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Installation Story

American Land, American People

Current Story
Installation Story

American Land, American People

Native peoples’ philosophies on land insist that land and people...
Current Story
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American Land, American People

Installation Story

Native peoples’ philosophies on land insist that land and people are inseparable parts of a living spirit. The arrival of Europeans, however, introduced a diametrically opposing world view based in Christianity and expansionism. Presented in pairings across time and space, the works here serve to visualize these perspectives and remind us that land is much more than the soil beneath our feet.

Related Stories & Collections

American Land, American People

Control of the land was a core tenet of Euro-American aspirations throughout the foundation of the United States, and particularly during the era of Manifest Destiny in the mid-19th century. However, the land was and continues to be Indigenous Americans’ most precious resource. For Native inhabitants, land and people are inseparable; the cosmos is a living being and, as such, demands similar respect. These values were poorly understood by white settlers whose philosophy was deeply rooted in the Christian belief that land and the natural world were meant to be subjugated and exploited. Consequently, the 19th century witnessed an especially violent clashing of these diametrically opposing worldviews. 

In the hopes of offering and striving towards a more complete, inclusive narrative of American art and cultural history, VMFA presents both here and in the American gallery combinations of Euro-American and Indigenous works. This featured exhibition American Land, American People specifically investigates various artistic interpretations and cultural values of American land and people through a comparative approach. 

Spanning from the mid-1850s through the 1920s, works by Euro-American artists Asher B. Durand, Thomas Moran, Frederic Remington, and Walter Ufer communicate long-held assumptions about the American landscape as a site of celebration, nostalgia, and, often, exploitation. Their intimate examinations of nature served to promote a particular American dream – one based in conquest – while romanticizing and preserving in paint a quickly vanishing wilderness. 

Confronting certain underlying messages of Euro-American landscape paintings, works by Indigenous artists Dyani White Hawk and Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith, among others, raise opposition to their artistic counterparts’ problematic painted narratives. Where the compositions by Durand and his peers elaborate on the prevailing expansionist ideology of their time, that of White Hawk and Quick-to-See-Smith point to how Euro-American landscape paintings commonly present selective, exclusionary histories in the first place. Contemporary Indigenous artists continue to add to this long-suppressed narrative, filling in centuries-old gaps in the true story of America. 

Though each work may possess a distinct message, their grouping reminds us that land is much more than the soil beneath our feet. It is the inspiration for scenes of incredible beauty and a reminder of the residual trauma and ongoing resiliency of its displaced people.

 

After exploring this page, we invite you to participate in the voluntary online survey on American Land, American People available below. Your feedback is greatly appreciated, and will assist VMFA in understanding and bettering visitor experiences.

Featured Objects

Exhibited both online and in the VMFA American Gallery, American Land, American People highlights under-recognized narratives in American history and counters misinterpretations of Native American culture, especially in regard to ideologies about land and peoples’ relationships to it. Applying a comparative approach, the group of culturally diverse objects below recasts once exclusive readings of United States history and redresses misunderstandings of indigenous cultural values. 

 

Land as Subject or Spirit?: Durand and Quick-To-See Smith

One of the most identifiable paintings by Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), a member of the later-attributed Hudson River school of landscape painters, Progress: The Advance of Civilization points to several aspects of cultural and social history, including ecology, Native American policies, railroads and the Industrial Revolution. Offsetting the locomotive, canal, townscape, and the log cabin at right, the Native American presence (relegated to the left foreground) reminds us of the sacrifices engendered by the “advance of civilization.”

Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith’s (b. 1940) War-Torn Dress presents a legacy that is more cautionary than celebratory. The implication of a body inspires contemplation on Native lives lost and the contested spaces they occupied. Here, the Native presence is front and center, rather than relegated to a small detail. Placed prominently across the dress, “Your God, My God” proposes that within the fight over whose God is greater, all people reside in the Sacred, breathe the same air, and are of the same life force.

(Left) Asher B. Durand, Progress: The Advance of Civilization, 1853, oil on canvas, 58 7/16″ × 82 1/4 “× 4 3/8 “, Gift of an Anonymous Donor, 2018.547; (Right) Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, War Torn Dress2002, mixed media on canvas, 36 1/8″ × 48″ per panel, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment, 2018.353a-b

 

Connectedness of All Things: Moran & Californian Native Basketry

At the turn of the 20th century, Thomas Moran (1837-1926) was America’s preeminent painter of western landscape, capturing the compelling natural elements and vistas still inaccessible to all but the most intrepid explorers. This scene of Yosemite Valley in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, depicts the majestic Bridalveil Fall as it thunders down the face of a sheer granite cliff. Radiant in late-afternoon sunlight, the cascade strikes the valley floor behind a screen of iridescent mist, perhaps meant to symbolize the presence of a Creator. The role of the viewer is to witness this beauty, but the viewpoint suggests a separation between the observer and the observed.

The Sierra Miwok people were some of the earliest recorded inhabitants of the Yosemite Valley. When Yellowstone Park was established in 1872, the Miwok and their neighbors were displaced from the valley and dispersed into the surrounding territories. Their connection to specific places is evident in one of their most enduring art forms: the basket. Using local fauna obtained from the valley, the baskets of the Sierra Miwok and other California tribes become a literal weaving together of man and nature.

(Left) Thomas Moran, Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite Valley, 1904, Oil on canvas, 30 1/4 × 20″ unframed, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Huntington Harris, 61.45.1; (Right) Unknown Artist (Sierra Miwok), Basket, late 19th-century, Willow and bracken root, 9″ × 18,” From the Robert and Nancy Nooter Collection, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment, 2018.237

Breach of Trust: Remington & White Hawk

This energetic painting of a military exercise observed by Frederic Remington (1861-1909) depicts a line of the advancing U.S. 9th Cavalry— an African American regiment known as “Buffalo Soldiers.” These men were formerly enslaved African Americans who enlisted in the U.S. cavalry regiments in segregated units under white officers. Poised atop his galloping mount, a keen-eyed soldier reins the horse as their two synchronized bodies rapidly charge across the broad, barren landscape. The American bison, vital to the culture of the Plains people, became a target for extermination when federal policy, and subsequent military efforts such as those of the Buffalo Soldiers, were created specifically to destroy the entire Native way of life. 

In Trust and Loss, Dyani White Hawk (b. 1976) incorporates a 1929 newspaper advertisement peddling lands from her own reservation. White settlers proclaimed the migratory habits of the Plains people and their lack of “ownership” of the land to be the behavior of godless savages. The Dawes Act of 1887 was a land allotment policy intended to bring about the rapid assimilation of indigenous people.  Breaching numerous treaty provisions, Native lands were placed in a “trust” by the federal government, with tracts being assigned to tribal members and the remaining acreage offered for sale on the open market. 

(Left) Frederic Remington, The Pursuit, ca. 1896-98, Oil on canvas, 27 1/4″ × 40″ unframed, Gift of the Estate of Sally D. Eddy, 76.20.1; (Right) Dyani Whitehawk, Trust and Loss, 2013, Four-color lithograph, 30″ x 20,” Funds provided by Margaret A. and C. Boyd Clarke and Aldine S. Hartman Endowment Fund, AA2019.8.6

Earth, Sky, Water: Ufer & Yatsattie

Walter Ufer (1876-1936) belongs to the Taos Society of Artists, the leading exponents of figurative painting in early 20th-century America. He joined the group in 1917, specializing in portraits of Pueblo Indians and vivid landscapes fluidly painted in a high-key palette with textured brushwork. On the Rio Grande melds his sensitive portrayal of a reflective native figure (his favorite model, Jim Mirabel) with the lushly rendered New Mexico setting. A strong supporter of individual freedoms and a devout Socialist, Ufer was deeply concerned with the plight of the Pueblo Indians and what he viewed as their centuries-long oppression.

Pueblo potters were virtually all women throughout the 19th century. With the advent of the railroad and the ability of collectors to travel to remote locations in the southwest, potters were able to tap into an enthusiastic market for their wares. Ironically, traditional Pueblo pottery production almost died out at the turn of the century due to ethnographic and touristic collection of a majority of the older work that served as a tool for instruction and inspiration. By the mid-20th century, artists, both male and female, saw the opportunity to support themselves and their families with their ceramics and production once again flourished. Individual potters became known and sought after. 

Cornmeal bowls, such as this one made by Eileen Yatsattie (b.1960) of the Zuni Pueblo for her mother, are used in the home and during religious ceremonials to hold sacred cornmeal and sacred water. The four terraced steps represent clouds in the four directions. Toads, tadpoles, dragonflies, and the water serpent are usually drawn on to represent prayers for rain and water. They are still being used today. 

(Left) Walter Ufer, On the Rio Grande1927, Oil on canvas, 25 1/8″ × 30″ (unframed), J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American Art, 2014.183; (Right) Eileen Yatsattie, Cornmeal Bowl, 2000, Ceramic and pigment, 5 3/8″ × 7 7/8″ (overall), Gift of Edward A. Chappell, 2018.283

Chronicling American Land and People

Though Native life and culture existed well before the establishment of the United States, the Indigenous way of life changed drastically after Euro-American conquest. Presented alongside selected VMFA objects, this timeline dating after Euro-American invasion to the early twentieth-century identifies pivotal moments in Indigenous culture, recognizes key influential Native figures and tribes, and draws attention to American governmental policies affecting Native American life. Given the vast and various, historical and contemporaneous Indigenous experiences, this timeline more simply reflects particular events or eras referenced in the works selected for this exhibition.

Invasion of America

"Invasion of America" Map by Claudio Saunt, Russell Professor of History at University of Georgia
Interactive Map

From the mid-1700s onward, the western lands inhabited by Native peoples, including those allotted to displaced Eastern Indigenous communities, were gradually seized by Euro-Americans colonizing west of the Mississippi River. This interactive map illustrates the 1.5 billion acres taken from Native Americans through the enactment and abuse of U.S. executive orders and treaties.

Explore the map

Collection Conversations

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Collection Conversations

As demonstrated above, juxtaposing Native American and Euro-American artwork can help present overlooked stories and perspectives, and clarify historical misinformation and misinterpretations.

Click through the headings to the right to explore how other works in the VMFA collection, like Cara Romero’s Evolvers and Edward S. Curtis’s The Storm, speak to one another and communicate new understandings of American histories and cultures. Provided under each heading are select pairings and guiding questions.



Romero & Curtis

Contemporary artist, Cara Romero (b. 1977), cites nineteenth-century photographer Edward Curtis (1868-1952) as one of her early inspirations. Both photos also have a suggested narrative element.

In what ways does Romero reflect Curtis’s work? Why might she have chosen to cite his work? What does she do differently? 

Do you think the land itself can be considered a character in this narrative? How so?



WalkingStick & Hartley

Marsden Hartley (1877 – 1943) and Kay WalkingStick (b. 1935) similarly illustrate their fascination with the American landscape through the depiction of mountainous scenes.

When comparing these two landscapes, how might the two artists offer different ways of experiencing the natural world?

While Marsden Hartley utilizes acrylic paints and short brushstrokes, Kay WalkingStick employs a mixture of acrylic and wax media. What might be the importance of color in each painting? Of abstraction? Of texture?



Red Star & Catlin

Both artists, Wendy Red Star (b. 1981) and George Catlin (1796 – 1872), make use of staging, props, and subject manipulation in their work. 

Why might each artist have chosen to stage their works? What purpose does this serve for each artist? 

Do you think the staging is effective in achieving the goals of each? Why or why not?


Select Artist Biographies

Jaune Quick-To-See Smith

Raised on the Flathead Reservation, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith is one of the most acclaimed Native American artists today. She is deeply connected to her heritage and creates work that addresses the stories of her ancestors in the context of current issues facing Native Americans. Trained as an abstract expressionist, she often employs similar color palettes, collage techniques, and appropriated imagery. Her inspiration stems from the formal innovations of such artists as Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as traditional Native American art. Through a combination of representational and abstract images, she confronts subjects such as the destruction of the environment, governmental oppression of native cultures, and the pervasive myths of Euro-American cultural hegemony. Smith has had over 90 solo exhibits in the past 30 years and has done printmaking projects nationwide. Over that same time, she has organized and/or curated over 30 Native exhibitions, lectured at more than 185 universities, museums and conferences internationally, most recently at 5 universities in China. She has received awards and her work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney, and the Chrysler Museum.

Learn More
Dyani White Hawk

Dyani White Hawk is an artist of Sičangu Lakota and European American ancestry. Her work draws on her experiences in both the Native and urban American communities and education systems. Using a variety of medium, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, performance, video and photography, White Hawk focuses on issues of Indigenous language, women’s rights, and the necessity of nurturing cross-cultural relationships. She also seeks to challenge “the lack of representation of Native arts, people and voices in our national consciousness while highlighting the truth and necessity of equality and intersectionality.” Recent support for White Hawk’s work has included the 2019 United States Artists Fellowship in Visual Art, and the 2019 Eiteljorg Fellowship for Contemporary Art. Her work is in the collections of numerous institutions, including the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Denver Art Museum, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.

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Eileen Yatsattie

Eileen Yatsattie, a Zuni Pueblo tribal member, began making pottery in 1973 at the age of thirteen. She collects and processes her own natural clays, minerals, pigments, and plants in the traditional Zuni manner. She continues to use the traditional methods her great-grandmother Catalina Zunie and grandmother Margaret Walela used to produce traditional Zuni pottery.

Eileen was taught by the late Zuni elder potter Josephine Nahohai and her sons Milford and the late Randy Nahohai. She has also gained knowledge from accomplished potters such as the late Hopi potter Daisy Nampeyo Hooee and Acoma potter Jennie Laate. Her late grandfather Clarence Calavaza taught her Zuni prayers associated with pottery making. Her pottery reflects the cultural and spiritual values of the Zuni people.

She is well-known worldwide for her toad effigy pots. Her work has been included in numerous publications and museum collections. Eileen continues to pass along her knowledge through demonstrations, lectures, and teachings.

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Virgil Ortiz

Born in Santa Fe in 1969 and the youngest of six children, Ortiz grew up in a creative environment in which storytelling, collecting clay, gathering wild plants, and producing figurative pottery were part of everyday life. His grandmother Laurencita Herrera and his mother, Seferina Ortiz, were both renowned Cochiti Pueblo potters and part of an ongoing matrilineal heritage. Ortiz seeks to carry on that family heritage and to recapture the essence of late 19th century works to show that these ceramic traditions are still alive today. During the 19th century, Cochiti potters observed all kinds of people with whom they came into contact, and they recorded their impressions of them in clay in a way that communicated amusement, criticism or simply an active interest in the rapidly changing local scene. According to Ortiz, “social commentaries were very common, then. And still go on.” Developing the creation of clothing, jewelry, drawing, painting and videos, Virgil has expanded his field of production, but acknowledges that pottery remains his main focus. His priority with his work is the transmission of his knowledge to children, through the Ortiz foundation, which helps teach Cochiti children pottery making and other Pueblo traditions.

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Indigenous Acknowledgement & Resources

VMFA acknowledges that the majority of Native people today refer to themselves primarily by tribal or clan affiliation. However, when referring to an entire population, that of the first inhabitants of North America, there are still many common references used. To date, no one term has been categorically accepted or rejected. For that reason, you will see the terms Native American, American Indian, or Indigenous used interchangeably.

VMFA also acknowledges the Powhatan Confederacy and the Monacan Nation, the original people of the land and waters of Richmond, Virginia and where VMFA currently resides. We invite you to learn more about Native American culture in Virginia in the following resource booklet, The Virginian Indian Heritage Trailproduced by the Virginia Humanities.

Compiled in this downloadable PDF file and categorized by topic are additional readings expanding upon the concepts and works presented in this exhibition. Download Further Readings List

 

American Land, American People Survey

Once you have had the chance to explore this page on American Land, American People, we would like to invite you to participate in the voluntary online survey below. Your feedback is greatly appreciated, and will assist VMFA in understanding and bettering visitors’ experiences.

Take Survey

This collaborative research project culminated from and was made possible in part by the Kress Interpretive Fellowship 2019-2020, a grant supported by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.