Minnesota's Native art is an underused resource

For most of us, the phrase "arts and culture" conjures up visions of the Guthrie, the Ordway and the Walker Art Center. But the state's cultural offerings are much broader, diverse and geographically dispersed than our first takes.

Consider the variety and nature of Native American artistic expression in Minnesota. In a study we have just completed, we found a remarkable array of high-quality, unique artwork produced by Minnesota Natives. Musicians like Lyz Jaakola of Fond du Lac and Keith Secola from the Iron Range, who compose and perform everything from opera to country and rock, working in environmental pitches and traditional drumbeats, Indian humor and political commentary. Writers, playwrights and spoken-word artists who weave the history of Minnesota Native struggles into their work and address contemporary life on the urban reservation. Visual artists who work with traditional materials -- birch bark, quills, feathers, hide, horns, beads, while others use modern techniques to tell stories or create expressive abstracts.

Why doesn't Minnesota honor its Native artists?

Such artists, we found, face formidable challenges in making a career of their work. Discrimination in arts schooling, jobs and markets is still pervasive. Indian artists are more apt to be self-employed than Minnesota artists as a whole. Family responsibilities and lack of workspace make it difficult to create, and the poverty of Native communities means that artists must try to sell beyond their own communities. Yet most museums and galleries do not exhibit or buy Native work, and most performance spaces do not host Native musicians or actors.

There are exceptions: Two Rivers, Ancient Traders and Todd Bockley's galleries in the Cities. Fargo's Plains Museum, the University of Minnesota Duluth's Tweed, and the Weisman on the Twin Cities campus of the University. Patrick's Cabaret for performance. Bemidji State, Leech Lake Tribal College, and University of Wisconsin Superior for annual art shows.

Most tribal-managed spaces, like casinos, gifts shops and hotels, do a poor job at commissioning and presenting work by their resident artists. But here too there are pioneers. The Mille Lacs Band has commissioned work by Steve Premo for its casino walls and hosted a competition among Native artists for hotel room paintings.

The Fond du Lac human services complex hangs contemporary Native artwork in every room, purchased with a dedicated share of its building fund, because, as its director states, "art is essential to healing." The Mahnomen Shooting Star Casino's gift shop displays Native artists' one-of-a-kind work prominently (and makes more money than others in the state). Grand Portage and Fond du Lac casinos occasionally host Native performers.

We found remarkable entrepreneurship among Minnesota's Native artists, too. The Anishinaabe Center in Calloway markets area artists' work. Louise and Heid Erdrich run Birchbark Books, host readings and operate a Native language press. Richard Schulman rebuilt and runs the North Star Coffee Bar in Cass Lake, providing a space for young musicians to practice, perform and record. Marcie McIntire manages a gallery at Grand Portage that markets her and other Native artists' work.

Native artists enrich our regional culture in multiple ways. Bringing forward powerful spiritual traditions in stories, dance, music and language. Working with nature in respectful and fanciful ways. Demonstrating the healing power of artistic expression. Showing how one can be innovative while rooted in community cultural practice. Bridging between Native and non-Native cultures, between elders and youth, between tribes.

Whether viewed as arts and culture, economic development or community empowerment, Minnesota's Native artists have much to share. Imagine seeing their work featured on state and city websites -- the beautiful beaded jingle dresses on dancers in motion, for instance. Or a roadmap of current performances and exhibitions of Native visual art, murals, and permanent sculptures around the state. In the competition to shape our state's cultural identity, Native artistic distinctiveness could take pride of place.

----

Marcie Rendon is a White Earth-enrolled Ojibwe playwright, poet and writer, living in Minneapolis. Ann Markusen is an economist and director of the Arts Economic Initiative at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Their study, "Native Artists: Livelihoods, Resources, Space, Gifts," can be downloaded here.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.