On November 24, 2022, Indigenous activist Leonard Peltier published a heartfelt letter commemorating the National Day of Mourning. Incarcerated since 1977, the former American Indian Movement organizer called out the contradictions in the United States government’s occupation of Native land, which has systematically hindered any form of tribal sovereignty.
“All the world now faces the same challenges that our people foretold regarding climate damage being caused by people who take more than they need, dismissing the teachings of our fathers, and the knowledge of countless generations living upon the earth in harmony,” Peltier wrote, invoking generations of tribes and First Nations preserving history on their own terms, otherwise known as “truth-telling.”
Indigenous artists have long spoken their truth symbolically, portraying centuries of resilience in art forms appropriated from colonial oppressors. This process is central to Studio Theater in Exile’s online exhibition, Truth-Telling: Voices of First People. Narratives of ancestral pride and bureaucratic prejudice appear in paintings and sculptures from the late 20th century to the present, ranging from overt critique to more subtle rumination.
On the surface, Truth-Telling is a multidisciplinary cross-section of well-known Native artists from across the US and Canada. Minimalist signage and metalworks by Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds and Margaret Jacobs are contrasted with more maximalist abstractions by Duane Slick and Benjamin West’s street-style photography. The renowned Kiowa painter T.C. Cannon, who died in 1978 at the age of 31, is honored for his storied lyrical portraits. One painting included here shows a woman waiting at a bus stop in warm shades of pink and blue; the curators note that she was Cannon’s first crush, who rejected him in life but chose to be buried beside him.
In this context, however, Cannon’s lesser-known sketch “Minnesota Sioux” takes center stage. On a plain sheet of white paper, the artist scrawled an empty hangman scene, referring to the 1862 execution of 38 Dakota men that was approved by President Abraham Lincoln. Rather than portray the violence enacted upon the bodies of Native people, Cannon leaves the space empty except for written instructions to “Insert Here.”
This confrontation with the colonial gaze informs much of Truth-Telling, which alludes to direct attacks on Native communities. Rose B. Simpson’s regal sculptures capture the creative labor of Indigenous women, whose murder rates are 10 times higher than the national average. In “Reclamation III: Rite of Passage,” a hairless woman with a gaping hole in her chest forms the foundations of a rounded clay pot. Simpson’s sculpture “Breathe” likewise show a woman’s head held back with mouth agape, as if silently screaming. Together, the emotionless gaze of both works evokes centuries of bureaucratic neglect.
With these works, Indigenous artists reclaim realities long denied them by US and Canadian federal governments — including moments of collective reverie. Christi Belcourt’s kaleidoscopic paintings bring this latter element to the forefront, grounding images of colorful foliage with deep, visible roots. Pieces such as “So Much Depends on Who Holds the Shovel” feel both ornamental and spiritual as brightly hued birds and flowers radiate ancestral truths against a black background.
The Métis artist employs color symbolically, too, as in her “Offerings and Prayers for Genebek Ziibiing.” Flowing blue and red brushstrokes form an outline around a symmetrical image of two women nurturing a body of water. Evoking the contamination of Ontario’s Elliot Lake due to uranium mining, the twilight scene promotes balance between humanity and nature while hinting at an imminent sunset — visualizing the climate warnings of Belcourt’s frequent collaborator, Isaac Murdoch.
For each artist in Truth-Telling, Indigenous knowledge is anathema to capitalist logic. This is perhaps best captured in Nicholas Galanin Yéil Ya-Tseen’s mixed-media work “Architecture of Returned Escape.” The Tlingit/Unangax artist rendered a blueprint of a museum on an animal hide. Is this subversive schematic a guide to freedom or a plot to win the land back? The ambiguity cleverly provokes more than it resolves, and emphasizes the necessity of a coherent path forward.
Truth-Telling: Voices of First People can be viewed online. The exhibition was curated by Jonette O’Kelley Miller.