Museums often freeze Native American culture in the past. Check out these Midwest attractions that are showcasing indigenous expressions of today.

This story in the May/June 2020 issue of Midwest Living was published just as coronavirus-related restrictions went into effect nationwide. Please check websites for the current status of attractions and events.

The brothers spin in unison, one foot grounded, arms arched to the sky. In a blur of color and fringe, Minneapolis hoop dancers Lumhe and Samsoche Sampson link a series of slender rings. They carve graceful arcs through space, creating shapes in the air while weaving chains of hoops around their bodies. The dance is anchored by the indigenous rhythms of their Muscogee Creek/Seneca lineage—soaring voices, the heartbeat of the drum. But hip-hop’s energy, lyrical contemporary dance and the fluidity of Latin beats pulse just under the surface to create something visceral and new.

“Native arts aren’t static,” says Scott Shoemaker, a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. With a doctorate in American history, he curates the selection of Native American art, history and culture at Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. “Native arts represent resiliency and continuity and innovation and adaptation over time.”

The Sampson Brothers are part of a new wave of indigenous artists. They’re reimagining traditional art forms. Experimenting with new mediums. And smashing some stereotypical views of Native American arts, remaking it in their own diverse images.

Sampson Brothers
The Sampson Brothers perform at a RAW artists showcase in the Twin Cities. They teach a weekly class at Minneapolis American Indian Center.
| Credit: Courtesy of Sampson Brothers

“There’s no word for ‘art’ in the Lakota language,” says Cecily Engelhart (Ihanktonwan/Oglala). Her work with the native-led First Peoples Fund nonprofit helped fund the Oglala Lakota Artspace set to open this summer on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. “Art is so embedded in who we are as people and so integral to how we have known ourselves that it’s inseparable from our ways of being,” she says. You can experience that way of life at these incubators for indigenous arts.

The center’s full collection is staggering in scale—and growing, thanks to annual acquisitions from the Red Cloud Indian Art Show. That exhibition, founded in 1969, is one of the largest of its kind, and one of only a few such shows held on a reservation.

Buy work by Pine Ridge artists in the gift shop (or online). Pine Ridge Reservation, near Badlands National Park, is known for quillwork and modern ledger art, which dates to the 1800s, when illustrators replaced hides with ledger book paper.

The Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School
Shoshone Madonna II by Daniel McCoy Jr. (Muscogee Creek) is part of a nearly 10,000-piece collection at The Heritage Center.
| Credit: Courtesy of The Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School

Conflicting indigenous and Western worldviews meet behind the smooth facade of the Eiteljorg, a gem in downtown Indy’s White River State Park museum district.

Exhibits spark challenging discussions on identity, representation and cultural appropriation, and the gift shop is top-notch. Check online for current shows or time your visit for Eiteljorg’s Indian Market and Festival, which spills onto the lawn and showcases art, music and dance from across the continent (originally scheduled for June 27–28 this year; now postponed until 2021).

Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art
Courtesy of Eiteljorg Museum.
| Credit: Courtesy of Eiteljorg Museum

Great Plains Art Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln houses many historical and contemporary works by Hopi, Navajo, Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek) and Oglala Lakota artists, among others. The museum focuses on the art that shaped the region. An exhibition planned for fall 2020 will feature works by Gina Adams, Laurie Houseman-Whitehawk and other indigenous artists in the permanent collection.

Plains Art Museum, Fargo, North Dakota

Natural light and many forms of indigenous expression fill a renovated three-story warehouse. See She gives, a multimedia tribute to women by Dyani White Hawk (Sičangu Lakota). Or discuss excerpts pulled from White Earth Anishinabe novelist Marcie R. Rendon’s thrillers.

Indigenous teens receive hands-on instruction during the two-week Northern Plains Summer Art Institute.

This cultural hub hosts diverse classes, such as Ojibwe and Dakota language courses and hoop dancing. In May, the gallery will show Dick Bancroft’s photos of the early days of the American Indian Movement (founded in Minneapolis). After a gift shop stop, pop into Gatherings Cafe for recipes made with food harvested from White Earth and Red Lake nations.

Beyond Buckskin

An online fashion boutique celebrates indigenous designers.

Jessica Metcalfe
Jessica Metcalfe.
| Credit: Courtesy of Beyond Buckskin

Jessica Metcalfe says that one thread ties her business, Beyond Buckskin, together: “These are artists that are pushing the boundaries.” And, she adds, every item is appropriate for people of all backgrounds. You might find intricate jewelry or modern takes on ribbon skirts. The Turtle Mountain Chippewa citizen explains that when shopping for indigenous art or jewelry, it’s important to buy directly from artists or small businesses that support them to ensure indigenous clothing is worn respectfully.