When people eagerly arrived at the opening of “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) this summer, Dakota Hoska was overcome with emotion. Years of dedication to the making of the exhibit culminated in this moment.
“I cried. I wasn't even crying for my role in the sense of accomplishment,” Hoska ’19 MA said. “I had been living with many of those pieces, reading what people had written about them and looking at the thumbnail images. When I saw the pieces installed and how beautiful they were and how everything had come together ... I was in awe to see it for the first time.”
As a research assistant at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Hoska helped create “Hearts of Our People,” the first major exhibition of art by Native American women, alongside co-curators Jill Ahlberg Yohe and Teri Greeves and an advisory panel of Native women artists and scholars. The exhibition – which highlights more than 115 works from the U.S. and Canada dating from ancient times to the present from a group often overlooked by the mainstream art world – wrapped up its local run in August and is currently on a national museum tour.
A connection with culture
Ahlberg Yohe said the title of research assistant doesn’t fully convey the value Hoska added to the exhibition, calling her an unofficial curator who was instrumental in making the landmark show a reality. In addition to working with the art pieces, Hoska helped facilitate communication between the museum and local Native community members as “Hearts of Our People” was being developed.
“There were so many moving parts with this exhibition, but Dakota as a Native community member who is respected in the community, made so much possible," Ahlberg Yohe said. “Every step of the way, every part of the entire exhibition, she was a part of. It would have been impossible without her in so many ways – she brought this evenness and this calmness with direction that was so necessary."
When it debuted, “Hearts of Our People” garnered press from not just local media, but across the globe, including the Guardian, New York Times, Vogue, Forbes and the Economist.
“I didn't really understand the vision or even how unique that curatorial process was because it was my first real exposure to that,” Hoska said. “Every day I went to work and tried my hardest to make it the best exhibition I could. In some ways, it was good that I didn't know how important the show was, so I wasn’t intimidated by the mission. I didn't realize until it was getting closer to launch what we had done and how that was such a game changer.”
The exhibition was also extremely personal for Hoska, a member of the Lakhota tribe, who was adopted by a family with Norwegian roots and grew up in South Dakota. As an adult, she went on a journey to connect with her Native culture. She joined a healing group for Native adoptees in Minneapolis and eventually found some of her Native family members. With “Hearts of Our People,” Hoska said she felt a responsibility to be a good representative of her community.
“There are a lot of reasons a Native person gets separated from their culture,” she said. “What happened for me was having this feeling like you've missed so much that you've got to now learn everything and become an expert. I brought that kind of hunger to the show. I was at a point where I wanted to be fully immersed in this culture I missed out on. So the show, in that way, did help me a lot.”
A gift for art
After earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Minneapolis College of Art Design, Hoska started at the Minneapolis Institute of Art as a Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Fellow shadowing Ahlberg Yohe, who oversees the museum's collection of Native American art.
“I immediately saw such potential in Dakota," Ahlberg Yohe said. “We had more than 20 great candidates for the fellowship at Mia, but Dakota shined in a way nobody else did. She was coming from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, so she had a studio perspective, but also had the ability to easily transition into a curatorial capacity. That’s a real gift very few people have. To be able to navigate the curatorial world so effortlessly.”
After the fellowship ended, Dakota was hired at museum as a research assistant. It was during the making of “Hearts of Our People” that Ahlberg Yohe encouraged Hoska, who is also a visual artist, to take a master’s level class in Native American Art History at St. Thomas.
Turns out the master’s program was a good fit for Hoska, who, along with her job at Mia and her work as an artist, was raising two teenage boys. At St. Thomas, Hoska said she found a supportive community.
“It was clear right away they were going to be very accepting,” she said about her professors. “I took a class in World War II monuments, and Dr. Victoria Young allowed me to adjust my studies to pick a topic that was about architecture and war memorials but was directly related to indigenous topics. All of the teachers allowed me to do that, to make a tie back to indigenous studies. In a way, they let me craft my own program. I was within their structure but could also get what I needed to be a successful indigenous curator.”
Heather Shirey, director of art history graduate studies, said Hoska always encouraged those around her to think carefully and critically about the structures of power and privilege in our society, especially in relation to race and gender.
“Dakota works very hard, because she has a strong vision for what she wants to achieve: bringing the much-needed perspective of Native women to the world of museums and creating art that expresses her identity and experiences,” Shirey said. “While at St. Thomas, she was a role model for students, staff and faculty because of her strong work ethic and dedication to her studies, all while finding balance with her work and family life.”
In July, Hoska’s hard work paid off with a new position as assistant curator of Native arts at the Denver Art Museum, which is internationally recognized for its American Indian art collections.
“In a society, the arts are one of those pillars that you build your society on,” Hoska said. “I'm hoping that I'm curating relationships with Native people at all levels, not just people who are familiar with artwork, but extending that out. This incredible collection at the Denver Art Museum is a great source of pride for indigenous people in this area and more broadly, too. I'm very excited to continue that work.”