Erin Genia
multidisciplinary artist, educator, and organizer

At first glance, governance, self-determination and public art may seem only marginally related. And yet, the Native American artists in the project “Centering Justice: Indigenous Artists Perspectives on Public Art” made it clear that these matters are inextricably linked.

Public art is present in monuments commissioned by municipalities, in murals and sculptures created by artists engaging with processes developed through public policy, and in the imagery pervading civic space, such as memorials, signs, and other infrastructure. All are governed by zoning laws. Native Americans are subject to a unique set of legal and political realities set in motion by settler colonialism that includes treaties, federal legislation, court decisions, and a complex patchwork of reservations, land tenure, and jurisdiction. For Indigenous artists, these realities intersect with institutional racism, settler supremacy, environmental degradation, and cultural appropriation to make each public art site a cultural and political minefield.

Chalk drawing of a seascape on a pavement walkway.
Photo Credit: Artwork and photo by Dawn Spears

Given these considerations, it is important to unpack the ways in which governance impacts the perception of Indigenous people in public art. Take, for example, the great seal of Massachusetts, the commonwealth’s ubiquitous stamp, which depicts a Native American man beneath a disembodied arm wielding a sword. The image epitomizes historic violence against Native Americans, blatant supremacy, and institutional racism. Countless comparable images that have entrenched the colonial perspective blazon all over New England.

Dawn Spears, a Narragansett multimedia artist and mural painter, pointed to one that falsifies the true history of a tragedy that took place in her state of Rhode Island. “There is a marker by my home that says, ‘Great Swamp Fight.’ It wasn’t a fight. It was a massacre. Those were my ancestors that were murdered. They were burned alive while they slept—children, women, elders. But it says there on the marker, it was a fight. That's what we have to live with in this environment. We're not even acknowledged. We're not a concern. It's always been about idolizing and highlighting colonial history.”

A sign or placard for "The Great Swamp."
Photo Credit: Great Swamp Fight Marker, photo credit: Dawn Spears Placard reads: The Great Swamp Fight. Three quarters of a mile to the southward on an island in the Great Swamp the Narragansett Indians were decisively defeated by the united forces of the Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and Plymouth colonies. Sunday, December 19, 1675.

When government agencies dictate what narrative will be represented by art in the public sphere—without a process for working directly with tribal governments—they marginalize Native American people and artists. Spears said, “The fact that we have all of these monuments and memorials that glorify colonial history is a huge impediment to more Native American artists working in public space.” The public celebration of colonization influences perspectives about Native American people, and public opinion is shaped by untrue, incomplete, romanticized, tragic, offensive, or absent images of Native Americans. Public opinion leads to policy. And policy based on public opinion tainted by misinformation has been devastating for tribes. A correlation exists between the level of public ignorance about Native Americans and the extent to which the dominant society is willing to exploit us. The implications are numerous and serious; even the best tribal governance practices and self-determining acts by Indigenous peoples can be thwarted by negative public perceptions.

This past summer, as artist-in-residence for the City of Boston, I organized a series of panels called “Confronting Colonial Myths in Boston’s Public Space” to bring the perspectives of Indigenous artists, leaders and allies to the forefront of current local and national deliberations underway about monuments. The recently beheaded and removed statue of Christopher Columbus in Boston was one topic of urgent discussion. This fall, after the panels and a heated public process, the Boston Art Commission decided not to replace the statue at Waterfront Park.

According to Jenny Oliver, a choreographer, dancer and member of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, who participated in the panels, public art should signify integrity and authenticity. “This land belongs to the people who have been here since before its ‘discovery.’ Unfortunately, you don’t see that truth represented in public space. The colonizing dominant culture has done a good job of representing its perspective and its narrative, but where is the perspective of the Indigenous people? It is missing, and that makes public space lack the integrity it needs to have. It is not an authentic space.”

To change that, Oliver said there must be intentional conversations between the public art sector and tribes. “And that means giving Indigenous people a seat at the table and a microphone to deliver their own narratives.”

In planning public works on sites of tribal significance, agencies should consult tribal cultural and historic preservation offices. Tribal colleges and museums, as well as tribally led organizations, can offer guidance and support in engaging with Native American constituencies. Learning how federal laws, such as the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, provide protections for Native American artists and cultural practitioners is also essential.  

Public art is a focal point for society, connecting the political, cultural, and historical layers of place. By elevating the Native voices excluded from the public narrative, a more accurate and equitable perspective is possible, one that advances the self-determination of Native people. “Public art can definitely circle back to the meaning of integrity and authenticity,” said Oliver.

This blog post is part collaborative series: Centering Justice: Indigenous Artists Perspectives on Public Art


Dawn Spears (Narragansett/Choctaw)

Dawn crosses her arms and smiles
photo of Dawn Spears, courtesy of the artist

Dawn Spears, (Narragansett/Choctaw) Director of Northeast Indigenous Arts Alliance (NIAA)  has worked regionally to support Indigenous arts, most recently focus has been to promote markets in New England, initiating IFAM East in 2016 and in 2017 was contracted to produce the inaugural 2018 Abbe Museum Indian Market. Dawn served as the Narragansett Tribe’s Tribal Secretary for two terms, she is a past board member for Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum, and Native Americans in Philanthropy.  Dawn currently serves as Vice Chair on the Narragansett Tribes’ Election Committee and Economic Development Commission. She is a 2020 Assets for Artists grantee, a 2015 RI State Council for the Arts (RISCA) Master Apprenticeship grantee, and in 2014, along with her husband they formed the Narragansett Food Sovereignty Initiative. Dawn and her husband Cassius have been married for thirty-five years, with three children: Cassius Jr., Kiowa and Coty and seven grandchildren, their work together truly supports the belief in the preservation and education of our culture and traditions, Dawn has been teaching and demonstrating for over 25 years in many forms of art and still works creatively when time allows, exhibiting and selling at local galleries and markets.

Connect with Dawn Spears 

Jenny Oliver

Jenny, in a floral headress, smiles behind grains that are out of focus in the foreground.
Photo Credit: Jenny Oliver, by Stefanie Belnavis

Jenny Oliver has been an artist in the city of Boston for 15 years, moving here after undergrad and working within the community as a teacher, performer, choreographer and advocate for artistic integrity. As a culturally Black person of Cape Verdean and Indigenous heritage with membership to the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag it has become important to her to address the erasure of Native people in her teachings and performances. In 2016 she established Connections Dance Theater as a way to work at the intersection of dance, education and philanthropy towards elevating issues affecting BIPOC people. She was the inaugural recipient of the DanceMaker’s Residency at the Boston Center for the Arts where she debuted her first evening length production, HOT WATER OVER RAISED FISTS; educating audiences about the injustice and urgency of water rights through the protests at Standing Rock and the ongoing crisis in Flint, MI. When she is not creating, she is elevating minds and empowering bodies on faculty at Tufts University, Emerson College, Deborah Mason Performing Arts Center and the Dance Complex. You can learn more about the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag at: and her creative work at: