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Interview with Dakota Hoska (Oglala Lakhóta), Assistant Curator of Native Arts, Denver Art Museum

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Courtney Pierce

Center for Art Collection Ethics Graduate Assistant

Ms. Hoska wishes to emphasize that she is sharing her personal perspective and does not speak for the Lakhóta community nor Native communities writ large.

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Dakota Hoska speaking at ACE February 2020 Panel

Dakota Hoska giving her presentation for ACE’s panel discussion on the Ethical Stewardship of Contemporary Native Art (February 2020). Photo by Alyson McClaran.

In case you missed it, check out our 2020 interview with Dakota Hoska below.

Center for Art Collection Ethics (ACE):  What is your background as a curator and how long have you been at the Denver Art Museum (DAM)?    

Dakota Hoska (DH): I interviewed with the DAM in the Spring of 2019 while I was still finishing my Master’s Degree in Art History, and started working there at the end of July of 2019 as the Assistant Curator of Native Arts. So, I’ve been there almost a year!  

Before that, I was at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) for four years as a Shakopee Mdewakanton Fellow. Every year the Shakopee Mdewakanton supports a Native fellow at the Mia. They want Native people to learn about being curators and working with collections. I worked as a research assistant on the Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists exhibition, as well as helped with the planning. I was finishing my Master’s Degree during this time as well. 

(Hearts of Our People is currently traveling nationally. Find more information here.) 

ACE: Why did you become a Native Arts curator? Did you ever consider another specialty or area?  

DH: I also have a BFA in drawing and painting, and while I was working on my BFA I did a fellowship with the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) through which I was able to tour all the Native collections in the state of Minnesota. This program [at its inception] was really about seeing if indigenous peoples were interested in doing museum or institution work—this has always been a tense relationship because for many years, museums were just taking objects from Natives. There was a lot of distrust and anger from the Native people. The MNHS was working to build bridges—maybe even make reparations—in this regard. Through these tours I discovered the gallery called All My Relations Art, which was the only all-indigenous owned and operated gallery in Minnesota at that time and after I graduated, I got a job there.  That’s how I got started in curation.

Around this time, I also started studying the Dakhota language—which is linked to the Lakhóta language—and was eventually asked to teach Dakhota. From there, I was asked to teach Native American art history at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, and it was at this time I was offered the Shakopee Mdewakanton fellowship at Mia that I spoke about earlier. I took the fellowship to learn more about Native art history because I knew I wasn’t qualified to teach at that point. 

The more of these curatorial experiences I had, the more I enjoyed the connection between art, my Native heritage and Native communities, and using the Dakhota language. I never planned to be a curator—the plan was to be an artist! But the path led me there.  

My first love is always curating Native arts, but if I was not in this department, I would have loved to be a painting curator.  

ACE: In your experience, what are the most important questions you are confronted with as a curator of Native American arts? 

DH: The most difficult question is dealing with split loyalties. On the one hand, I want to be a good employee, but on the other hand I want to be a good Lakhóta woman and represent my community in the way that would make my relatives proud. Those can be dueling priorities. Often, I wonder what a [Native] family went through in order to have given up a certain object, and yet I also see those objects as sources of pride and I’m glad Native people can access them at the museum.

There is also the question of the “natural life” of an item—many Native nations believe that you don’t preserve things forever—there is a natural cycle of life that must be respected which is at odds with a museum’s mission to preserve. 

To be a good Lakhóta woman means that sometimes I will have to go toe-to-toe with the administration to fight for access or special exceptions for Native people at the museum. These are the lines that any Native Arts curator has to walk, more so than other curators. 

But I really love the job of showing Native work! The DAM has done so many great things as far as showing Native art and reaching out to the Native community. I’m happy I’m here, and of course I’m closer in distance to my reservation than I was before in Minneapolis. 

ACE: What are the greatest ethical concerns you face with stewardship of Native American collections?

DH: The biggest ethical question for me is: how can I make sure the Native community feels connected to the collections? This will mean a shift in perspective from “we [museums] own these collections” to “we are stewarding these collections.” The power/ownership/access must be shared. We need to take it out of the realm of the elite and somehow put it back into the hands of the communities. The DAM tries to do this work, and NAGPRA helps to facilitate these conversations.

My goal when taking this position was to promote the DAM collection as a rebuilding tool; as a source of pride, reference and power for upcoming Native generations to know about—for them to see what their ancestors made. The collection could be an important educational tool in this regard. 

Provenance is not a huge concern if someone is working for a good institution. The DAM is in a unique place because they started collecting so much earlier than other institutions, and so not all of the earliest provenance of an item is known. Many times, we might only know the collector’s name. But, research can and should be done from whatever information an institution has, and that’s why the NAGPRA work, and reaching out to communities to let them know what you have, is important. DAM has been following those protocols. Today, an institution like the DAM will no longer purchase or accept a gift that has questionable provenance and I think most museums won’t do that anymore. 

ACE:  In your panel presentation for ACE this past February, you mentioned the challenges that come with Native American displays in museums; that Native art is often presented as “specimen” or “history lesson” rather than artwork. In your practice, what do you think has been a successful method for display or installation that corrects this? (Is the word “display” perhaps part of the problem?) 

DH:  The differences between types of institutions should dictate display and installation methods; for instance, the DAM is an art museum and should be displaying our objects as art. However, sometimes the non-Native public or a Native public from another community might not understand a piece without a history lesson. This is another fine line that an art institution has to navigate. In Western art, there is “art” which is held apart from life, but in many Lakhóta nations, for example, the art is part of the life. The regalia is art as well as being part of peoples’ activities. Most importantly, you don’t want to detach an item from its community and turn it into a Western art “item.” That will not do the piece justice. You can’t take the item out of context, but you still want it to be viewed as an art item and not an anthropological item. This is something the museum industry is still really working on. My own personal view is that it is important to understand that Native societies had very different social structures than Western societies, and somehow, we have to recognize the objects in that way, instead of trying to “fit our circle into your square hole,” and vice-versa. There needs to be a recognition that Native objects and artworks do not have to meet Western standards to be considered “art.” There can be equal respect for many ways of doing things. 

ACE: How do you go about educating yourself on Native communities you are unfamiliar with in terms of working with an artist and their artwork, or perhaps an entire community and their objects? 

DH: As far as education on an unfamiliar community or object, I usually read about them—I look for history books with good sources who are telling the full story. You can’t trust everything you read! And you have to consider the authors’ biases when choosing what to read. I try to understand the background of a group. It’s also very important to work with members of that community to have their input. Utes, for example, are not a familiar community for me, but modern-day Denver is on Ute territory. Cheyenne and Arapaho were also in the Colorado territory. I know it’s important to understand the history of the land I'm on and the communities and cultures that are historically associated with this land. I’m currently reading history books about the Ute as well as planning a trip to visit the two Ute nations in Colorado (though this has been postponed indefinitely due to the COVID pandemic). It’s important to establish these relationships and open up lines of communication. I believe it’s important that the Ute, Cheyenne and Arapaho have a strong presence at the DAM since many accounts place them as the three nation groups that were here right before non-Natives started moving in.  Our Native Arts team at the DAM is currently working on the 3rd floor re-installation with this concept in mind, which is something I’m excited about. It’s about trying to help the DAM visitor understand the artistic history of the land they are on, as well as help them understand in context where they are standing. This is when it’s helpful to use the objects as educational tools. In this way, the indigenous community becomes less abstract to the museum visitor—it becomes more of a partnership.  

I also want the visitor to understand that these communities existed alongside the artistic giants that most people know from the European/Western canon. Monet was painting at the same time that Americans were fighting a civil war; the big land grab was happening in the West, and the Dakhota Uprising as well. All of these events were happening at the same time, yet we tend to think of them as though they happened in different universes! 

ACE: You mentioned in the panel discussion that you do not like categorization of artists and their artwork as far as where they “belong” in museums. Do you feel like this attitude is shifting in institutions, especially concerning contemporary Native artists who are often pigeon-holed as being only Native artists? Are there collaborative efforts between departments within the museums in these cases? 

DH: Speaking to the question of collaboration with other museum departments, that’s really important! We [Native Arts] do often work with the Contemporary department when we are working with a contemporary Native artist. Photography is another example of a category that has been underrepresented in the Native arts—the DAM would like to have a better understanding of the history of Native photography, which also requires a collaboration between the DAM’s photography department. Our department likes to consider the works we collect in relation to the other departments, because it is a “yes, and…” conversation.  The work is important to the Native departments and to other departments.

The other aspect is that the wishes of the contemporary artist should be respected. There are Native artists that identify primarily as “contemporary artists” first, but there are others who want to be shown as Native artists first. I think it’s a complicated issue because it is personal to the artists. They all want to be seen and classified and recognized however they identify. Historically, institutions have had a way of showing one Native artist’s work as if it represented an entire group instead of just the artist’s agency. I know many contemporary artists do not want to be seen as speaking for their entire community, but they also want to be recognized as being part of that community. It’s very important that Native artists’ works are understood to be their own individual experience and expression. Contemporary Native art deserves the same platform as Western art—these artists are just as talented, but they shouldn’t be forced to choose one or the other. The Native artist’s experience is more complicated than that! 

ACE: In your presentation you brought up the idea of consensus being important in Native communities, especially in order to find a solution to a problem. Have you found that this idea manifests in your own curatorial practice? 

DH: Well, I’m a young curator in my career so I feel like I have to rely on others more. But also, I think it’s more fun to do that! I really love collaborating, and I’m finding that the more I get into this [curation] the more I like to collaborate. With others being involved, there is the opportunity to build on ideas. Or, someone else takes it in a different way than I would have planned, but it’s even better. I kind of look at my curatorial practice as though I’m making a painting: if you hold onto this one idea and you are trying to make it exactly like your own vision, it just looks terrible! But if you have an idea that you don’t hold too tightly, you let the paint and creativity do their parts; you as the artist are just one part of this creation puzzle. When I am relaxed enough to do this, my work is better. I think curation is like that too; life is like that. It’s all about trusting the process. Trust what you bring to it and trust what other forces are going to bring to it. If you do this, you get something better. I really saw that working on Hearts of Our People at Mia. If any one person would have tried to rule that roost, that whole effort would have fallen apart. And I have seen that proven over and over again. The results from many are better than the results from one. As for this idea of consensus, I am really only the most familiar with Lakhóta lifeways, and we have this idea of consensus. I don’t know if every nation has that same philosophy. I think lots of Native nations do, but I can’t speak to that definitively.  

ACE:  What are your upcoming exhibitions at the DAM? What are you most looking forward to? 

DH: There were some upcoming projects that were already in the works before I came to the DAM, and one of those is our re-installation of the Northwest Coast galleries. Before the COVID-19 closures we were about 80% installed in order to make the June 5th opening, but now we are tentatively saying it will open in August of 2020. After that, the third-floor re-installation of the Gio Ponti building—which is now called the Martin Building—is a big focus. We’re hoping to be able to re-open that floor and that building in time for its 50th anniversary. I think people are going to love it! 

There is also a show in the works with artists Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger. I’m not super hands-on with this show but I’m very excited about it. These are two really great artists. Cannupa is so fun! Whatever idea pops into his head he does something with it! There is a real looseness to his practice, a real embracing of the process. From what I know of Marie Watt, she is kind of the same. You have these two artistic brains that when they come together will produce something very exciting and pretty community-driven. And of course, we will have to see what people’s appetites are for being together in the wake of COVID, whether or not they will be scared to be in crowds. But I can imagine that even if they are, Cannupa and Marie will embrace that in some way. 

In general, I would love to shake up the expectations that exist about Native art—what it looks like, for example. And I have some shows that I will put in front of our program committee that I think will do that, but I can’t divulge those yet! But I think they are really exciting!  

ACE: What would you like audiences/visitors to walk away with when they leave one of your exhibitions? 

DH: That the histories of the Native communities were real. The push to erase these histories was so real and so complete and so widely accepted, that other cultures often don’t even know that Natives still exist, that they (we) are still here. The European idea of the Native American living in a tipi is still prevalent! In general, the assumption is that we [Natives] are gone—that the problems have passed. Many of today’s Americans cannot understand that everything was not “taken care of” years ago. But it was not. The struggles of Native peoples are still ongoing; we are still fighting for our lands. We are trying to rebuild. People often don’t think these struggles were ever real, let alone that they are still being lived today. Non-Natives often think that the fight for land is settled because what we know now as modern-day America is made up of so many different cultures, but this is not true. In the minds of many Natives, it’s not settled, because they/we are still here! Native nations still exist.  

As far as a successful art exhibition, the more we can show audiences that Native societies coexist with American society and help them understand that this was always the case—the more we’re going to promote understanding between people and greater respect for Native artists. These societies were not happening separately: Native people were contemporary people with their own societies at all moments in time. They had their own fashion movements, their own artistic movements, their own relationships with paints, and developments that happened in ways specific to their societies. 

I’m also always thinking about developing our own art histories—defining our own art histories and movements rather than trying to wedge Native movements into the Western template. Why is Western art the yardstick? I’m speaking from the Native perspective, but this is true of any other, non-Western community as well.  

ACE: Anything else you want to add? 

DHOne thing that I have always kind of wanted to do is to have a digital collection highlight, which is very relevant during COVID. It’s really forced institutions to go online and, in a way, I hope that’s something that they will keep up. I can see that being really useful to people who are teaching, and for those who are not able to get to a museum easily. People on the  Pine Ridge Reservation, for example, can’t get to the DAM easily, but we have a lot of Lakhóta materials in the DAM collection. Even the Ute are down in the most southern part of the state, but if we could just begin these conversations about items in our collection that could be a cool way to just keep people engaged. If anything, that’s one thing that COVID-19 has shown institutions—that we can still be relevant digitally. I’m excited about making that lemonade from this lemon. 

I just really want all Native people to go into our museum and say “Wow! Our stuff rocks! It is so amazing! I am really proud to be Native because look at all that our relatives can do.”

Go to the Denver Art Museum at Home page to explore the collections at the Denver Art Museum during the current closure.

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