Explore the contributions of Native American women
Courageous women have long shaped America, yet their contributions have often been overlooked. This painting from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian collection represents one of many stories featuring the creativity and determination of Native American women.
In Trade Canoe: Adrift, Syrian men, women, and children are crowded together in a canoe adrift on the Mediterranean Sea. The boat has stalled under several swirling, hot suns, adding to the passengers’ desperation as they flee their homeland.
Native American artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith empathizes with the refugees’ plight; her people have been displaced, too.
A self-described cultural arts worker and activist, Smith is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Of Flathead Salish, Cree, and Shoshone ancestry, she is also a writer, lecturer, and organizer.
Smith is known for politically charged paintings and mixed media works that address social injustice—especially issues impacting the Indigenous peoples of North America—and she vocally advocates for other Indigenous artists to be included in the American art canon.
While a graduate student at the University of New Mexico in the 1970s, Smith founded the Grey Canyon group of Native American contemporary artists, who exhibited their work locally, nationally, and internationally.
She curated a number of significant contemporary Native American art exhibitions in the 1980s and 1990s, promoting and including works by young Native American artists.
In her art, Smith confronts painful subjects with a sharp sense of humor. In 1992, while Americans planned five-hundred-year anniversary celebrations in honor of Columbus’s arrival, Smith got out her paintbrushes and started her Trade Canoe series.
In Trade: Gifts for Trading Land with White People (1992) and other works in this provocative series, Smith layers images, paint, and objects to suggest the complex layers of history involved in tribal land colonization, exploitation of goods, environmental destruction, climate change, and other issues.
Native American symbolism is prevalent in Trade Canoe: Adrift, suggesting solidarity with the plight of persecuted Syrian populations—and growing international refugee populations everywhere.
The canoe has Salish design elements and holds carved wooden masks and a salmon leaping out of a stream, referencing the struggle to gain federal recognition and fishing rights for survival by the Duwamish Coast Salish.
Below the stream is Nanabozho, the Cree and Ojibwe trickster rabbit who is said to have invented fishing.
But amid the scene of chaos and suffering, there may yet be a glimmer of hope. Near the center of the canoe, a small, radiating heart suggests the possibility that love and compassion might still prevail.
Trade Canoe: Adrift (2015)Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
Rebecca Head Trautmann
Excerpt from Smithsonian American Women: Remarkable Objects and Stories of Strength, Ingenuity, and Vision from the National Collection, Victoria Pope and Christine Schrum, eds. Smithsonian Books, Washington, DC, 2019.