Great Reads

Arts as Culture: Native American Artists

Jeremy Dennis Artwork, Choknanipok (Man of Flint)


The Wickquasgeck Trail, worn by the Lenape People over hills, through pine, oak, and chestnut woods, across open plains and fast waterways (a natural landscape that seems unimaginable on today’s gridlocked mountain of concrete and steel), stretched 13 miles from the southern tip of Manahatta to upstate New York. The street known as Broadway today roughly follows this Lenape trade route. Noisy and cluttered, bustling with commerce and cultural hot spots, Broadway is also a silent reminder of the precolonial era, the trauma of anti-Native violence, and the forced migration of the Lenape People. 

In the 1930s, as the residents of 97 Orchard Street were preparing for their inevitable eviction during the depths of the Great Depression, Akwesasne and Kahnawa:ke people (of the Mohawk Nation) migrated to New York City for jobs in the extremely dangerous field of high-steel construction. These Mohawk men contributed heavily to the construction of New York City’s most iconic skyscrapers and bridges. Beyond a marvel of architecture, or symbolic of ingenuity and limitless possibility, the New York City Skyline is a bold declaration of Native identity. Yet popular associations of these buildings, roads and bridges eclipse the stories of their Native origins, risking the erasure of the complex and continuous Native histories.  

black and white photo of five Mohawk ironworkers in caps and overalls sitting down on a costruction site

The Native American history of New York City continues to grow and is maintained by a diverse community of Native People. To lift some of these contemporary stories, The Tenement Museum, in partnership with the American Indian Community House, is highlighting a group of Native Artists and Makers. Their work sets in motion a devotion to history and an impulse toward reinterpretation- at once playful and powerful.  

Beginning in 2019, the Tenement Museum and AICH established a progressive partnership involving relationship-building beyond Land Acknowledgement. By dedicating space for AICH meetings and workshops, and through collaborations on events and projects like this, this partnership is dynamic and mutually beneficial. As the partnership continues to evolve, the Museum is able to offer a more comprehensive cultural and historical understanding of this Land.  

Iakowi:he’ne’ Oakes, Executive Director of AICH, spoke to us about the role of art in Native American Nations.  “The art reflects elements of their identity,” she said. “It’s clothes or baskets, for example. These are things made for each other and used everyday. This is art to us.”

Native art pushes against hierarchy. What in an “Art World” context would be dismissed as craft is itself worthy of being regarded as art. Contemporary Native Artists and Makers maintain this spirit. Even as their work enters the “Art World” context, the functional root of their creative output remains a central tenet.  

Native Artists, in dialogue with history, carry the past with them, and their work offers new possibilities for understanding contemporary culture. Native identity is explored and poetically reflected through the re-contextualization of “American” pop culture, incorporation of new materials, and performance.  

Simultaneously, the brutality and oppression of colonialism give the work of Native Artists an inherently political subtext. Their continued efforts to create in the face of genocide and disenfranchisement are profound acts of resistance. As with all resistance, there is struggle. “Art feeds the family,Iakowi:he’ne’ said. “Partnership in trade supports the Artists’ commitment to maintaining the culture. It’s the smallest thing, but it points to actual reciprocity. And it’s about respect.”

Judith Norris

Name: Bebonkwe (Winter) Brown 

Nation: Plains Cree/Anishnawbe/Metis 

What is your ‘tag-line’? Contemporary Indigenous Art with a Traditional Heart

How do you see your work preserving and advancing the culture? I’m continuing aesthetic and cultural practices and paradigms using contemporary, multi-cultural media and materials. 


Jeremy Dennis Portrait

Name: Jeremy Dennis 

Nation: Shinnecock Indian Nation 

How do you see your work preserving and advancing the culture? As an artist, I enjoy telling our traditional creation stories along with creating images that represent our shared tribal histories. I am interested in exploring new ways of representing Shinnecock and Indigenous people using art photography and portraiture. We as a nation simply want to be respected and exercise our sovereignty but even our neighbors ignore the fact that we are still here. 


Name: Iakowi:he’ne‘ (Melissa) Oakes 

Nation: Kanien’kehá:ka, Mohawk Nation (People of the Flint) 

How did you get started on the Artist/Maker path?  My grandmother and grandfather were designers, makers and builders. My grandmother made elaborate sweetgrass baskets, quilts, and clothes, and I did all these things alongside her since I was 4. My grandfather prepared the ash for sweetgrass baskets, and also made them survive along with his sister Mary Adams when they were young, who became world-famous for her creations. While also being on his side, I had a chance to make Lacrosse sticks, wooden snowshoes, furniture and toboggans. Along with being a Legend in the sport of Lacrosse in Canada, he was also an Ironworker (Skywalker), he built skyscrapers and bridges in NYC and Vancouver. My life was and is full of making and creating, this is just the beginning of it.  

Brandon Lazore standing with artwork

Name: Brandon lazore 

Nation: Onondaga  

How did you get started on the Artist/Maker path? Painting Graffiti murals in the early 90s 

How do you see your work preserving and advancing the culture? 

My paintings are teaching tools. My work is to educate the people about the Haudenosaunee culture.

Arts as Culture: Native American Artists, woman wearing basket on back

Name:  Ashley Thompson 

Nation: Mohawk  

How did you get started on the Artist/Maker path?  I started beading after I had my first child. I could not afford to buy moccasins for his regalia for the mid-winter ceremony, so I took it upon myself to learn.  

What do you see is the future of your work? I would like for beadwork to my full time job along with planting in the community gardens 

Written by Jason Eisner, Tenement Museum Manager for Coordination and Exhibitions


  • Header: Jeremy Dennis, “Choknanipok (Man of Flint)”
  • Mohawk Ironworkers at work on the Chrysler Building via the Smithsonian