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Browse: Indigenous Women Artists in the Gilcrease Collection

The thirty-four Indigenous women artists celebrated here come from across the United States and Canada, and their artwork has profoundly impacted the past, present, and future of Native American art. Their work often captures moments shared between family, such as Mother and Two Children by Lois Smokey (Kiowa); quiet scenes of daily life, such as Washing Wheat by Eva Mirabel (Taos Pueblo); and the role of women in sustaining community and economic well-being, such as Pueblo Craftsmen, Palace of the Governor Santa Fe by Pablita Velarde (Santa Clara Pueblo) and Saturday Market by Virginia Stroud (Cherokee, Muscogee). Other women recorded cultural specificities that were unique to a given tribe, often as a form of autoethnography. Kassa by Geraldine Gutiérrez (Santa Clara and San Ildefonso Pueblos) and Deerslayer Dream by Helen Hardin (Santa Clara Pueblo) both include figures and iconography that are unique to their respective communities but portrayed in a context that is intended for viewing by outsiders.

By honoring the painted works made by Indigenous women, we also honor the resilience, persistence, and significance of not only the artworks themselves but also the influential Indigenous women who created them.[1] Jill Ahlberg Yohe, co-curator of the exhibition honoring Indigenous women, Hearts of Our People (2019), notably remarked, “Despite the high degree of recognition women artists do receive in their own communities, Native women artists are rarely recognized as individuals, as innovators, and as artists by the mainstream artworld. This fact is symptomatic of an inherited legacy in which Native people, particularly Native women are too often absent in history books, in art history, and in the American consciousness.”[2]

Gilcrease Museum has over twenty-five hundred objects in its expansive collection of two-dimensional Indigenous artworks, and the majority of the artists whose paintings and drawings are in this collection are well known and widely celebrated today. The oldest paintings are figurative paintings on hide, which were typically created by men. Artworks created by women make up roughly 15 percent of the two-dimensional works, with most of the paintings by Indigenous women accessioned between the early to mid-twentieth century. During the early twentieth century, as contemporary Indigenous paintings began to enter the art market, artworks by women were less fervently collected than those of their male counterparts. Artists such as Narcissa Chisholm Owen (Cherokee), Marian Terasaz (Comanche), and Lois Smokey (Kiowa)[3] were among the first Indigenous women to transition from traditional art forms toward incorporating studio arts into their practices.[4] Indigenous feminist perspectives offer a closer look at women’s representation within the already marginalized art market, in which Indigenous artists continue to be a minority. The phenomena of underrepresentation and exclusion of Indigenous women’s voices and stories are inextricably tied to historical and ongoing colonialism, sexism, and racism.

Land-based Knowledge: Contextualizing Collecting Practices in History

The construction of race fueled by American doctrines of manifest destiny, white supremacy, and racism and sexism contributed to the creation of the contested and fluid boundaries regarding the land and natural resources currently occupied by Gilcrease Museum and its Indigenous paintings. The museum’s collecting practices reflect much of the territorial history through both the representation and the voids of representation within its collection of Indigenous artworks. Gilcrease Museum is situated at the intersection of the Osage and Muscogee Nation reservations, which was established by American president Andrew Jackson as Indian Territory[5]—that is, an unincorporated territory consisting of sovereign Indigenous nations independent of the United States.[6] Following the Civil War, Indian Territory welcomed populations of freedman’s communities from the southeastern colonies, and these migrations coincided with the continuing horrors of the genocidal Indian Relocation Act of 1830. Today, Tulsa’s historically Black Greenwood district, the site of the Black Wall Street Massacre,[7] surrounds much of the Gilcrease Hills. Importantly, these historical events shaped much of the social and political atmosphere during which the Gilcrease’s holdings of Indigenous paintings were amassed. Despite this, Indigenous artists in general persisted in creating revolutionary artworks from the late nineteenth through the twenty-first century, and Indigenous women artists in particular have created their own spaces for artistic expression in an often male-dominated market.

—Jordan Poorman Cocker, Henry Luce Foundation Curatorial Scholar for Indigenous Painting Collection Research, 2021


[1] Ash-Milby, “Off the Map,” 66–71.

[2] Yohe and Greeves, Hearts of Our People, 15.

[3] For more about Narcissa Chisholm Owen, see Owen, Memoirs of Narcissa Owen, 1831–1907; the book is in the public domain and available online at Amherst College, Digital Collections. For more about Marian Terasaz, see Broder, Earth Songs, Moon Dreams, 126–29. For more on Lois Smoky, see Fur, Painting Culture, Painting Nature, 139–210.

[4] One of the limitations of researching Gilcrease’s Indigenous collection is that it is not known whether Indigenous artists of Afro-Indigenous descent are represented. The biographical data reflect histories of racially unethical binaries (meaning that historically the U.S. government forced Black and Indigenous citizens to choose one racial category). Similar historically legal discriminatory limitations existed for gender identities, where the federal government banned non-binary identities and practices by individuals. Due to these historical constraints stemming from colonialism, there exists a national blindside in the data regarding gender diversity and biracial descendancy. See also Barker, Critically Sovereign.

[5] Baigell, “Territory, Race, Religion,” 3–21.

[6] Bowes, “American Indian Removal beyond the Removal Act,” 65–87.

[7] Kohm, Sumner, and Farley, “Empowering Black Wealth in the Shadow of the Tulsa Race Massacre.”