Before you even enter “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists,” you can see its ending through the exit door: a grainy black-and-white video of Maria Tallchief, one of the Native ballerinas known as the Five Moons, dancing the role of the Firebird, a mythic creature who rises from the ashes. It’s one of the last images in the exhibit, but it’s visible at the start—this powerful, beautiful Native woman in motion, dynamically carrying Life forward. For this white girl who unwittingly got regular doses of Native teaching from Tulsa Ballet co-founder Moscelyne Larkin's ballet class growing up, it was a stirring moment. I could almost feel myself looking up and out like Miss Larkin taught us, to acknowledge the "ghosts" who came before us, who were watching to see how we did the steps they'd handed down. (No pressure.)
Welcome to Indigenous space-time, where beginnings exist within endings and vice versa. “Hearts of Our People” (now on view at the recently reopened and smartly reshuffled Philbrook) is about many, many things—intersections of creativity and matriarchy, of thriving and surviving, of Native science and art and love through countless generations. It's about continuity, power and pride. And it’s an overwhelming, joyous, energizing, mind-shifting, life-giving experience.
“This continuum has been laid down by our ancestors way before we arrived,” Anita Fields told me. Fields is an Osage artist and a Tulsa Artist Fellow. (She’s currently creating, with the public, a piece of pandemic-inspired art which you can discover more about under the hashtag #intheabsenceofgathering.) Six years ago she was one of 21 Native women artists invited to curate “Hearts of Our People” with the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The exhibit features over a hundred objects and artworks from all over North America, all created by Native women (including Fields herself, Shan Goshorn and other Oklahoma artists), and Tulsa is its last stop on a long tour.
Dot by dot, bead by bead, mother to child, branch to seed: this is how life persists. (Fields is the mother of Yatika Fields, the painter and muralist whose recent Root Instagram takeover wowed us all.) You’ll see grandmothers, mothers and daughters interviewed together on video screens placed on boldly colored walls. Thousand-year-old pots alongside beaded Louboutins. Dresses, coats, baskets, cradles. Bodies, animals, rivers, jewels. Objects, clothing, sculpture and paintings, both ancient and contemporary, whose layers of material and meaning are intricate and surprising. Every piece is its own essay on natural history, community and reciprocity. There’s pattern and purpose everywhere, and bringing those connections into the world—that's women’s power.
“These works are so much about relationships,” Fields explained. “They ask: What is your relationship to your community? To nature? Why are you creating something? What role does it play? What is it being made for? Some of these pieces were made when oppressive actions against us were very strong. They express who we are, that we’re here. They speak to this thread that holds the past and present and future together.”
"Hearts of Our People” is also about voicing the history of those who made this work—making the invisible visible. “Let’s just talk about Oklahoma,” Fields said. “Thirty-nine tribes arrived here, but how many people know those stories?” Fields gave me an example. “There’s an Osage belt in the exhibit,” she said. “When I was writing the description for the wall text, my thought was, somebody who was not Osage would have no idea of the nuances surrounding this. Maybe they wouldn't even know how you put it on! Who else can tell that story? Somebody who’s non-Native might know it's made of yarn and trade beads, but not that when a woman puts it on, she has her own unique movements to make it swing in a certain way.”
Such agency granted to Native artists by museum administrators is not the common practice, but Fields hopes it will be a new norm rather than an exception. “They're going to have to give up some ways things have always been done," she said. "But there’s no need for misrepresentation today. This sets up a whole new relationship with the people they’re representing.”
When current ways feel more than a little exhausted, creations, stories and processes like this are deep nourishment. “It’s non-Western thought—I don’t know any other way to put it," Fields explained. "It goes back to asking, what do you value? What is true knowledge? What does nature teach us? Those explorations and ideas have always been there, for Native people.” Native or not, your grandma would want you to listen to these women. Future generations need it, too. Reservations and masks are required, and worth it.