“When I was in school, I took a traditional Ojibwe floral pattern and reinterpreted it on a dress. A professor who critiqued it said I should’ve put a Navajo print somewhere on the piece … to make it more recognizable as ‘Native.’”
Remember when we talked about self-determination? Maggie Thompson wrestles with this idea on a daily basis, working to change expectations and definitions of Native American art and culture. What does it mean to be an “authentic,” Native American artist? Is the idea fluid?
In college at the Rhode Island School of Design, Maggie sewed beer bottle caps along the edges of a gold mini-dress, nodding at prevalent Native American stereotypes of alcoholism, and alluding to a kind of cultural prostitution. With young women donning feather head-dresses, faux fur and leather fringe atmusic festivals and in popular clothing store ads, today’s trends seem to cheapen and homogenize Native culture. In reality, over 500 Native American tribes exist in the United States, each with its own distinct heritage, language, and story.
“My father’s family belonged to the Makwa Clan; that’s how I named my studio … Makwa means ‘bear’ in Ojibwe.” Maggie’s eyes glimmer as she crosses her arms wide along our table at Spyhouse. “I’m not sure, but I kind of feel like bears are my spirit animal… I always used to have dreams about them when I was a little kid.”
With an Irish and German mom, and a Native American father, Maggie finds herself in-between identities. “I grew up surrounded by a strong Native community in the Twin Cities, but I kind of lost that when I went out East for college. Some people thought I looked White, some thought I looked Native… that’s when I started to reflect on what it meant to be a Modern, Native American woman.”
Having learned to knit and weave as a fourth grader at the Minnesota Waldorf School, and through exposure to Native artists throughout her youth, Maggie became deeply interested in representing her experiences through textiles. “I love the color and the feel of yarn… if someone’s wearing a big, chunky sweater with an interesting texture, I’m going to want to touch it … sometimes I ask, sometimes I don’t,” she smiles dryly.
Maggie currently rents a studio in Vandalia Tower, where she works on an eight harness floor loom to create tapestries, quilts, clothing. “I use fine art as a kind of therapy … I’m so bad at verbalizing my ideas and thoughts— my hope is that they translate better in my art.” While Maggie is unassuming and reserved in person, her work speaks with powerful confidence— she’s currently featured at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, alongside 13 of the region’s most respected artists, in the museum’s nine-month long exhibit, Arriving at Fresh Water.
While many of her pieces grapple with questions of identity and authenticity, she’s started to spend more time on clothing design and fabrication. Using large blocks of blacks and browns accented by bright bursts of color, Maggie creates and sells hats, cowls, and shirts on her website, and at Cliché in Uptown. “I’m interested in helping change peoples’ perceptions of Native fashion.” Hear that, Urban Outfitters? You’ve been warned.
Maggie joins a soulful group of Minnesotan artists who use their talents to reject traditional representations of Natives throughout American history— she lists Jim Denomie, Julie Buffalohead, and Dyani White Hawk as some of her influences. “We’re here and we’re living now,” Maggie says emphatically. “If I want to make something that’s inspired by my experiences as a Native woman, it shouldn’t have to include symbols or imagery that feels reductive.”