Jaune Quick-to-See Smith has pushed the boundaries of Native American art since the 1970s with her expansive practice, activism, and advocacy. Her just-opened show “Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Memory Map” at the Whitney Museum of American Art is the first retrospective for an Indigenous artist that the institution has ever organized. It brings together five decades of Smith’s drawings, prints, paintings, and sculptures—including her iconic painting from 2000, Memory Map. Quick-to-See Smith has also been busy working as a curator of “The Land Carries Our Ancestors,” a survey of contemporary Native American art slated to open September 24 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Quick-to-See Smith spoke with Art in America about how she began making memory maps, the importance of Native languages, and bringing different communities together.
How did you start making memory maps?
I started making these kind of abstract landscape maps from fields of fireweed and mustard—things that I would see on my reservation—when I was in graduate school. In the early work from the 1970s, you can see these abstract maps with bars of color intermixed with pictographs. For roughly the last 50 years, I’ve been collecting books on pictographs, petroglyphs, and glyphs, and I visit sites. I’ve always had a long-running interest in how we Native people each see the land because we come from various terrains and geographical areas, all with different foods, housing, traditions, and origin stories. There are 574 federally recognized tribes and hundreds more that are not recognized.
One thing I discovered was that most of us didn’t make a horizon line. I really didn’t know why, but, in talking to people and thinking about myself and how I work, I believe it’s related to our stories, which portray a holistic world: the sky above and the land below, groundwater recharge. Everything is connected. Our stories are often interwoven with things that come down from the sky, particularly in relation to water. Near my house, there’s a site that’s at least 1,000 years old or older and, if I go down in the kiva, all the images inscribed onto the wall—the catfish, the river, a woman giving birth, the eagle with water spray coming out of its mouth sharing with the cactus—center around water. Water is life. Now we’re in a drought, so that makes it even more important.
How have your lived experience and research influenced the making of these maps?
In my research, I’ve found that each community has petroglyphs specific to them. And that’s how the memory maps got started. I was documenting different communities in the United States by looking at petroglyphs or pictographs in each area so that the markings tie into each community’s stories and language. It’s grown from there. I also discovered in doing this work that, though it’s been claimed that we have no written language, we had so many ways of documenting. Of course, our history books and school curricula don’t tell us this. But in our cuneiform writing and objects like quipus—colored ropes and twines with knots used to communicate messages—we can see how our ancestors communicated. These languages carry our culture, our land, food, housing. Our languages are so embedded in the land and, when the Europeans invaded, they took all of this and moved us off of our land, where we had lived for thousands of years. It created a genocide that’s still ongoing.
Without this language, a whole part of our culture is missing. What I’m doing with my art is extracting what I know is relevant information in today’s world. Each piece tells a story and it revolves around this genocide and what has been taken away from us. Scholars and advocates like myself have had to go back to retrieve this information. A lot of us are also involved with trying to change public school education in this country because our history has been left out. I’ve been writing to the state board of education in New Mexico. In Montana, we have Native American history and current events in the kindergarten through 12th-grade curricula. In my work, you will find a reflection of this—both our history and current events.
Taking all that information and looking at your memory maps, those symbols that we see are representing different Native communities?
That’s exactly right. They are from specific places, whatever is left on rocks or walls. Some of them are in the open, while others are inside of caves.
How do you go about selecting which ones to highlight on your maps?
When I do the research, I get so involved in considering the terrain and whether there are still Indigenous people living in that area or nearby. In general, I focus on figures or the number of tribes, but I’ve made big maps tracking where the tribes are located.
Before computers, I used to search newspapers and cut out articles of what Native Americans were doing state by state. For example, there would be a woman’s health conference in Florida and a gathering on food in Indiana. It stood out to me that everything was about survival. So many of these gatherings centered around basic needs for heath, food, housing, and childcare. The Native communities, whether there was a reservation or not, were coming together to work on such issues as that. And just because there wasn’t a federal reservation doesn’t mean that there aren’t Native people and communities.
That’s a lot of research to do without modern technology.
Yes, it’s like being a super sleuth or detective. I remember one research project that [multimedia Indigenous artist] G. Peter Jemison and I did together a long time ago. We found there were 57,000 people that we knew were recorded as living there, and something like 75 tribes. Native people would come into the city for the arts. Jemison founded the American Indian Community House, and people would gather there. It brought all these Native people out of the woodwork to a place where we could meet each other and share information.
A lot of the artists today—like Jemison, Cara Romero, Jeffrey Gibson, Marie Watt, Cannupa Hanska Luger, Jolene Rickard, Julie Buffalohead, Edgar Heap of Birds, and Emmi Whitehorse—are doing research like I have been.
How do you plan to continue incorporating such findings in your art and activism work?
Every time I do research, it opens Pandora’s box. I have piles of notebooks where I’ve documented this research. I think about all our artists who are engaged with this and how, when we come together, we share this information.
In conjunction with my show, the Whitney is sponsoring the first and only event that I know of for an all-day Native American convening on May 19. We will have Native American artists and panels where we will discuss how our art intersects with the land, because all our languages recorded everything in the land.
On that note, you’re the first Indigenous artist to have a retrospective at the Whitney. How does it feel to be recognized in such a way?
I’m just so grateful. In the beginning, I began talking about things that I would like to do that would reach a broader Native community so that this would be a celebration that would go beyond me, like ripples in the stream. I hope that it will open the door so that other Native artists can have exhibitions there and elsewhere.
When I began working with the museum, I wanted to open more doors to bring in more Native people because once they see them and hear them, they’re more inclined to work with them. These interventions are important. And what it’s doing is, it’s making them feel comfortable with Native people.