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Indigenous Artists Tell Their Stories at the National Nordic Museum

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Written October 08, 2023

by Leslie Anne Anderson

The National Nordic Museum offers a rich slate of programs and exhibitions focused on the art and culture of Indigenous peoples. Our Curatorial philosophy around the presentation of this content is simple—we invite members of Indigenous communities in the Nordic countries and North America to tell their stories, highlighting various forms of creative expression. Allow me to share the three guiding principles of this work through recent and current examples.

Artist DeLesslin “Roo” George-Warren (Catawba Indian Nation) gives a gallery tour inside "Across the West."

We invite multiple perspectives and examine history through a critical lens.

In late summer and fall 2022, we opened an exhibition of 19th-century landscape photography of the American West and Norway titled Across the West and Toward the North: Norwegian and American Landscape Photography. Drawn from the Picture Collection at the University of Bergen Library, the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, and private collector Ron Perisho, the photographs represent scenes of railroad routes, mining prospects, and geological phenomena, as well as the peoples who inhabited these lands. The images captured by A. J. Russell, Anders Beer Wilse, Carleton Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson were informed by the artistic decisions of their makers and intended for specific audiences. To complement the exhibition and complicate the narratives told in these convincingly “documentary” images, we commissioned three Indigenous artists—DeLesslin “Roo” George-Warren (Catawba Indian Nation), Anthony Hudson (Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde) who performs as “Carla Rossi,” and Greenlandic electronic musician Aqqalu Berthelsen (“Uyarakq”) to organize gallery tours and create a complementary performance piece that reflects on the 19th-century photographers’ work, expansion, and ethno-tourism. The week-long programming was titled Indigenous Corps of Discovery presents, "Don’t Go North!" and culminated with a community celebration open to all.

Sámi multimedia artist Tomas Colbengtson with a piece acquired for the Museum's permanent collection.

An exhibition of work by Sámi multimedia artist Tomas Colbengtson and Swedish muralist Stina Folkebrant titled Mygration followed Across the West in December 2022. Colbengtson and Folkebrant’s collaborative, immersive installation responds to a lesser-known chapter of Nordic and Nordic-American history—the arrival of Sámi reindeer herders in the 1890s (at the invitation of the U.S. government) for the purpose of teaching reindeer husbandry to Alaska Native Peoples. Wilse captured this historic event in Seattle, as the expedition made its way to Alaska. These photos are included in the Museum’s core exhibition Nordic Journeys, illustrating a thematic text. Yet, the perspective of the Norwegian photographer tells only one side of the story. As a complement, the Museum acquired for the permanent collection a work by Colbengtson. The artist investigates archival holdings and recontextualizes historic photographs of Sámi peoples, imbuing them with new meaning through his artistic process.


We celebrate contemporary creative work.

Currently on view is the exhibition Arctic Highways: 12 Indigenous Artists of the Circumpolar North (until November 26, 2023), which was organized by Sámi artist-curators Colbengtson, Gunvor Guttorm, Dan Jåma, and Britta Marakatt-Labba. The four artist-curators selected fine art and handicraft created in Alaska, Canada, and Sápmi during the pandemic to ponder the fluid exchange of culture across the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions before the artificial borders of nation-states and more recently, COVID-19 travel restrictions. Their work is stunning, and the message is powerful. This exhibition amplifies the voices of the artists (and the curators), using each artist’s writing about their work for explanatory signage. Related programming has included a panel featuring artists Colbengtson, Matti Aikio, and Sonya Kelliher-Combs for a conversation moderated by Dr. Troy Storfjell, Professor of Native American and Indigenous Studies at Pacific Lutheran University, screenings of the award-winning documentaries Historjá—Stitches for Sápmi (2022) about artist Marakatt-Labba and The Fight for Greenland (2020), and a performance by world-renowned joiker Ailloš (produced in collaboration with Pacific Sámi Searvi). Additional experiences offered this year included Sámi rapper SlinCraze in concert, a book talk with Ann-Helén Laestadius (author of the best-selling novel Stolen), and a family-friendly exhibition on environmental stewardship titled The Whale Child: The Illustrations, curated by author-illustrators and siblings Chenoa and Keith Egawa (Lummi Indian Nation).

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2023 Sámi Film Festival Guest Curator Katja Gauriloff with the Museum's Chief Curator Leslie Anderson.

We value authentic participation.

Earlier this year, we invited a member of the Sámi filmmaking community to shape the creative vision for the annual Sámi Film Festival through the new position of Guest Curator. Skolt Sámi filmmaker Katja Gauriloff, director of the groundbreaking Je’vida (2023)—the first to be made in the Skolt Sámi language—served as the inaugural Guest Curator. The lineup was developed by staff previously, but we felt that it was essential for an active member of the Sámi filmmaking community to offer perspective on their colleagues’ creative output. Gauriloff’s thought-provoking female-forward lineup of films highlighted gender equality in the Sámi film industry, offering a model for Hollywood to follow. (The Sámi Film Festival was held in February 2023, shortly after the all-male nominees in the Best Director category for the 95th Academy Awards were announced in late January.) We will soon announce the Guest Curator of the 2024 Sámi Film Festival, which will be expanded from one to two days and take place at Majestic Bay Theater in Ballard this February.