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Jaune Quick-to-See Smith was sitting on the shore of a lake in Montana when she had an epiphany. An artist and curator, Smith was visiting the Flathead Reservation — the home of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, of which she is a citizen. She’d been born on the reservation in 1940 and later moved to Albuquerque. On this trip, in 1991, as she looked out at the landscape that had helped shape her, she realized that she needed to do a better job of communicating. “I’m making paintings and I know what they’re about but the viewer doesn’t,” she recalled in a recent interview.

Then came the light-bulb moment: Her works were about contemporary Native life, but they were more abstract, less direct in approach. “What if I cut articles out of the newspaper, glue them in, and paint on them, like Rauschenberg did?” she thought.

Smith liked Robert Rauschenberg’s process of incorporating cutouts into his works, building his famous collage aesthetic that placed a medley of objects and images on equal footing. “But if I do it,” Smith told herself, “I can make it so that it really says something.”

She started placing newspaper clippings on her canvases and painting around and over them. As the idea took hold, she made the layouts more purposeful: juxtaposing excerpts from The New York Times and the Flathead Reservation’s Char-Koosta News, as well as other printed snippets, that, when read together, became suggestive and rhythmic, creating what Smith calls her “rap.” She added found images, bits of fabric, and more expressive passages of paint, all of it simmering behind large, simply rendered icons, like a canoe. In 1992, she hung above one such canvas a series of objects featuring racist Native stereotypes, including a baseball cap from the Cleveland Indians. With a twist of dry humor, she titled her piece, which stretched 14 feet long, Trade (Gifts for Trading Land With White People).

That monumental, still stunning artwork sits at the heart of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Memory Map, opening this week at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The exhibition includes some 130 pieces from over five decades, making it the artist’s largest survey. Smith’s is the first retrospective of a Native artist that the New York institution has itself organized, a fact that’s less surprising than it is vexing.

“It forces the question of, why not before? Why not more attention to contemporary Indigenous art?” said Laura Phipps, the Whitney’s assistant curator who organized the exhibition with Caitlin Chaisson, a curatorial project assistant. “We’re constantly questioning what ‘American’ means, but in a lot of those conversations, the idea of Native America has not been a part of that.”

Smith’s retrospective arrives as the map of the art world seems to be shifting: Contemporary Native artists have been more visible and sought after than ever before, in museum commissions and collections and in galleries. Smith, 83, also has a commission in Counterpublic, a new triennial in St. Louis, and is curating an exhibition featuring some 50 Native artists at the National Gallery of Art. The show, which will open in September, represents more overdue firsts: the first time an artist has ever curated an exhibition there and the first show of Native art at the NGA in 30 years.

But if the current wave of attention has opened up new possibilities for Indigenous artists, particularly younger ones, credit is due less to the institutions than to Smith and others of her generation for the tireless work they did to “break the buckskin ceiling,” in her words. The Whitney retrospective makes that clear. Although Smith’s curating and activism are represented only minimally, her paintings, prints and sculptures demonstrate how she took various modern and postmodern artistic languages, including collage, appropriation and Pop Art, and made them her own — or, as she would say, made them Native.

Take, for example, Trade (Gifts for Trading Land With White People), which, according to the Choctaw-Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson, “offers so much allowance and freedom for Native artists.” Gibson spoke of the challenges he has felt in trying to be a Native artist, activist, educator and parent simultaneously. “You need a unified model of how someone can be the same person in all those spaces,” he said. “Jaune has provided that for me.”

Smith has always occupied multiple roles. She and her sister were raised by their father, Arthur, after their mother, who gave birth to Smith as a teenager, left. Arthur was a horse trader, and while attending school, Smith worked with him — and in canneries and on farms — throughout her childhood. One of her favorite escapes was to hide in a tree and read books.

Smith didn’t get an advanced art degree until she was 40. In high school, a white adviser told her, “Indians don’t go to college,” so she did college prep. When an art teacher told her she drew better than the men, but that “women cannot be artists,” she got an art education degree. Along the way, she met her partner, Andy Ambrose, had children, and worked a variety of jobs to help support them. (Her son Neal Ambrose-Smith is also an artist; two of their collaborations are on view at the Whitney.)

In 1976, Smith moved to Albuquerque and started auditing art classes at the University of New Mexico, — it took three applications until the school admitted her. There, she and the Indigenous artists Larry Emerson, Conrad House, Felice Lucero, Emmi Whitehorse and Paul Willeto formed a collective called Grey Canyon. “She’s like a mother hen,” said Whitehorse, who is Navajo and was then an undergraduate at UNM. “She took it on herself to teach me the ropes.”

Grey Canyon provided emotional support, but Smith wanted their art to be taken seriously. She sought places for them to exhibit and in 1979 landed their first show, at New York’s American Indian Community House. At the time, she was making pastels that referred to places that were meaningful to her. They look like enigmatic maps, with floating pictographs and tracks — Smith’s response to professors who emphasized abstraction. But when Grey Canyon exhibited at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in 1980, the members found that their modern paintings and abstract art clashed with some people’s stereotypical expectations of Native artists. Whitehorse recalled that white board members “hated it. They said, ‘What the heck are you doing? You should be at home, learning the craft your grandmothers are doing, making pottery and rugs.’”

Smith’s approach to organizing the Grey Canyon shows — cold-calling anywhere she could think of — established how she would go about much of her activism and curating for the next two decades: in a mode between seat-of-the-pants and “when the spirit moves me,” as her father would say.

Her improvisational urgency has had remarkable results. Her projects include helping to save Albuquerque’s Petroglyph National Monument and Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts. She’s also organized over 30 exhibitions, including important group shows of contemporary Native American photographers and women artists, and two exhibitions that rebutted the 1992 quincentennial celebrations of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas.

Such work reflects her communal mind-set — how she has expanded the space for Indigenous people in art by inviting others to give talks, connecting them to resources, or just writing notes of encouragement. “When I come through the door, I bring a community with me,” Smith said. “I want there to be others after me.” She attributes this to her heritage. “I’m still doing my dad’s horse trading,” she told me, only now what’s being exchanged are ideas and support.

Molly Donovan, the National Gallery’s curator of contemporary art, likened working with her to being “this lucky student in a pro seminar being taught by the pre-eminent voice on the subject. Jaune has a generous pedagogy; she freely shares her knowledge.”

Smith’s early solo gallery shows were in Santa Fe, then New York. She’s continued to exhibit regularly throughout her career, but has nonetheless felt relegated to the periphery: seen and heard but not always fully understood, her work written about but rarely in real depth.

“We’re marginalized,” she said, “and actually, there’s a certain comfort level in that. You don’t have to worry about bad PR, because nobody writes about it — nobody looks at it. So you can do whatever you want.”

In Smith’s case, that has meant honing her collage technique; introducing more icons, like the U.S. map and bison; and adjusting her colors and insistent strokes and drips of paint to better convey the clamorous contradictions of American Indian life. One potent painting, Sovereign Nations (2002), features three layered wingtip dresses decorated with American-flag stars (a nod to Jasper Johns’s Three Flags from 1958, hanging upstairs at the Whitney). They’re set against the text of the 1855 Treaty of Hellgate, which created the Flathead Reservation.

Part of what makes Smith’s practice fascinating is the tension it carries between her embrace of more Eurocentric, modernist methods and her pro-Indigenous, environmentalist, anticapitalist messages. Those messages feel very contemporary and of a piece with art by Nicholas Galanin, Maria Hupfield, and New Red Order, yet these younger Indigenous artists’ work is more formally experimental and often more direct.

“I’m caught between two generations,” Smith told me: that of her father, whose childhood experiences of being beaten at an American Indian boarding school made him feel like he “couldn’t say anything,” and that of younger Native artists, who “can say things that maybe we felt like we couldn’t,” Smith reflected, “I don’t think I have that freedom.”

It’s difficult to walk through her retrospective and reconcile that sentiment with what’s on view. Her canoe piled with skulls and flag with Mickey Mouse ears suggest that despite limitations or fear, she has found ways to say what she needs to. In a recent painting, she took the U.S. map and flipped it sideways. The move dispels the map’s authority, making it look precarious and absurd. In the center, amid yellows, reds and oranges, Smith added a cutout phrase that could serve as a secondhand manifesto: “NDN humor Causes people To survive.”

–Jillian Steinhauer

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