Women’s History: Native American artists traditionally overlooked

Published 9:58 am Sunday, March 14, 2021

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By Thomasine Gaither

For the Enterprise

In the late 90s, Barbara Jean Teller Ornelas, a fifth-generation master Navajo weaver, traveled with her kids to Los Angeles for a Vincent Van Gogh exhibit that her daughter wanted to see at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Teller noticed that each Van Gogh painting had a story with each piece represented. After viewing Van Gogh’s impressionist works, they looked further across the hallway to see a collection of old Navajo weavings. But to Teller Ornelas’ dismay, the weavings were only labeled with simple dates.

After learning of the details of the Van Gogh paintings, her children had questions about the details of the Navajo art work which was displayed. It was something for them all to think about.

Teller Ornelas began to explain.

“Van Gogh was halfway around the world and was able to express himself, and somebody had enough wisdom to save his words,” she told her children. “And somebody here had the wisdom to save all these pieces, but they forgot our story.”

According to history, this narrative has rung true with the Native Americans, especially with Native American women artists. For centuries, Native American women didn’t earn recognition for their wares, but modern makers are ensuring it doesn’t happen again.