An exhibition currently on view at All My Relations Gallery in Minneapolis takes on the role of Indigenous aunties. “Noojimo (She Heals),” curated by Hillary Kempenich, showcases the important role aunties play in Indigenous culture: as protectors, caretakers, leaders, mentors and more.
“In Indigenous communities, we take on that role as an auntie or another mother, not just to our siblings’ children, but within the different spaces that we participate in,” Kempenich says. Based near the Red River Valley in Grand Forks, North Dakota, the artist, advocate and curator has been involved in All My Relations Arts previously, as an artist and in other roles. This is the first exhibition she’s curated for the gallery.
“I just kind of got jumped into this,” she says.
Active in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) movement, Kempenich believes that prevention is key to solving the crisis. “We need to have these conversations about the different roles we as women, or feminine people, carry in spaces,” she says.
As an artist, Kempenich does a lot of portraiture, frequently using her aunties as muses. Kempenich’s grandmother died when she was an infant, and her aunties stepped up and helped to raise her. “There’s always been a dedication and appreciation for them,” she says.
The exhibition features photographs, paintings, mixed media works and sculpture. One compelling installation, “Honor Her,” (2021) by Valeria Tatera, leans birch logs tied with red string against a gallery wall. The walking sticks instantly make you think of the strength and perseverance of elders.
Rita Erdrich’s painting, “The Midwife” (2004), brings together old and new generations, with the hands of Shyush, the artist’s great aunt, who delivered Erdrich’s father, wrapped around the baby’s tiny body. Sharon Day also has a number of beautiful pieces, including drawings of “Water Protectors” who were active in resisting oil pipelines as well as “Indigi Queers” (2022), a wonderfully dream-like piece that highlights how aunties are not only cis straight women.
Also featured in the exhibition is work by photographer Ned-ah-ness Rose Greene, who highlights the strength and personality of her subjects. One of Greene’s photographs, “Gizigos-Dakise (your Aunt is cool)” (2022), shows model LuAnn Robinson sassily holding her hip, leaning against the front of a neon green convertible, her necklace pushed to one side as if by the wind.
Another photographer, Dyana Decoteau-Dyess, is exhibiting the first time in the gallery. Decoteau-Dyess portrays her sister in a photograph called “She Stands Up for Herself” (2022). “While we might have people looking out after us, if there’s something that we want, we work hard to achieve that and we share that knowledge to others,” Kempenich says.
Somah Toya Haaland, child of Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, also has work in the show.
“I had connected with them a while ago, and I’ve just kind of watched their work over time,” Kempenich says. “They’re one of the first artists I thought of inviting.” Kempenich also has met Deb Haaland, through her advocacy work in Washington, D.C., and sees her as an auntie. “We adopt these different people that we come across into our circle and family and networks,” she says.
Somah Toya Haaland says their mother gifted them a pair of neon green hummingbird earrings Kempenich made, which prompted the two of them to follow each other on Instagram.
A poet and theater artist, Haaland created a poem that’s been turned into a visual piece for the exhibition. It’s called “By hand by heart” (2022). As the child of someone who has skyrocketed to a national platform in recent years, on top of the pandemic and Haaland leaving home and moving to New York City, they’ve felt a strong need for roots and connection to family.
“In the past three years, I really feel like aunties, and the elders and those relatives in my family, are what has kept me grounded,” Haaland says. “I’ve really realized in the past few years, how important it is to learn those things from your elders while they’re around. The things that our elders teach us are what keeps us connected to our families and our traditions and everything that is being taken away from us.”
Textile artist Agnes Woodward, who is First Nations from Saskatchewan and living in New Town, North Dakota, is another artist in the show. Woodward owns an Indigenous design brand called ReeCreations. She makes custom designed ribbon skirts using appliqué techniques.
For the exhibition, Woodward made a red dress with appliqué that she calls “Roots of Love and Resilience” (2022). The top of the dress shines with scarlet red crinkle satin, a color often used to signify the MMIW movement. Underneath the showy belt, the skirt part of the dress portrays three gray-haired women made with appliqué. Between each of the women, Woodward has put two brown roots. “They represent the seeds of love that our aunties plant while we’re growing up,” she says. “My aunties have not only stepped in to raise me, but many times in my life, they’ve saved me from difficult situations.”
Growing up, Woodward’s auntie was a big part of her life, providing her with clothing or winter gear when she needed it. “She’s really a strong woman and has taught me to be proud of myself,” Woodward said. “She’s the person that would teach me what protocol is to wear ribbon skirts, or long skirts to ceremony, even though I used to carry shame in that area because of the racism I experienced in Saskatchewan.”
Woodward’s aunt instilled pride in her, and taught her to take up space as an Indigenous person. “She really planted those seeds of love, resilience and knowing who I am and where I come from, and who I represent when I go out,” she said.
Above the aunties in the skirt are three younger women — one of whom carries a backpack. That symbolizes carrying knowledge, and another woman wearing a graduation gown. The third has a microphone. “That is a big part of where my spirit is,” she says. “The microphone represents using your voice to speak up about the injustices that we’ve experienced in our life.”
Working on the piece made Woodward think about her aunties, including one who died. “I got really emotional thinking about it,” she says. “I started thinking about my role as an auntie, to my nieces and nephews, and some of the adversities and hardships that I see them going through. It breaks your heart. It does feel like your own children, and wanting to protect them, and when they’re in your presence, to just pour love into them.”
The show offers a look at the diversity of how Indigenous communities think about aunties, and their importance in the culture. As Kempenich says, there are no specific requirements to be an auntie, other than unconditional love.
More information is here.