Where Are the Native Artists at the MCA?

November 12, 2020 · Essays + Reviews, Exhibitions, Featured

Where are the Native artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art?  There is no satisfactory answer for this question.  Every curator working in museums has uttered the phrases, “museums take…

Where are the Native artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art? 

There is no satisfactory answer for this question. 

Every curator working in museums has uttered the phrases, “museums take a long time to change,” “programmatic decisions are made years in advance,” and/or “change doesn’t happen overnight.” Native artists will not dispute these claims. We do not see ourselves reflected in museums, their staff, or the narratives that radiate out of them. Native people, more than any non-Native museum curator, can attest to the long trajectory museums have pursued for the inclusion of Native people. An inner cynic whispers, “perhaps the exclusion of Native people isn’t a matter of a slow-moving institutional behemoth but that the museum never considered artwork by Native people worthy of its space.” Any argument to the contrary can expect to be met with the fact that the year is now 2020, and the MCA, for example, has one object in their collection made by a Native person. 

Is that one, solitary, Native-made artwork in the MCA’s collection cherished by the museum?


MCA was initially a non-collecting institution, but over the years it has amassed more than 2,500 artworks. One of the museum’s first 50 artworks accessioned into the collection is a sculpture made from petrified whale bone by the Inuit artist, Nicodemus Nowyook. The sculpture titled Spirit was made c. 1960, and is a contemporary of other works of art accessioned for the initial collection. Although the museum uses adjectives to describe this piece as “unexpected”1 or “not appropriate to scope”2 for the museum’s collection, that framing is never explained. Why would this piece be unexpected, or out of scope? If the MCA included other contemporary artworks by Native artists in the collection, then this piece might not seem out of place. The MCA is informing their audience’s expectations with the decisions they make, with what is being excluded, and why. Keep in mind that the denial of contemporaneity of Native people and the forced ethnographic context often placed on art made by Native people is racist, as is the casual use of the term “Eskimo”3 found in the text accompanying MCA’s 2012 exhibition, First 50. The text explains that, “there are several technicalities that pose problems for the deaccessioning of Spirit, and so it remains in the collection.”4 The various attempts at deaccessioning Nowyook’s sculpture is now the humiliating narrative of the piece. 

There is another interesting confession within the text from First Fifty’s object checklist. In 1995 the MCA attempted to deaccession Nowyook’s piece through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Many museums have fought NAGPRA legislation in order to keep the bodies and grave-belongings of Native peoples’ ancestors. It is a stark admission that from 1995-1998 the MCA had pursued resources under legislation aimed at protecting our sacred materials and burial belongings as an avenue for deaccessioning contemporary art made by Native people. This odd attempted application of NAGPRA is one of the many examples that illustrate the MCA’s lack of proximity to Native communities, our activism, and scholarship.

One of the potential outcomes of exposing the MCA’s scant inclusion of Native artworks in their collection is that they will welcome this criticism, and use the “underserved communities” narrative to solicit funds from foundations and donors to expand their collection to include Native-made art. Many institutions can’t “fail”, because even when they do, their failure is rebranded and marketed as a worthy cause. In this way, there are no real consequences.  It is also possible that remediation will be done quietly, or not at all in order to (again) avoid consequences. It is unlikely that the MCA will acknowledge that they willfully participated in the exclusion of Native artists from their collection publicly. If there is doubt that the exclusion of Native people in the MCA’s collection is an active or willful exclusion, I will again mention that it is 2020.

But what about all those guest appearances?

Sky Hopinka presented his films in a screening at the MCA in 2019, Nicholas Galanin participated in recent online programming in 2020, and Dyani White Hawk Polk was featured on a panel about cultural appropriation in 2019. These guest appearances are low commitment devices where museums can quickly respond to programmatic oversight and criticism. This represents a modicum of freedom for the museum to respond to criticism or emergent discourse. But, if your community is primarily represented in one-off guest appearances and panels, understand these gestures as failures. They are failures to include your community in substantive ways, and these opportunities are often extractive relationships. Also, understand that it is likely that larger institutional commitments, such as hiring decisions that offer the agency and expertise of members of your community, or say, #LandBack of museum grounds, has never been on that institution’s vision board. 

Native people are often temporarily consulted when a museum finds itself in a state of crisis, or public outcry. On March 29, 2018, in the wake of Sam Durant’s Scaffold harm and the presentation of Jimmie Durham’s retrospective, the Walker Art Center hosted a panel titled “Beyond the Guest Appearance: Continuity, Self-Determination and Commitment to Contemporary Native Arts” featuring Nicholas Galanin, Ashley Holland, Candice Hopkins, and Steven Loft, and moderated by Dyani White Hawk. The resultant video of this panel should be required viewing for institutions who have not included Native people. In the introduction, White Hawk states that, “Indigenous people have been fighting for the deserved recognition, the validity of their own voices, and the value of their lives for over five centuries.”5 It is imperative that museums engage Native people in meaningful, long-lasting ways beyond panels and committees that are aimed at addressing the crisis of representation and museum violence.

Is the MCA working on developing a Land Acknowledgement?

Land Acknowledgement statements are spoken or written declarations aimed at recognizing the Indigenous nations who have a connection to the land that one occupies, as well as implicating oneself within a larger Indigenous-centered context, including historic violence and treaties, present-day relationships with Native communities, and future commitments.6 Perhaps the MCA isn’t interested in a late-adoption Land Acknowledgement statement, but the fact that they occupy land that was never ceded through agreement between the United States and any Native nation should alarm them. The MCA is on Nishnabek land, specifically the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi’s land. Other Anishinaabe people, the Ojibwe, Odawa, Menominee, as well as the Ho-Chunk consider Chicago on significant land to their families, histories, and lives.

It is important to understand that Land Acknowledgement statements aren’t a solution for the MCA’s problems. As Heather Miller, the director of the American Indian Center in Chicago, often states, “they are the very least you can do.” Although Land Acknowledgement statements have become commonplace, they are coming under scrutiny for becoming gratuitous pre-apologies for the continued institutional failure to establish relationships with Native communities. It is easy to imagine the future failure of institutions. Imagine that ten years out re-acknowlegements will state, “our organization has failed to make good on our commitments outlined in our 2020 Land Acknowledgement. We are seeking to take corrective action.” In the essay “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” E. Tuck and KW Yang write, 

“Efforts to ‘decolonize’ institutions are embodied in ritual acts of acknowledging Indigenous presence and claims to territory.  Within what is currently called the United States, these acknowledgements are increasingly—if only recently—understood as prerequisite for demonstrating engagement with Indigenous communities. However, without continuous commitment to serve as accomplices to Indigenous people, institutional gestures of acknowledgement risk reconciling ‘settler guilt and complicity’ and rescuing ‘settler futurity.'”7 

We also know that settlers don’t lose, or don’t have a history of losing when it comes to disenfranchising Native people. As previously stated, even when they fail a community, they market the failure as “learning out loud” and solicit sympathy and funding. 

That said, the MCA should absolutely develop a Land Acknowledgment statement. Along with most cultural institutions in Chicago located adjacent to Michigan Avenue and the lakefront — including the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the Arts Club of Chicago, The Museum of Contemporary Photography, the Chicago History Museum — the MCA’s building is on land that was not ceded through any treaty. The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi sued the city of Chicago and in 1917 the case Williams v. Chicago, 242 U.S. 434 was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled that the Potawatomi had “abandoned” the land.8 Through this decision, SCOTUS helped the settlers of Chicago steal the lakefront. The land that the MCA is built on is stolen Nishnabek land, stolen as landfill that trespassed into Potawatomi waters, and stolen through the colony-serving legal apparatus SCOTUS. These warful acts against the Potawatomi, including the Trail of Death, are part of the land that the MCA is built upon. Without actually returning the land the museum is built on, how could any staff at the MCA deliver a Land Acknowledgement to their audiences without simultaneously striking and dropping lit matches onto the floor?

What about the three local Native artists who are being included in an upcoming exhibition? 

An upcoming group exhibition, The Long Dream, features the work of 70 local artists, including artworks from three local Native artists: Debra Yepa-Pappan, Chris Pappan, and Santiago X. This is an okay-ish attempt at inclusion. The exhibition description states, “Against the backdrop of a global pandemic and a renewed reckoning over racial justice and inequality, The Long Dream invites visitors to see the city of Chicago, the world, and themselves, through the eyes of more than 70 local artists whose work offers us ways to imagine a more equitable and interconnected world.”9 

It is unclear who they mean by “us.” Is “us” the museum? A “more equitable and interconnected world” would not only include Native people, but it would insist on the MCA giving these three artists solo exhibitions, putting them in long term, high commitment programming, and commit to acquiring their work from whatever funding sources they use to acquire white artist’s work! Do that, and I will sing the MCA’s praises from the hilltops. But for now, I’m not going to hold my breath.

But the collection has Jimmie Durham in it …

Jimmie Durham is not Native, but has sat in as a fraudulent placeholder for Native artists in many exhibitions and museum collections. Native artist, curator, and educator American Meredith succinctly writes, “Texas-born, English-American sculptor and writer Jimmie Durham has falsely claimed a Cherokee and American Indian identity for more than 40 years now.”10 Jimmie Durham’s work has been on high rotation at the MCA,11 which is likely antagonistic to Native artists.  Because institutions regularly include the artwork of only one Native person in order to fulfill some imagined quota, know that Durham has occupied that checkbox and has been a non-Native tool for Native erasure. Curators need to stop telling Native artists about Durham’s activism on behalf of Native communities. Natives are continuously asked to respond to curatorial recitations of seemingly good things he has done for us, and his list of excuses for not being enrolled. Don’t tell us what he says anymore, listen to Native people instead.

“Not about us without us! Not your story.”

The exhibition Chicago Works: Debora Stratman features the artist’s film, The Illinois Parables (2016). This film confesses the lack of proximity both the artist and the curation has with Native scholarship and Native people. In the film, the Trail of Tears is featured as a story of Illinois because one of its routes intersects the far southern area of the state. The Trail of Tears is indeed a horrific narrative, but it is not a “parable.” Again, violence against Native people and genocides are not parables. It is important to consider that the film demonstrates Native exclusion and erasure by failing to mention the removal of the Potawatomi and of other Native nations from the land that is now called Illinois. The curatorial text accompanying the exhibition makes a terrible analogy and segway: 

“In 1839, as the Cherokee crossed the Mississippi River exiting Illinois, another marginalized group was settling in the state after having experienced their own exodus. Chapter IV of the Parables tells the story of the Church of Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois.”12

It is inappropriate to compare the Trail of Tears or the Cherokee people to the Mormon people. Not only does the Book of Mormon contain racist tales claiming that Native people are the descendants of a wicked, fantasy people they call Lamanites, but Latter-day Saints stole 50,000 Native children from 1947-2000.13 NO, Mormons are not, and were not, a “marginalized group.” Equivocation is one of the many reasons that Native people have a hard time stomaching how we are historicized by non-Native artists and curators. Do they not know that a Native person is going to read their essays and see their art?

The film also comes full circle, starting with a “shaman” on Monk’s Mound in Cahokia, and ends with the earthworks of Michael Heizer’s “Effigy Tumuli” (1983-85). Non-Native artists who appropriate and confuse Native histories as their own while discussing the land in most self-serving terms are brokering Native histories to museums. But again, where are the Native people? In the final stretch of the film, a settler becomes a “pioneer” of Native artforms, and for some reason no one notices that comparing one white man’s earthworks to the surviving effigies of entire Native nations is celebratory of settler dominance and white supremacy. 

Native people in extractive relationships with non-Native artists is not the solution. 

For Stratman’s film, the artist failed to consult with or include living, consensual Native people in the presentation of our histories, whereas a film in Andrea Bowers’s upcoming exhibition at the MCA makes sure to include Native people.14 Unfortunately, Bower’s relationship with Native people is extractive, and perhaps, exploitative. In the film My Name Means Future (2020), she brings Native voices, specifically Tokata Iron Eyes, into a museum that has the aforementioned problems of Native exclusion. However, the film presents our lives as issues that need white amplification through avenues that aren’t afforded to Native people.

Non-Native artists must be better accomplices. Non-Native artists can tell the MCA that they won’t exhibit at the museum until they exhibit Native artists. Make your opportunity contingent on our opportunity. Don’t “make space” for us in the context of your work, but rather support our full agency on a stage that you don’t insist on occupying and get out of the way. Resource us without being preformative, without your name on the marquee. Non-Native artists, let Native people find you and ask you if they want to collaborate in the context of their opportunity.

Both Bower’s and Stratman’s exhibitions are reflective of how the MCA endorses Native things as valid subjects for non-Native artists while maintaining distance from Native people. The onus isn’t on artists to avoid finding content and context within Native communities, but for the curation to recognize exploitation, extraction, and equitable agency in the art they exhibit.

The MCA’s treatment of Native people isn’t an isolated problem in Chicago, what about all of the other cultural centers who fail Native people?

Yes, and if you live in Chicago know that the exclusion of Native people is an embarrassing characteristic of Chicago institutions. The people, museums, and institutions need to ask ourselves who we want to be and what systems we are actively holding up. Ask yourself if contemporary Native artists are best served by a natural history museum, like the Field Museum. Know that Native artists living in Chicago don’t have local commercial gallery representation–none! Jeff Gibson, who is based in New York, is the ONLY Native American artist with Chicago representation. Remember that Chicago is a Nishnabek word, but have Potawatomi/Nishnabek artists ever been shown at the Chicago Cultural Center? When you cross the DuSable bridge and see an image of a dead Native person, remember that Jean Baptiste Point DuSable was the first non-Native naturalized citizen of the Potawatomi people of Chicago, he was beloved Potawatomi kin. And remember the name of his wife, Kitihawa. When you wear your Blackhawk’s hoodie, remember that Native people see you wearing it, and you are harming us and making us feel invisible. When you walk around Chicago, remember that you are walking on Nishnabek land, and you are walking on the bones of Potawatomi ancestors.15 Remember that despite a long history of erasure, we are still here.

  1. Susman, Marjorie, and Joanna Szupinska. “First 50.” MCA, May 12, 2012. https://mcachicago.org/Exhibitions/2012/First-50.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Native American writing style guides are helpful tools for understanding terminology around Native American people. See, https://firstamericanartmagazine.com/submissions/faam-style-guide/. The term ‘Eskimo’ is generally conserved offensive. See, Hersher, Rebecca. “Why You Probably Shouldn’t Say ‘Eskimo’,” April 24, 2016. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/04/24/475129558/why-you-probably-shouldnt-say-eskimo.
  4. Nicodemus Nowyook (Inuit, 1902-1985)
    Spirit, c. 1960
    Petrified whale bone
    8 x 12 x 12 in. (20.3 x 30.5 x 30.5 cm)
    Gift of Gimpel and Weitzenhoffer Gallery,

    The object file devoted to this sculpture is thick. Like many other works donated in 1973, Spirit by Nicodemus Nowyook was gifted by the Gimpel and Weitzenhoffer Gallery for that year’s benefit auction, but was not included therein. That year, the collection manager accessioned many of the works received for auction, and this work was formally logged at that time—despite the fact that the sculpture is not appropriate to scope of MCA’s collection. It was approved for deaccessioning by the collection committee in September 1980, and has been reconsidered many times over the decades since. On several occasions research has been conducted on potential deaccessioning avenues, including galleries dealing in Inuit art and other possibilities. However, there are several technicalities that pose problems for the deaccessioning of Spirit, and so it remains in the collection. First, the work cannot be shipped outside of the US because of its natural material: the petrified whale bone. Secondly, and certainly of great consequence, the signed Deed of Gift form stipulates that if the work is not sold at the 1973 auction, it must be returned to the donor. Meanwhile the Gimpel and Weitzenhoffer Gallery no longer exists. Another thread in the archives reveals that the museum sent a letter in 1995 to the Office of Archeological Assistance to register the sculpture with NAGPRA, the National American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. NAGPRA is a law that Congress passed in 1990, “To provide for the protection of Native American graves, and for other purposes.” In 1998 the MCA again wrote to the government to clarify that while Spirit was made by a native Eskimo, the work is a contemporary artwork created by a contemporary artist and does not qualify under NAGPRA. For several years following, the MCA received governmental requests and surveys regarding NAGPRA compliance, and MCA sent letters in response requesting that the museum be removed from the register.

    Nicodemus Nowyook lived and worked in Pangnirtung, an Inuit hamlet in the North West Canadian territory of Nunavut, located on Baffin Island. He was leader to the Keepishaw camp, a small group living just outside of Pangnirtung. Nowyook worked primarily in drawing and sculpture. His work is included in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Ottawa, and the Canadian Ethnology Service at the National Museum of Man, Ottawa.
  5. Beyond the Guest Appearance: Continuity, Self-Determination, and Commitment to Contemporary Native Arts. (2018, April 12). Retrieved October 29, 2020, from https://walkerart.org/magazine/panel-discussion-native-arts-nicholas-galanin-ashley-holland-candice-hopkins-steven-loft
  6. Laurier Students’ Public Interest Research Group (LSPIRG). “Land Acknowledgement.” 2017 ACPA Convention, 2017, http://convention.myacpa.org/columbus2017/land-acknowledgement/. Retrieved December 14, 2017
  7. Decolonization is not a metaphor,” E Tuck, KW Yang, Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society, 2012.
  8. León, Ana María, and Andrew Herscher. “Unceded Land.” Settler Colonial City Project, 2019. https://settlercolonialcityproject.org/Unceded-Land. See also, Low, John N. “Claims Making to the Lakefront.” Essay. In Imprints: the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and the City of Chicago, 85–89. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2016.
  9. “The Long Dream.” MCA, October 2020. https://mcachicago.org/Exhibitions/2020/The-Long-Dream.
  10. Meredith, America. “A Chapter Closed?” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 43, no. 4 (2019): 37–40.
  11. Most recently Durham’s work was included in the exhibit, Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago. https://mcachicago.org/Exhibitions/2020/Duro-Olowu-Seeing-Chicago
  12. Schneider, Jack. “Chicago Works: Deborah Stratman.” MCA, 2020. https://mcachicago.org/Publications/Websites/Vox-Terra-On-Deborah-Stratmans-The-Illinois-Parables-Suite.
  13. https://radiowest.kuer.org/post/mormons-native-americans-and-indian-placement-program
  14. “Andrea Bowers.” MCA, 2020. https://mcachicago.org/Exhibitions/2021/Andrea-Bowers.
  15. “Walking on the bones of our ancestors” is a Potawatomi saying.

Featured image: Digital illustration of three abstract paintings on a wall, and the sculpture Spirit by Nicodemus Nowyook. Image by Teshika Silver.

Andrea Carlson (Ojibwe, b. 1979) is a visual artist and writer living in Chicago, Illinois. Her artwork exhibits widely and is in the collections of the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the National Gallery of Canada. Carlson was a 2008 McKnight Fellow, a 2017 Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors fellow, and recently received a 2020 Make a Wave award from 3Arts.