Jaune Quick-to-See Smith has spent a lifetime creating artwork that expresses her experience as a woman and member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation. Photograph by Ungelbah Dávila-Shivers.
THROUGH HER VISUAL ART and curatorial work, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith has expanded the expectation of what is “Indian enough.” Smith has spent a lifetime creating artwork that expresses her experience as a woman and enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation, an existence that cannot be separated from the political any more than it can be detached from the land. In July, her painting I See Red: Target, an 11-foot-tall mixed-media piece created during the 500-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World, was purchased by the National Gallery of Art and billed as the first painting by a Native American to enter the collection.
But wait: Despite all the attention garnered by the acquisition, Smith points out that the National Gallery got it wrong. The Washington, D.C., institution had collected several works by Cherokee-Chickasaw artist Leon Polk Smith, whose abstract art is not readily recognized as Native. “In those days, Indians tried to hide their identity,” she says. “Polk would have had trouble selling his work because it didn’t look Indian enough.”
An Indigenous Renaissance: Smith arrived in New Mexico in 1976, at a time when galleries and museums had never heard of contemporary Native art. She and artists such as Emmi Whitehorse and Larry Emerson became instrumental in creating a space for a new kind of art. “From Dorothy Dunn teaching watercolor lap painting in a style called ‘Bambi Art’ to busting all norms by making sculptures 10 feet tall, Native artists were debunking the idea that we should make art in a prescribed way.”
Breaking the Buckskin Ceiling: Only 40 years ago, Smith could name the notable Native artists—those accepted as “good” by the establishment—on both hands. Today she can think of more than 500 who are making waves, as well as scholars working at universities all across the continent. “Living people will always be reinventing themselves in new ways,” she says. “This means people are thriving and not fading away with dying cultures. There is new life and energy in Native arts now.”
500 Years Later: Smith doesn’t measure her success by merits, but by how she makes an impact. Her painting in the National Gallery brings an Indigenous truth to a 500-year-old narrative of colonization as alive as the earth itself. Her paintings tell the beautiful, the tragic, and the creation stories of our land. “I’m only a fly in the ointment, an annoyance, a troublemaker. Just like my hero John Lewis told young Black leaders: ‘Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.’ ”