Represent: Indigenous Stories and Voices

The 2022 Culturefix morning conversations explored arts and culture as tools for diplomacy. The following session centered around indigenous representation:

Diversity and representation in museums have long been an issue acknowledged by the field, particularly in regards to Native and Indigenous representation. This is not only true in staffing, but also in collections and how those collections are presented to the public. In the United States, the past decade has seen the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC---a process that took decades---dedicated to presenting Native art, culture, and objects from throughout the Western Hemisphere. Indigenous cultures have often been relegated to disjointed exhibitions in natural history museums, misconceptualizing these cultures and people as relics of the past. The Portland Museum of Art, along with a growing number of other museums, are providing an overdue platform for Native artists to showcase their thriving cultures and traditions. This panel will explore the progress made in the field, as well as the hurdles and issues still facing Native artists and curators.


  • Dr. Jami Powell, Curator of Indigenous Art, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth - Moderator

  • Dr. David Breslin, Director of Curatorial Initiatives, Whitney Museum

  • Courtney M. Leonard, Artist and Filmmaker

Here are some top takeaways from the indigenous representation session:

1. Environmental and Cultural Sustainability. Jami Powell, the panel’s moderator, is the Curator of Indigenous Art at the Hood Museum of Art and a Lecturer at the Native American and Indigenous Studies at Dartmouth College. Powell opened the conversation with a question for panelist Courtney M. Leonard, an Indigenous artist and filmmaker, regarding her artistic motivations. Currently, Leonard’s work embodies the multiple definitions of “breach”, an exploration and documentation of historical ties to water, whale, and material sustainability. Leonard responded that her motivations revolve around the connection between identity, land, territory, nature, and climate change. The main question for her as an artist is “can a culture sustain itself without the environment it depends on?” Through her work, Leonard wanted to bring people into the environment and contribute to safeguarding the legacy of Indigenous culture for future generations. She can accomplish part of the work through working with the U.S. Department of State and international excursions. Through grants for international projects, Leonard connects communities across the world, build Indigenous relationships, and shows how Indigenous people can have a global impact.  Leonard and other Indigenous peoples are working to build and make communities to further ensure that Indigenous culture will thrive well beyond our lifetimes and throughout the world.

2. Indigenous Representation at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Powell then shifted the conversation to ask David Breslin about his background in relation to the representation of Indigenous art. Breslin is the Director of Curatorial Initiatives at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In the past, the Whitney and other institutions did have a lack of Indigenous representation. The reasoning behind the deficiency of representation was both due to a lack of effort and education about Indigenous art and artists. There was a structural bias in what constitutes art in relation to Indigenous peoples, even though Breslin acknowledged the irony as the Whitney is built on stolen land. With that in mind, he emphasized how it is everyone’s responsibility to think about representation regardless of the structural hierarchy or institution. For example, Breslin is co-curating the Whitney Biennial 2022, titled Quiet as It's Kept. The Biennial features an intergenerational and interdisciplinary group of 63 artists (including four Indigenous artists) and collectives whose dynamic works reflect the challenges, complexities, and possibilities of the American experience today.

3. What Can Institutions Do for Indigenous Artists? After Breslin finished speaking on the curator’s perspective on institutional efforts, Powell questioned Leonard on the artist’s perspective. Leonard echoed that the conversation regarding museums being built on stolen land needed to be acknowledged.  However, many Indigenous peoples and communities are still invisible. This can be rectified through both parties broadening their horizons and building long-term Indigenous relationships. Leonard noted there should be mindfulness in the acknowledgment and visibility when creating Indigenous exhibitions. Leonard elaborated on her own experiences as she found that a number of museum audiences do not view Indigenous exhibitions as relevant to their interests, which is another form of invisibility even after museums begin to show more Indigenous works. Transparency, education, and mindfulness when conveying the fluidity of Indigenous people and their relationships can help institutions ensure a healthy environment for Indigenous artists.

4. Other U.S. Institutions and Indigenous Representation. The audience asked both panelists "what is being heard in the general museum population?" in relation to American institutions’ progress or efforts on Indigenous representation in museum collections. Breslin noted that each museum is different, and, in a general sense, a majority have not done the work over the years. However, there is a growing recognition that museums need to consider Indigenous artists when thinking about the framework of future exhibitions or acquisitions. The key to ensuring Indigenous people are being recognized is visibility, and museums need to take accountability for how they are contributing to visibility through inclusion and transparency. Leonard also added two additional points about institutional decolonization and money. For the former, people cannot decolonize an institution, and so museums should acknowledge their origins and build a new future. For the latter, Leonard stated “money determines what is and isn’t seen – and that can leave a lot of people out of that conversation.” In an earlier conversation, Powell noted that the answer lies in indigenizing rather than decolonizing and starting with Indigenous people whose use of materials preexisted moderns.

5. The Global Collaborative Process. Another audience member had asked Leonard about her experiences with approaching the global collaborative process. To Leonard, first and foremost, art is therapy, and everyone has experienced some type of trauma, which creates a shared journey of healing and learning for the participating artists. The relationships formed through art and healing are both non-transactional, supportive, and protective. As Leonard notes, the phrase “protect our joy” is at the forefront of her mindset and helps create an environment of collaboration, sharing experiences, and creating solutions. Leonard also related the global collaborative process to the creation of spaces for diplomacy. For example, when she traveled on a ship or cooked a meal with the group, she found similarities in the teamwork, communication, and diplomatic action required to operate efficiently and effectively. Artistic programs in general can also support spaces of diplomacy through the recognition of humanitarian contributions, community engagement, and representation of all communities.

Project summary

Represent: Indigenous Stories and Voices | June 2022
Program Areas: Culture