Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists

February 21, 2020 – March 13, 2020

Renwick Gallery (Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW)
An artwork with small details made of beads depicting nature.

Christi Belcourt (Métis),The Wisdom of the Universe, 2014, acrylic on canvas; Art Gallery Ontario, Toronto; Purchased with funds donated by Greg Latremoille © Christi Belcourt

“At long, long last, after centuries of erasure, Hearts of Our People celebrates the fiercely loving genius of Indigenous women. Sumptuous, gorgeous, eternal, strange, this art is alive. Be prepared for an encounter with power and joy!”

—Louise Erdrich, author

Women have long been the creative force behind Native American art, yet their individual contributions have been largely unrecognized, instead treated as anonymous representations of entire cultures. Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists explores the artistic achievements of Native women and establishes their rightful place in the art world.


This landmark exhibition is the first major thematic show to explore the artistic achievements of Native women. Its presentation at SAAM’s Renwick Gallery includes 82 artworks dating from antiquity to the present, made in a variety of media from textiles and beadwork, to sculpture, time-based media and photography. At the core of this exhibition is a firm belief in the power of the collaborative process. A group of exceptional Native women artists, curators, and Native art historians have come together to generate new interpretations and scholarship of this art and their makers, offering multiple points of view and perspectives to enhance and deepen understanding of the ingenuity and innovation that have always been foundational to the art of Native women.

The exhibition is organized by Jill Ahlberg Yohe, associate curator of Native American Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Teri Greeves, an independent curator and member of the Kiowa Nation. An advisory panel of Native women artists and Native and non-Native scholars provided insights from a range of nations.

The presentation at the Renwick is the third stop on a four venue national tour. The exhibition is accompanied by a beautifully illustrated catalogue, which includes essays, personal reflections, and poems by twenty members of the Exhibition Advisory Board and other leading scholars and artists in the field. It is available for purchase ($39.95) in the Renwick Gallery online store.

Note: Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists was scheduled to be on view from February 21 through May 17, 2020. Its run at the Renwick Gallery was cut short when the Smithsonian closed its museums as a public health precaution to help contain the spread of COVID-19. The museum was closed from March 14 through September 172020.


  • On Thursday, October 1, 2020, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) presented a virtual conversation about the collaborative curatorial process and the exquisite artwork by Native women featured in the landmark exhibition “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists.” Exhibition curators Jill Ahlberg Yohe, associate curator of Native American Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Teri Greeves, an independent curator and member of the Kiowa Nation, and featured artists Kelly Church (Ottawa/Pottawatomi) and Carla Hemlock (Kanienkeháka) join Anya Montiel, curator of American and Native American Women’s Art and Craft at the Smithsonian American Art Museum for this engaging dialogue.

  • Legacy provides for the transmission of knowledge and skills from one generation to the next and is intrinsic to the artistic process of Native women. Legacy offers intergenerational continuity. It encapsulates the past, present, and future. It interconnects aesthetics and knowledge systems—ways of understanding the mutual links between one’s existence and the world specific to each Native nation—transcending time and place. Native women’s work keeps alive important techniques, aesthetic principles, and social protocols; it is steeped in Native modes of thinking, acting, and being.
    Because of legacy, artistic patterns and techniques can be faithfully re-created for all time. But legacy also allows artists to change, adapt, re-form, and reimagine art forms. Each artwork in this exhibition demonstrates the continuity and resilience of legacy.

  • In Native worldviews, the ability to create life holds sacred power; women, therefore, are considered inherently powerful. The power held by Native women among their own people is spiritual, social, and political. It is contained in knowledge that is both shared and withheld. Native women artists, through their creations born of self-expression, hold power within and outside their nations.
    Women’s personal power is expressed in the values of honor, grace, and balance. These values include the belief that to be honored is to honor others; respect must be given to the ones that came before and the ones that come after. In order to be truly human is to show generosity through gift giving and hospitality, to be grateful for all things, and to live in harmony with the world by striving for balance.

  • The theme of relationships aligns with the Indigenous concept of connectivity and reciprocity. Everything in the world—people, animals, plants, places, and living and nonliving elements—is interconnected. Vast webs connect Native people, the physical and metaphysical worlds, and time and space.
    Relationships also involve collaboration among generations, genders, materials, and nations. In Native worldviews, all beings engage in acts of reciprocity in order to maintain balance. This reciprocity requires humans to take responsibility for these relationships, and part of this responsibility is protecting and providing for others. Creating works of art, in part, protects and provides for the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of others.

    SAAM Stories

    Online Gallery

    The Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists exhibition is multilingual with descriptive text presented in both the artist’s Native American or First Nations languages, as well as English, aiming to present the works in the context of each artist’s own culture and voice.

    Christi Belcourt

    This work features plants and animals that are listed in Canada as threatened, endangered, or extinct, like the dwarf lake iris, the Karner blue butterfly, and the cerulean warbler. Belcourt hopes that through her work we will remember the interconnected nature of existence on this planet. She encourages us to abandon unsustainable paths in favor of an abiding relationship with Mother Earth, stating, “This wondrous planet, so full of mystery, is a paradise. All I want to do is give everything I have, my energy, my love, my labor—all of it in gratitude for what we are given.”
    A logo for the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative
    The National Endowment for the Humanities logo in black with a green circular form.
    The Minneapolis Institute of Art logo in black.
    The Henry Luce Foundation logo in black.

    Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


    Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists is organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The exhibition has been made possible in part by a major grant from the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

    The presentation at the Renwick Gallery is organized in collaboration with the National Museum of the American Indian. Generous support has been provided by the James F. Dicke Family Endowment, Chris G. Harris, the Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason Foundation, Jacqueline B. Mars, the Provost of the Smithsonian, the Share Fund, the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, and the WEM Foundation.