Incluseum Tour Notes on the Indigenous Beauty Exhibit

A few weeks back I had the pleasure to be invited to lead an Incluseum inspired My Favorite Things Tour of Indigenous Beauty, a traveling exhibit of Native American works from the Diker Collection, now on view at the Seattle Art Museum. I wanted to use this post to share the notes I used for the tour.  Keep in mind – I’m not an expert on Native Arts of North America – but I did my due diligence to research the work as I formed my opinions.  Have you seen this show at the Seattle Art Museum or at another location? What did you think? – Aletheia


My Favorite Things Tour, Indigenous Beauty Exhibit.

My Favorite Things Tour, Indigenous Beauty Exhibit.

The exhibit showcases The Diker Collection; a private collection that includes work from across the continent – the exhibit is divided into 11 sections organized by geographic area, media and common past relationships.

Indigenous Beauty:

  • Today the art and objects of individuals working within the context of indigenous cultures across North America are widely understood as beautiful and aesthetically admirable. We are inspired by the diversity of skill, craftsmanship and creative use of materials found across the cultures of the 566 federally recognized Tribes in the US.
  • Beauty is the dominant mode we have in our society to value art and design. But what is beauty? Ideas of beauty are shaped by personal experiences as well as socially dominant views of what is good and bad /high and low culture and how these norms resonate or do not resonate with our views of the world.
  • I find my experience of all the pieces in this exhibit and my understanding of beauty to be shaped by my understanding of the resilience of the artists and craftspeople whose work is present here. So I thought that we could dig into the idea of resilience during the tour.

Indigenous Resillience:

  • Resillience: An ability to recover from or adjust to bad events or change.
  • Indigenous cultures and artists have always been changing, adapting, innovating in the face of challenges. Including the oppression that came with European colonization of their lands as well as ongoing challenges of native people to secure their rights to their lands, culture, resources and equal opportunities in the US and Canada.
  • Museums of course have long been sites for preserving and displaying the work of native artists for their beauty and historical significance, but in many instances before work came to arrive in museums it was removed without the consent of the makers or communities they belonged to.
  • I’m interested in how museums can highlight the resilience of native artists and communities as these individuals continue the legacy of their cultural traditions and continue to be cultural innovators.
  • I think museums working in close collaboration with contemporary native artists and community leaders to invest in their work and voices is one of the best places to start.

Childs Jacket, CA. 1880, APSÁALOOKE (CROW), Montana, hide, glass beads

  • When I saw this jacket in person I was taken off guard by the scale particularly because you don’t have a great sense of scale when you see it in the promotional posters where it is floating above the plains. This colorfully adorned jacket was made for a child to wear and is a great example of how you can’t isolate the aesthetic side of this work from the link to the original function in daily life. I perceive that to be one of the challenges of showing and doing justice to many pieces on display in this exhibit. On display and outside of their original context or use we don’t have as much reference to imagine or understand the cultural heritage and value that they represent.
  • I wanted to point out that one of those most striking things about this jacket is the colorful beadwork usually done by the women in the tribe. Glass beads were introduced to Indigenous cultures by the Europeans who used them in trade.
  • At this time in 1880 Crow people had recently been defeated by US forces in the Indian Wars and undergone forced removal to reservations in Montana

Ledger Sketches, Swift Dog Lakota/Sioux, 1870’s

  • So before speaking about this Ledger Drawing I thought that we could talk a little bit about the artist seen here: Swift Dog. He pictured here at the Trans Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha by photographer Frank A. Rinehart in 1898.
  • The Indian Congress at the Exposition was the largest gathering of American Indian tribes of its kind to that date. Over 500 members of 35 different tribes attended. Photographs of the Indian Congress participants are regarded as one of the best photographic documentations of American Indian leaders around the start of the 20th century.
  • Swift Dog fought at the Battle of Little Big Horn 1876 – a battle of the Plains Indian War. Federal troops led by Lieutenant Colonel Custer fought against Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Tensions between the groups had been rising since the discovery of gold in 1875 on Native American lands in South Dakota’s Black Hills. The U.S. Army ignored treaty agreements and invaded the region. This led many Sioux and Cheyenne tribesmen to leave their reservations and join other native leaders in Montana who were resisting the efforts of the U.S. government to confine native people to reservations. When a number of tribes missed a federal deadline to move to reservations, the U.S. Army was dispatched to confront them.
  • The death of Custer and his men outraged many white Americans and reinforced images of Indians as wild and bloodthirsty and the U.S. government increased efforts to subdue tribes. Within five years, almost all of the Sioux and Cheyenne were confined to reservations.
  • Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa and other Plains Indians known for their pictographic artistry worked with new materials in the middle of the 19th century; from bone and stick brushes to pencils, crayons and occasionally watercolors, and from buffalo hide to muslin and paper. They most often used standard-issue ledgers, lined accounting books readily obtained from traders and Indian agents.
  • Scenes started to depict daily life because the ledgers were a more private medium. They recorded history from a native person’s point of view. The drawings hold a tremendous amount of information and work to contradict stereotypes. There is humor evident in some of the drawings—falling off a horse etc. They challenge the image of the Stoic Indian. Ledger art communicates humanity.

Glass Chest Preston Singletary (2005) and Bentwood Chest David Boxley (2004)

  • Preston Singletary’s work can be found in many places throughout the SAM- here in the Indigenous Beauty exhibit, in this space for the display of Northwest Coast art as well as downstairs in the larger permanent collection of SAM’s Native Art of North America exhibit and on floor 2 in the contemporary art galleries.
  • I find his work to be striking for the way the glass compliments the formline designs and makes them seem as if they are glowing. Glass as we were speaking about earlier also has the significance of being a material introduced by Europeans and wasn’t used pre-contact. Singletary has embraced the material. This box stands in contrast to much northwest coast art because it is created with glass, which has distinctly different qualities to the more traditionally seen bentwood boxes.
  • I was interested to see Singletary’s glass piece representing a bentwood box – placed nearby this actual Bentwood box by artist David Boxley. They were only created a year apart from each other. For me that reminds me that work made with more traditional materials does not necessarily signal a less contemporary piece of art. Making work with traditional materials signals the resilience of the cultural heritage, techniques and people and works that represent these things are claiming space and their voice.

Exhibits, Projects and Leaders in Highlighting  and Supporting Indigenous Resilience

  • Here & Now: Native Artists Inspired at the Burke Museum – showcases how today’s artists learn from past generations. The exhibit features 30 new works by contemporary Native artists, paired with historic pieces from the Burke Museum that artists identified as key to their learning.
  • Work of Dena Dartt Newton at Portland Art Museum and Joe Horse Capture at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and now the National Museum of the American Indian, also Sven Haakanson at the Burke Museum
  • Project562 by Matika Wilbur, photographing citizens from all 566 federally recognized tribes in the US – Displayed at Tacoma Art Museum
  • This is not a silent movie: Four Contemporary Alaska Native Artists in partnership with the Anchorage Museum – shown at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland


  1. Kate Blake · · Reply

    Thanks for sharing this. Indigenous Beauty is scheduled to travel to our museum around this time next year. After reading this post I’m really looking forward to sharing this exhibition with our audiences.

  2. Great to hear that! The exhibit certainly provides many opportunities for conversations about western appropriation of native cultures, the legacy of private and museum collections of Native American art and objects and museum’s present day relationships with native artists and tribes. Do you know if your museum plans to highlight any of these things or if they have/or are building a working relationship with local tribes? Would love to hear more. Thanks for reading!!

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