Cultural sovereignty and cultural violence: Native American artists and the Dunn studio, 1932–1962

Pamela Kay Krch, University of Texas at El Paso


The early twentieth century engendered a period of profound change within the United States as industrialization, post-World War I miasma, and vigorous imperialism transformed the nation. The Southwest’s Santa Fe provided a haven for the influx of White scientists, affluent socialites, and artists who sought authenticity through reinvention. Lighting upon the neighboring Indian communities, White elites soon appropriated Native culture, production, and imagery, seeing these as sources for nationalism, commodification, and as outlets for reformist aims. Art educator Dorothy Dunn stands as exemplary of the latter, as she fervently believed that the new genre of Native American easel art answered the need for Native American cultural preservation as well as the authentic American counter to European cultural hegemony. During her 1932 to 1937 stewardship of the Santa Fe Indian School Studio, Dunn built on the earlier efforts of her educator, artist, and anthropologist cohort in order to firmly control and codify the Studio style. In effect, this model became the norm for Native American art for the following thirty years; moreover, Dunn and her cadre set in place the White-controlled framework that continues, to a lesser degree, to define American Indian art. Yet, this example of cultural imperialism involves more than Dunn and her White associates. Her Indian School students remain active players in this story as they, too, sought to negotiate the challenges and opportunities presented to them as they strove to carve out space for themselves as artists. Navajo painters such as Gerald Nailor, Narciso Abeyta, Quincy Tahoma, Harrison Begay, and Sybil Yazzie encountered expectations and biases that worked to restrict their self-expression. Yet, despite that they were able to create work that spoke to White and sometimes Native audiences. The canvases and murals they produced impart a wealth of information as they served to convey cultural communication, as platforms for resistance, and, not least, as evidence of the bitterness, love, and humor these artists felt as they engaged in the nascence of Native American fine art.

Subject Area

American history|Art history|Native American studies

Recommended Citation

Krch, Pamela Kay, "Cultural sovereignty and cultural violence: Native American artists and the Dunn studio, 1932–1962" (2016). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI10118154.