Paradigm: Indigenous American Art and Multicultural Art Education

Wendy Red Star, Fall, from the Four Seasons series, 2006. Courtesy of the artist.

While schools across the United States are typically closed today, the reason has been rife with controversy for years. The observance of Columbus Day is one of the most contentious federal holidays due to its whitewashing of colonial barbarism and the scarring legacy of Christopher Columbus’ actions on Indigenous American identity and culture. By celebrating Columbus Day, we are collectively erasing and accommodating his brutality, while spreading misinformation regarding the relationship between colonizers and Indigenous peoples (the same can be said about Thanksgiving).

The results of Columbus’ 15th century voyages undeniably led to the oppression and genocide of Indigenous peoples living in what is now geographically defined as the Caribbean, North, South and Central America. There are ample sources available about the atrocities inflicted upon Indigenous cultures by European colonialists. A principle of learning history is that we understand the wrongful actions of our predecessors so that we can make amendments to our actions and ensure that we learn from our tragic mistakes. The goal of learning from our past should be to build more empathetic, equitable and justice driven frameworks going forward. In the poetically written The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress, philosopher George Santayana wrote one of the most paraphrased statements regarding the importance of learning history: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Unfortunately, civilization at large is still participating in the severe marginalization of Indigenous people within American culture. This signifies a major pedagogical crisis within our contemporary society.

The oppression of Indigenous Americans has a nefarious connection to the American educational system, when during the 19th century, Indigenous American children were taken from their families and forced into boarding schools. The ultimate goal of these schools was to assimilate the students into the white Anglo-saxon culture, effectively ‘white-washing’ the rich cultural background and prior knowledge that the children had about their Indigenous identities. Even today, schools aren’t doing enough to recognize and address the academic and cultural issues of Indigenous American Students. As long as schools perpetuate dehumanizing myths about Indigenous Americans (Dunbar-Diaz, 2016), maintain mascots and athletic team names that are derogatory to Indigenous Americans and close in observation of Columbus Day, the white-washing of Indigenous culture will continue to marginalize generations of students.

One way that educators can shift the paradigm towards an equal, equitable and just environment is through art-centered learning. The arts can illuminate the rich cultural diversity of historical, modern and contemporary Indigenous American life. Art helps us to synthesize our intersectional identities and look deeply and profoundly at the contributions of many different cultures within our society at large. The studio habits of mind, described by Lincoln Center’s Capacities for Imaginative Learning program, have significant benefits to understanding and participating in multiculturalism. These habits of mind include questioning, embodying, making connectionsexhibiting empathycreating meaning, taking action and living with ambiguity. This post will focus on the seven aforementioned traits in regards to a multicultural focus around Indigenous American identities. When introducing Indigenous American culture in the curriculum, it is essential for educators to impress upon students that this is both a historical and contemporary topic and that Indigenous culture isn’t monolithic. One way to do this is by introducing contemporary artists whose work expresses particular perspectives for understanding Indigenous American identities and inspires enduring understandings about cultural diversity.

Making connections means that a student will activate prior knowledge and experience with newfound knowledge and experience in order to collaboratively participate in an ongoing cultural dialogue. Art is useful in uniting individual narratives and representing the diversity of our culture at large. For example, the work of Jeffrey Gibson (previously featured on this blog), explores the relationship between his Cherokee-Choctaw background and the visual language of contemporary art. Gibson incorporates Cherokee-Choctaw aesthetics (such as patterns from blankets and quilts) and traditional Powwow dances within an inquiry-based contemporary art practice that explores traditional and contemporaneous meanings around identity-based art. Contemporary art embraces living with ambiguity, an important studio habit of mind, which teaches us that there are multiple meanings and perspectives that can be considered when viewing and creating works of art. The objects that Gibson creates are not so neatly defined as being from one particular interest or culture, which is because Gibson’s artistic influences manifest from different facets of his multilayered identity.

Another important contemporary artist who explores Indigenous American identity through experimental and intersectional processes, is Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Quick-to-See Smith’s body of work comments on a myriad of themes, which have personal significance to her as an Indigenous American, a woman and an artist. She works with abstraction, a visual language that is prevalent in all cultures, in order to make connections between Indigenous American art and the canon of Western Art. Her paintings have been interpreted as incorporating elements of art from Indigenous American crafts and Western art movements (such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop-Art and Minimalism) to create new meaning, symbolic of the intersectionality of Indigenous people and the universal dialogue that all forms of art encompass. About her aesthetic style, she has stated:

“I look at line, form, color, texture, etc., in contemporary art as well as viewing old Indian artifacts the same way. With this I make parallels from the old world to contemporary art. A Hunkpapa drum become a Rothko painting; ledger-book symbols become Cy Twombly; a Naskaspi bag is Paul Klee; a Blackfoot robe, Agnes Martin; beadwork color is Josef Albers; a parfleche is Frank Stella; design is Vasarely’s positive and negative space.”

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Untitled (Memory Map), 2000, mixed media on paper, 46 x 34 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Quick-to-See Smith also uses representational imagery that are indicative of stereotypical Indigenous American depictions in order to signify the absurdity and malignant treatment of Indigenous culture within colonial society. For example, her ongoing I See Red series incorporates images of Indigenous Americans from popular and consumer culture to address the tokenism, objectification and exploitation of Indigenous culture for the benefit of colonial powers.

In addition to Gibson and Quick-to-See Smith, Brad Kahlhamer, Charlene Teters and Wendy Red Star are important artists for students to know. There is a great deal of potential to enhance overall meaning, understanding and relevance of Indigenous cultures by incorporating the work of these contemporary Indigenous American artists (and others, as this is just a short list of names) into the curriculum.

Brad Kahlhamer, Doll, Mixed Media, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Brad Kahlhamer’s oeuvre consists of a wide range of mixed media work that explores his ambiguous Indigenous American roots, while making significant connections to Indigenous American culture at large. Kahlhamer was born to a Indigenous American mother, however, he was adopted and raised by German-American parents. Although he isn’t affiliated with any tribal nation, Kahlhamer has spent his career as an artist and musician engaging with tribes throughout the country in order to learn about their traditional and contemporary customs. This engagement along with his experiences living in avant-garde artist communities has informed his personal artistic practice. For example, Bowery Nation (1985-2012), was inspired by an inquiry-based approach to how Indigenous American cultures relate to subcultures such as the New York City punk and underground art scene. Bowery Nation asked (hypothetically) ‘what if’ there was a tribe called the Bowery Nation? What would their rituals be? What objects might they create? Fusing his knowledge of Hopi katsina figures and his experience living and working on the Lower East Side (New York City), he realized Bowery Nation as an installation of 100 small figures constructed from materials scavenged throughout the urban environment. Bowery Nation can be interpreted as an embodiment of an alternative tribe, one that Kahlhamer is deeply connected with due to his intersectional identity, prior education and life experiences.

While learning about the significance of Hopi katsina figures, students can simultaneously analyze Kahlhamer’s rendition of these figures, which signify objects of originality (each figure represents a deity who has unique characteristics), spirituality and (through Kahlhamer’s critical lens) cultural appropriation for mass consumerism (hence the dubbing of them as ‘dolls’ by Westerners). After discussing the traditional and contemporary implications that these figurines embody, students can create their own Hopi inspired figure to represent their unique sense of self.

Wendy Red Star’s oft-satirical and surreal works of art make serious comments on traditional and contemporary Indigenous American culture by satirizing Western depictions and appropriations of Indigenous identity. The romanticized ideology of Indigenous Americans being ‘one with nature,’ is given an absurd and playful treatment in her Four Seasons series of photographic environments, which feature props such as inflatable deer or cut-out coyotes, juxtaposed with traditional and archetypal Indigenous American objects, costumes and gestures. Red Star’s Four Seasons body of work is in stark contrast to the whitewashed depictions of Indigenous peoples through historical and contemporary lenses and is powerful critique of Western art’s deceptive canonization of the relationship between humans and the natural environment.

Wendy Red Star also addresses the treatment of Indigenous American men and women in the Western canon by calling attention to the idealized and impersonal representation of Indigenous Americans in historical photographs taken by non-Native American photographers. Often, these photographs were presented with little to no information or background about the sitter. Through her own research symbolized through annotations on historical photographs of Indigenous individuals, evident in her Medicine Crow & The 1880 Crow Peace Delegation series, Wendy Red Star points out how the tokenism and generic portrayal of the Indigenous American by non-Native photographer influences the viewer’s perception. By adding her annotations, Wendy Red Star asserts the sitter’s cultural identity back into the photograph.

After looking at Wendy Red Star’s work, students can be assigned a project where they scrutinize and question the way imagery is used in popular culture. They can describe, analyze, interpret and judge how specific individuals and cultures are portrayed through various forms of media (advertisements, TV shows, comic books, memes, etc.), and create a visual critique of the idealized presentations in order to show a more factual and empathetic perspective.

Charlene Teters’ work as an artist, activist and educator has a significant cross-disciplinary focus on the intersection between Indigenous art and the colonial culture that has neglected and sought to erase tribal identity. One of the major issues that Teters addresses is the negative perception of tribal imagery within athletic culture. The depiction of exaggerated caricatures of Indigenous Americans as logos and names of sports teams is a racist practice, which Teters and other Indigenous American activists seek to end. Through her artwork, teaching and social practice, Teters educates the public on the dehumanizing effects that these mascots have in perpetuating inaccurate stereotypes of  Indigenous culture and identity.

After learning about Teters’ work, students can reflect upon the mascot(s)/logo(s)/team name(s) in their own school through a critical lens. Are they part of a school environment that contributes to cultural appropriation or objectification? If so, what action can they take to ensure the removal of the negative mascot/logo/team name? For example, students can work collaboratively on a multi-disciplinary public campaign to change the mascot/logo/name to something that is both not culturally appropriate and relevant to study life on campus. They can start by raising the school community’s awareness to the existing  negative cultural appropriation and then begin to find a more common ground through surveying student’s interests in order to come up with a positive representation of the school, which embodies the rich multicultural diversity and interests of the student body. 

While each of these aforementioned artists approach their work from unique perspectives, altogether, they powerfully address significant issues affecting Indigenous Americans today. Their work scrutinizes the past by presenting iconic imagery and archetypes of Indigenous American culture, which make poignant connections to the tokenism of Indigenous people within the American narrative. These artists visualize multiculturalism by combining Indigenous American and Western identities, resulting in the creation of new meaning and awareness for contemporary social and cultural issues. Through the work of these contemporary artists (and others! I encourage you to explore and share the work of even more artists!) we might begin to map out the complex and open-ended nature of intersectionality and the need to shift the paradigm in order to represent cultural diversity in a celebratory, inclusive and empathetic manner.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

In addition to the artists discussed above, a recent exhibition at Bronx Art Space called Humble (on view through October 13, 2018) curated by Cougar Vigil & Eva Mayhabal Davis features the work of 15 Native American artists.

Nelson, Talia, “Historical and Contemporary American Indian Injustices: The Ensuing Psychological Effects” (2011). Commonwealth Honors College Theses and Projects. Paper 6.

Saccaro, Matt. “This is What Modern Day Discrimination Against Native Americans Looks Like.” Mic, 20 Oct. 2014,

Dunbar-Diaz, Roxanne. “The Miseducation of Native American Students.” Education Week, 28, Nov. 2016,

Rose, Peter. “Eclectic Image-Maker’ Paints Contrast.” Arizona Republic, 10, Jan. 1982.

Santayana, George, Reason in Common Sense, 1905.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s