Native American and Alaska Native Heritage Month

November 20, 2022—November is Native American and Alaska Native Heritage month, and I have asked my long-time friend and colleague, John Haworth, to share his view on the state of arts and culture for Indigenous artists and cultural organizations.

John is the Senior Executive Emeritus of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Most recently, he received the 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award, Guardians of Culture and Lifeways International Award, which was presented by the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums at its annual conference. John also has lectured widely and written extensively about cultural policy and Native American issues throughout his career.


The following is his guest post:

Reflections on Native American Heritage Month 2022 

November is Native American and Alaska Native Heritage month, a time to celebrate the significant work of Indigenous artists and cultural organizations. This article focuses on two current trends:

  1. Mainstream arts organizations are at last offering significantly more opportunities for Native artists; and
  2. Native-led organizations and Indigenous artists are attracting more widespread recognition and support.

From a competitive field of more than one hundred submissions, the National Museum of the American Indian commissioned Harvey Pratt (Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma) to create the National Native Americans Veterans Memorial. Warrior’s Circle of Honor was formally dedicated on Veterans Day.

Joy Harjo (Muscogee/Creek), the internationally renowned poet, performer, and writer, received the 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award at Americans for the Arts’ National Arts Award gala. Ms. Harjo was the focus of a powerful, short video, which you can watch here. As the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate (serving three terms), her work illuminates complex social and personal issues. Her latest book, Weaving Sundown in a Secret Light: 50 Poems for 50 Years, released on November 1st, is a must-read anthology.

The indigenous comedy series Reservation Dogs, which was produced and directed by Sterlin Harjo (Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and Muscogee heritage), was launched last year by FX Productions. Co-written by Harjo and Taika Waititi, the series won this year’s Independent Spirt Awards for Best New Scripted Series and Best Ensemble Cast—the first major film project with an all-Indigenous creative team.

Anita Fields (Osage), the Oklahoma-born contemporary multidisciplinary artist, was one of five extraordinary artists who received the prestigious Francis J. Greenburger Award presented by Art Omi at the New Museum last month. Her work in clay and textiles draws upon Osage knowledge systems and has been featured in many museum exhibitions.

Curated by Kathleen Ash-Milby (Navajo), the Portland Art Museum opened two major Native exhibits this fall: Jeffrey Gibson: They Come From Fire and Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe. Gibson (Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and Cherokee descent) created an immersive, site-responsive installation which celebrates Portland’s Indigenous history and presence. Howe, an innovative and highly-respected (though under-recognized) 20th Century artist, committed his artistic career to the preservation and relevance of his Yanktonai Dakota culture.

For the first time in the history of New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 signature survey exhibit, several Native artists were among the 47 whose works were included: G. Peter Jemison (Seneca); Athena LaTocha (Hunkpapa Lakota and Ojibwe); Alan Michelson (Mohawk); and Shelley Niro (Mohawk).

Likewise, Quiet as It’s Kept, the 2022 Whitney Biennial (its 80th edition of this landmark exhibition), included more Indigenous artists than ever: Duane Linklater (Cree First Nations); Rebecca Belmore (Anishinaabekwe); Raven Chacon (Diné), who also was honored with the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Music, and Dyani White Hawk (Sicangu Lakota).

This past year, Native-led contemporary art facilities have opened, including the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation’s Center for Native Arts and Cultures (NACF) in Portland, and the Forge Project based in upstate New York. The Forge Project is most noted for its deep commitment to changing political and social systems through focusing on Indigenous art and supporting leaders in culture, food security, and land justice.

This year, the American Museum of Natural History reopened its Pacific Northwest Coast permanent installation with new interpretation and media developed by Native scholars, artists, historians, filmmakers, and language experts.

Under the leadership of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Pueblo of the Laguna), the first Native American to serve as cabinet secretary, hundreds of national parks and other federal sites recently have been renamed in order to remove their racist names.

Likewise, many of the sports teams that had racist names and stereotype mascots now have new names. Filmmakers Aviva Kempner and Ben West (Cheyenne) are currently making the rounds at film festivals, museums, and cultural centers with their documentary Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting. As this film puts in sharp focus, there is considerably more work to be done to address these issues.

We remain at a crossroads in America with tremendous upheavals that continue to divide our country. It is my hope that Native American and Alaska Native Heritage Month will serve as a reminder of the essential values of resiliency, wisdom, and tenacity, which are embodied by Native communities. May we all remember and honor the importance of Indigenous arts and culture to our collective history, as well as to our collective future.

Thanks, John, for that wonderful overview! To the readers of Arts & Culture Connections, I encourage you to check out the links and I invite you to share your comments and thoughts below.

PS: In a move that brings together the worlds of arts, culture and sports, the NBA’s Phoenix Suns have a new uniform honoring the state’s 22 diverse Native cultures. And, along the perimeter of the basketball court, the word “sun” is displayed in each of the tribe’s languages. You can find the details here at this link.

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