‘At home with art’: A voice for Indigenous art comes to Yale
The loss of a language is a subject Royce K. Young Wolf knows firsthand. As a young girl, she experienced the impacts of colonial trauma and lateral violence passed on by generations of her family attending boarding schools. Over the years, these experiences had increasingly deprived her of her family’s Hidatsa, Mandan, and Shoshone language and cultural practices.
She is the fourth generation of her family members to have attended a boarding school, where their native language and culture were not valued – or even recognized. These experiences led her to treasure and value every cultural experience and her family’s traditions, even though access to her elders and language speakers was inconsistent.
Amid this trauma, she turned to art.
“My art classes were a safe space while I was in boarding school and in public school,” said Young Wolf, who is now a postdoctoral associate at Yale. “I feel at home with art. I always have. It’s brought me confidence and freedom.
Stories and cultural teachings have always inspired her artwork and scholarship. It is a way she reconnects with her elders and ancestors.
“For me, learning my ancestral languages and culture makes me feel like I’m not alone. These are teachings that I lost as a child, and they were taken from me because of boarding schools and family dysfunction,” she said. “Language and culture revitalization is healing that past. It continues to empower me as an Indigenous woman, mother, and teacher.”
Today she is sharing these insights, and ancestral connections, with Yale students as the Postdoctoral Associate in Native American Art and Curation. The position, which supports the study and teaching of Native American Art at Yale, is funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded jointly to the Department of the History of Art and Yale University Art Gallery. Young Wolf is the second Mellon Postdoctoral Associate in this field, following researcher and museum studies scholar Kaitlin McCormick. Young Wolf is the first postdoctoral associate to also be selected as a Yale Presidential Visiting Fellow.
Young Wolf studies language and cultural revitalization through art curation and creation.
“My focus is on how colonization and assimilation has impacted Indigenous cultures and healthy communities,” she said. “That form of language endangerment is sensitive, layered, and complex.”
But her goal is not simply to study and research language endangerment; it’s more ambitious.
“The ultimate goal of revitalization — which is to revitalize not just the language, but the culture, relationships, traditions, practices — is to have vibrant speaking communities again,” she said.
Young Wolf is Hiraacá (Hidatsa), Nu’eta (Mandan), and Sosore (Eastern Shoshone) from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. She is a member of the Ih-dhi-shu-gah (Wide Ridge) Clan and a child of the Ah-puh-gah-whi-gah (Low Cap) Clan.
Young Wolf earned a master’s degree in Native American studies from the University of Oklahoma, where she is now completing her doctorate in sociocultural and linguistic anthropology. Her work focuses on Native American and Indigenous language and culture acquisition and revitalization, collaborative relationship (re)making, and visual anthropology.
She comes to the university at a critical moment, said Tim Barringer, the Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art, who helped to bring Young Wolf to Yale while he was the department chair. “We stand at a moment of reckoning at which settler-colonial society has a duty to acknowledge, respect, and learn from Indigenous communities on whose historic lands we live and work,” he said.
Though Yale is a leader in the arts, there has long been an “inexcusable absence” of Native American artforms, said Barringer.
“Finally, the art of the Indigenous people of this region and nation will be taught to Yale students,” he said. “Yale’s great Indigenous collections will be brought to life by Royce’s teaching and curatorial work.”
During her fellowship, Young Wolf will conceive and teach a seminar in the Department of the History of Art during the spring semester.
“My hope is to develop and define a course that will explore how to form and teach to developing really positive productive relationships among tribal communities as well as the institutions,” she said. “Students in the course will be able to access and interact with the collections, as well as learn from numerous Indigenous and Native American artists who will be guest speakers throughout the course.”
The fellowship also supports the art gallery’s priorities.
“Native American art and voices have prominent roles to play at the university and in our museums that coincide with rapidly growing interest in Native American culture and history,” said Mark Mitchell, the Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale Art Gallery.
Young Wolf sees this fellowship as an opportunity to further the gallery’s mission.
“The call was to bring in Indigenous people and Native American scholars to help create a conversation and space to discuss questions such as ‘how we can decolonize museum spaces?’ and ‘how should we build relationships with Native communities?’” she said.
Young Wolf is also a photographer and mixed media artist. Her artwork features beadwork, feather work, sewing, quilting, landscape photography, and painting. She’s currently working on canvas prints featuring beadwork with landscape photography of traditional sites in North Dakota, focusing on how these sites have been reshaped by the oil industry over time.
Recently, she has also been working within her tribal community in North Dakota on the Fort Berthold Reservation. In 2018, she was invited to join a steering committee for the MHA (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara) Nation Interpretive Center.
Since then, she has helped bring her elders’ vision to life with the curation of a 7,000-square-foot permanent exhibit for the center. To ensure tribal languages and first-person narratives were represented in the exhibit, Young Wolf gathered the support of some of the last tribal fluent speakers and non-tribal member linguists to form a language translation and neologism committee. Overall, the exhibit represents 10 time periods and themes from the creation of Turtle Island, through pre-contact intertribal relations and trade, and the impacts of colonization through contemporary times with the formation of the MHA Nation.
Her academic background and artistic perspectives make her an asset to both the art history department and the Yale Art Gallery.
“Royce’s presence on campus as a Presidential Fellow means that a leading Indigenous scholar and artist will offer high-profile courses to Yale students, while also working with curators of Yale’s collections to interpret and celebrate Indigenous art and culture,” Barringer said.
“Royce is a field-changing scholar whose work rethinks the terms for research in the history of art,” said Kathryn Lofton, dean of humanities for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Her presence at Yale makes possible imperative conversations about how next to imagine the work of academic research, exhibition, and social intervention.”
“Royce brings a powerful voice to Yale. She will add profound insights on Native American art, art practices, culture, and community,” added Milette Gaifman, chair of Yale’s Department of the History of Art. “Royce is already making a strong impact.”
Young Wolf will give a public lecture at 4 p.m. on Dec. 8 that is co-sponsored by the Department of the History of Art, the Yale Group for the Study of Native America, and the Yale University Art Gallery's Martin A. Ryerson Lectureship Fund.
The lecture will take place in a hybrid format. Fully vaccinated Yale faculty, students, and staff may attend in person at Loria 250, 190 York St., without preregistration. Read more about the event and register at this link.