Native American artists redefine their own traditions

3 people surrounding woman at beach (Courtesy of Jeremy Dennis)
The "Beach Access" series by Jeremy Dennis reflects the Shinnecock Nation's frustration at being denied free access to its ancestral beaches in Southampton, New York. (Courtesy of Jeremy Dennis)

The artistic traditions of America’s Indigenous peoples, like those of people everywhere, largely evolved from pragmatic or spiritual roots. While traditional tribal arts — such as making jewelry, pottery, woven goods or totem poles — are still practiced, Native American artists also explore new media and create diverse works that challenge some people’s perceptions of their culture.

Many art lovers are familiar with Native American ornamental pottery, intricately patterned blankets and woven baskets. Museumgoers may have seen breastplates made from wood, bone and leather, decorated with symbols to confer added protection.

In the United States, there are about 570 federally recognized tribes that speak different languages and have different cultures, and it is no surprise that some of those tribes’ artists create works that go beyond the traditional. Here is a brief exploration of five artists whose creations expand viewers’ understanding of the genre of Native American art:

Edmonia Lewis (1844–1907)

Sculpture of woman in ornate chair (Smithsonian American Art Museum)
“The Death of Cleopatra,” by Lewis (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The internationally acclaimed Lewis, born free in upstate New York, was the first professional Black/Indigenous (Chippewa) sculptor in the United States. After completing her artistic training in the U.S., Lewis moved to Rome, where she joined a community of American artists.

Lewis’ neoclassical sculptures are described by the National Women’s History Museum as depicting “stories of women and Indigenous people with reverence and beauty.” Her best-known works include The Death of Cleopatra (a monumental sculpture that took four years to complete), Hagar (representing a Biblical figure, the maidservant to Abraham’s wife, Sarah), and a series of sculptures inspired by the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “The Song of Hiawatha.”

Her work is featured in several U.S. museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Oscar Howe (1915–1983)

Fighting Bucks painting by Oscar Howe (Courtesy of National Museum of the American Indian)
Howe’s “Fighting Bucks,” 1967 (Courtesy of National Museum of the American Indian)

Howe, a Yanktonai Dakota artist from South Dakota, depicted Native American traditions with a modernist aesthetic. Born on the Crow Creek Reservation, he served in the military during World War II before graduating from the University of Oklahoma. His distinctive style of painting is marked by vivid colors, dynamic motion and bold geometric lines. He was a force in the Native American fine arts movement, challenging the concepts of Indian art and paving the way for contemporary artists.

Howe’s art portrays the realities of his tribal culture while preserving and communicating traditional values. Art critic Jonathon Keats, writing for Forbes, notes that Howe’s “straight lines were symbolic of righteousness, and circles represented harmonic unity.”

Howe’s works have been displayed all over the world, and he won numerous awards over the span of his career.

Jerome Tiger (1941–1967)

2 paintings of Native Americans by Jerome Tiger side by side (Courtesy of Molly Babcock-Marcus and Dana Tiger/
Tiger’s “Peace Offering” (left) and “Moon Over Journey” (Courtesy of Molly Babcock-Marcus and Dana Tiger/

Tiger, a prolific and self-taught Muskogee Creek-Seminole artist from Oklahoma, produced hundreds of paintings in the time span from 1962 until his death in 1967. His career began when, at a friend’s urging, he sent paintings to Tulsa’s Philbrook Art Museum. “Recognition of his talent was immediate,” says the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Tiger’s work won first prize in the National Exhibition of American Indian Art held in Oakland, California. His paintings of Native American subjects combine “spiritual vision, humane understanding, and technical virtuosity,” says the Mid-America All-Indian Center in Wichita, Kansas.

His oil, watercolor, tempera, casein, pencil, and pen and ink works are displayed at U.S. museums, including the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. The U.S. State Department’s Art in Embassies program displays his art overseas.

Jeremy Dennis (born 1990)

Native American woman in traditional clothing posing for photo on beach (Courtesy of Jeremy Dennis)
Dennis’ “The Shinnecock Portrait Project” combines traditional photo portraiture, Google Street View and audio interviews. (Courtesy of Jeremy Dennis)

Dennis is a contemporary fine art photographer and a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation in Southampton, New York. “My photography explores indigenous identity, cultural assimilation, and the ancestral traditional practices of my tribe,” he says.

He creates cinematic imagery (using digital photography) that questions and disrupts damaging stereotypes, such as the “noble savage” depictions seen in films. It is important, Dennis says, “to offer a complex and compelling representation of Indigenous people.”

Native Americans “remain anchored to our land by our ancient stories,” Dennis says. “The Indigenous mythology that influences my photography grants me access to the minds of my ancestors, including the value they placed on our sacred lands. By outfitting and arranging models to depict those myths, I strive to continue my ancestors’ tradition of storytelling and showcase the sanctity of our land.” His work is on view at the Hudson River Museum’s Cycles of Nature exhibition in Yonkers, New York.

Wendy Red Star (born 1981)

Diptych featuring artwork by Wendy Red Star (Courtesy of Wendy Red Star and Sargent's Daughters)
An image from Red Star’s “Apsáalooke Feminist” series (left) and “Amnía (Echo)” (Courtesy of Wendy Red Star and Sargent’s Daughters)

Red Star is an Apsáalooke (Crow) multimedia artist born in Billings, Montana, and based in Portland, Oregon. Her photography and collages recast historical narratives from a feminist, Indigenous perspective.

Self-portraits from Red Star’s Apsáalooke Feminist series (2016) reflect the artist’s Crow heritage and emphasize the matrilineal nature of her tribe. Red Star’s 2021 Amnía (Echo) — archival ink-on-paper works mounted on board — explores identity by “interweaving archival and contemporary images with historical narratives,” according to Red Star’s website.

Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as many other institutions.