Arts and Entertainment

Memory Map: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s [Native] American Experience

Artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s striking insight into the devastating history of oppression and current political struggles of indigenous populations in the United States.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Winnie Yang

All 50 years of artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s (b. 1940) career are chronicled on the third and fifth floors of the Whitney Museum of American Art in Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Memory Map. Smith lives in New Mexico and has Native American citizenship in the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nations. Her work combines pop art, abstraction, and illustration with Native American imagery to create powerful pieces reflecting American colonization, imperialism, and the continued exploitation of Indigenous peoples.

Organized thematically, the exhibit’s Native American influence becomes immediately apparent to visitors. Trade Canoe: 40 Days and 40 Nights (2014) features a canoe drawn with harsh brush strokes and spread across three canvases. Neon colors fill the backgrounds of the left and right canvases, while the middle one utilizes warmer hues to depict polka dots of various sizes and intensities, reminiscent of heavy rains as they fill the sinking canoe. Smith frequently returns to this motif of overflow and uses it to allude to climate change. She includes this show of environmental devastation because of its impertinence to naturalistic, preservationist Native American culture—a theme further highlighted by the center canvas, which features the faces of three animals (a tiger, a bunny, and a coyote) engulfed by the rain. The rain is featured less on the right side of the canvas, which instead contains rough sketches of the Native American Tonto from Lone Ranger, an example of the infamous“faithful Indian companion” stereotype. Smith also amplifies the mood of impending doom by using abstract imagery, from creatures like demons and winged skeletons to isolated body parts like eyes and mouths. Through its references to Native American folklore, this cryptic painting mirrors the still troubled status of Native Americans and their treatment by society. When all three canvases are combined, the image that is created is complicated, large-scale, and surreal, with important implications for the modern world. 

American consumerism and its harmful effects on Native populations is a popular theme in Smith’s works. This can be seen in What is an American? (2003), which shows a hand-painted acrylic Native man in traditional garments like layered necklaces and a patterned coat. The image is colored solely with red, white, and blue—the colors of the American flag—which bleed out of the man’s hand in bold streaks. The background of the painting is a grayscale collage of printouts of animals with Native significance—such as butterflies and bison—intertwined with larger, darker images of advertisements and brands, which drown out the Native imagery. Smith even inserts Mickey Mouse into the painting, with his white-gloved hands and circular ears appearing on the piece’s sides. The inclusion of Mickey Mouse, the iconic embodiment of Disney, alludes to the dominant capitalist entity’s historical misrepresentation of Native Americans as either savages or in need of European salvation. Surrounding the Native man are descriptions of the ideal American: “An American is an optimist,” “Americans have big ideas.” These telling signs of capitalism and its connection to the American Dream present an American market culture that works toward Native American assimilation. It displays American consumerism’s role in minimizing Native Americans’ nature-based traditions, attempting to suffocate their cultural values in the resultant domineering world of capitalism and media.

Smith’s use of pop culture as analogous to American oppression takes center stage in the powerful Paper Dolls for a Post Columbian World with Ensembles Contributed by the US Government (1991). The piece is a series of messily colored, poseable cardboard dolls in comic art style. Culturally, dolls often embody contemporary beauty standards. Through these dolls, Smith shows the “beauty” standards set by the U.S. government: how Natives should look and act, and the ultimately harmful effect on Native American well-being. The first doll, Father Le DeVille the Jesuit, is an emotionless priest in dark purple hues with scattered wrinkles etched into his hardened face. DeVille alludes to the historically Church-operated boarding schools used to forcefully assimilate Native Americans. Following DeVille are three base dolls—Barbie, Ken, and Bruce—all made to represent Native people. The dolls’ clothes are painted with cooler colors and lighter streaks to symbolize the objectifying and suppressive roles forced onto Native people by the US government. The articles of clothing include boarding school uniforms and suits commonly worn when requesting rations—a necessity due to the eventual government ban on hunting and foraging. Smith also depicts maid uniforms, representing one of the common occupations Natives were forced to assume after conforming to American ideology. Additionally, Smith presents two doll suits in the blank silhouette of a human covered in pink and red dots, representing the blankets infected with smallpox that decimated Native populations. Each piece of clothing displays a unique example of the American government’s despicable injustices against Natives. 

Smith’s artwork gives a voice to the dark relationship between Native American culture and the United States. Since colonization, Native Americans have been forced to conform to Western standards, with their culture being both appropriated in misrepresentative mainstream media and forcibly erased by the American government. Smith’s impactful criticism of continued Native American suppression is a celebration of Native culture, showing that in spite of persecution, Native American culture remains rich and thriving.