This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work. In this post, COPA Member and Archivist, Angie Piccolo interviews Samantha Manz (Cherokee Nation) about the Minnesota Historical Society’s Native American Artist-in-Residence program (NAAIR.) Manz is the collections associate for the Minnesota Historical Society’s Native American Collections and program associate for NAAIR.
AP: Please tell us about your program.
SM: The Native American Artist-in-Residence program is funded by the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies and we work with Native American artists from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. They don’t have to be tribal enrolled members, but they do have to be affiliated with a tribal nation. When I say artists, we’re not working with fine arts artists, we’re working with people who are learning about traditional arts, such as beadwork and quillwork.
This year we have an artist who is learning how to make traditional Dakota dugout canoes and birchbark canoes. A few years ago, Denise Lajimodiere (Ojibwe) learned how to birchbark bite, which had almost been lost. So we try to work with artists who are working with the type of traditional art form that is almost lost to the community.
In a pre-Covid world, we would have two artists-in-residents, but this year we have three artists who are studying jingle dresses, canoes, and quillwork. In addition to the artist-in-residency, we have the Encouragement Grant and this supports younger and upcoming artists. The Encouragement Grant allows them to visit the Minnesota Historical Society Collections and buy supplies.. We try to provide a lot of feedback for artists too, because a lot of them are community members and applying to the NAAiR program can seem intimidating and discouraging. And if they are rejected, then they won’t want to reapply and that’s not our goal.
Over the years, we have acquired pieces from different artists. We allocate $7,500 per artist for MNHS Collections to acquire contemporary items. For example, April Stone (Ojibwe) is a black ash basket weaver and we only have one piece from her in our collections. She made a traditional Ojibwe black ash burial basket. We were able to buy several smaller pieces from other artists. So it depends on the artist.
Additionally, part of the artist’s contract includes public programming. In the past, artists have conducted three public programming events, but this year we are only requiring two public programs. Artists can host public programs on their reservations, community centers, and at MNHS.
When people come to these events, we have them answer a few questions of what they learn and then we keep track of all of that. Right now, the program is shifting to thinking less about the artist’s interactions with the community and more of how we’re impacting the community on a whole. Sometimes for artists, working with their community means taking on an apprentice and teaching them. So we’ve had a few artists in the past who’ve had an apprentice who’s learned from them and came with them to look at our Native American collections.
Sometimes the artists go and look at other museums, like the Minneapolis Institute of Art. One year we had an artist who went to the American Indian Museum in DC, and looked at their collections. We try to combine collections research with traditional Native American art. So they’re learning from the collections, we’re learning from them, and then they’re going out and teaching the rest of their community.
AP: What are some challenges that are unique to this program?
SM: I think right now, especially with Covid, it’s harder. In the past we’ve been able to go out to community members, like different reservations in the area or in South and North Dakota, and do application workshops and answer questions, which is harder to do in Covid. So that’s one challenge and the other challenge is whether or not we’re able to support them with what we have in our collection. So I think those are the two biggest challenges. Also having to reject artists even if their work is beautiful and we love it. It’s harder to get them to reapply, especially because they’re community artists versus fine art artists who are used to applying for such big grants. So we’re trying to bridge that gap between what’s a community artist and how we define artists.
AP: What do you like most about your job?
SM: I really love interacting with the artist when they come in and look at our collections, the things that we learn from them, and what they learn from us. I think it’s a really great opportunity to see how these objects are living in a lot of ways because there’s so much knowledge within objects. Particularly with 3D objects, there’s so much cultural knowledge within them, as well as traditional knowledge.
The artists are able to learn from objects in ways that non-Native artists can’t. That goes for really any artist who comes in to look at our collections. They’re able to teach us things about what they know from their community, and then we add it to our database. I think it really shows that the objects and collections are living and we can learn from them in the same way that they can learn from us.
AP: What are some of your goals for the future of this program?
SM: I think in a lot of ways, how can we continue to help grow this program? What do we want it to look like in the future? Do we want it to continue to grow? How do we want to capture community development? I would love to see more work within the Twin Cities as well, and particularly with the youth. I think we have so many great Native organizations and in the Twin Cities where we can work on combining art and sovereignty and getting people more involved on a day-to-day basis versus just having the artist. I would love to do more community engagement with it.
AP: What do you hope people (both the artists and audience) take away from this program?
SM: For artists, it’s great to see them take this grant and then continue to apply for other grants and have other amazing opportunities and showcase their work in other museums and continue to show in contemporary and more mainstream institutions. I think it’s great to see Native artists participate in some of these mainstream museums that we don’t see and for people to see native artists on a daily basis. For the Native people who feel disconnected, they are able to take these opportunities to learn and grow in their communities and cultures and reconnect with them.
For non-native people to be able to interact with Native artists and learn more about native history, Native arts and see that on a daily basis and see that represented fully. There’s all these representations of Natives as stoic and daunting. I think having those representations challenged is great and to see the vibrancy of the material culture really shows how resilient Native communities are.
Link to the webpage: Native American Artist-in-Residence Program | Minnesota Historical Society (mnhs.org)