Real Indians making real art: how indigenous artists struggle for creative sovereignty and identity in the contemporary art world and market

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


The problem presented is that Indigenous artists have been excluded from mainstream art venues and limited to exhibition in museums that only include collections of Indigenous art primarily limited to the pre-1890s era. Not having Native American artists' work regularly on display in contemporary art museums makes a powerful statement about the validity of contemporary Indigeneous art. This also limits the ability of Indigenous artists to exercise sovereignty over their own work and careers, by limiting their access to mainstream exhibition venues. Many modern Indigenous artists have found their work not taken seriously because of their ethnic identity and the expectations of the field of reception concerning the style of Native American art. Some contemporary Indigenous artists struggle to make a living creating the kind of art they choose to make, despite the general popularity of their work, because of these expectations. Limitations on marketability come from the modern art market itself and collectors who think of Indigenous art from an erroneous definition of 'traditional,' or from local tribal pressures to create only art that preserves the traditional culture of the tribe. The methods employed in this study were two-fold: an investigation of museum practices and available literature on contemporary Indigenous art, and interviews with eleven indigenous artists which served as case studies, employing a central tenet of CRT (Critical Race Theory) by which BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) people are able to tell their own stories. The results of this investigation are the identification, and legitimization of contemporary indigenous art by Indigenous artists residing in the northern plains, through legal definitions, cultural and ethnic identities, individual artistic identities, and traditional and contemporary art production practices. It also explores how genealogies of concepts as they relate to indigneous art, as well as cultural reception, contribute to diffusing theories of art history where indigenous art is concerned. The author demonstrates and concludes through the findings of this study that the work of modern Indigenous artists qualifies as contemporary art by any definition, and that style is irrelevant when making that determination.




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