Native artist Dyani White Hawk, a Haskell alumna, wins prestigious $800K MacArthur Fellowship
photo by: Jaida Grey Eagle
For years before Dyani White Hawk actually set foot in Lawrence, a picture of the Haskell Indian Nations University campus hung on her family’s fridge.
White Hawk would eventually live and work in Lawrence for five years, and she spent some of that time studying on that very campus. It’s a time that she says shaped her life and career in many ways. White Hawk, a Sičáŋǧu Lakota artist now based in Minnesota, even credits it for one recent significant achievement — her selection as a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, otherwise known as the “genius grant.”
White Hawk is one of 20 individuals to win the $800,000 fellowship grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for 2023, which will be paid out in quarterly installments over the next five years. White Hawk is a celebrated multidisciplinary artist who, according to the artist statement on her personal website, strives to create “honest, inclusive works that draw from the breadth of my life experiences, Native and non-Native, urban, academic and cultural education systems.” To do that, White Hawk creates art using numerous media, from some works executed only through paint on a canvas to others that incorporate elements of abstract Lakota artistic practices like intricate porcupine quillwork and woven beadwork.
photo by: Contributed
Earlier this month, White Hawk spoke with the Journal-World about the fellowship and how her path from Haskell, where she earned one of her three college degrees, brought her to where she is today.
“I’m really grateful,” White Hawk told the Journal-World. “It was my associate’s degree at Haskell; I don’t want to diminish that because it’s an important degree and it’s an extremely important start, but so much of the foundation of my educational journey was through that degree and through that space. And that community, that’s the other thing that’s really important to emphasize, that Haskell provides such an important community for Native students.”
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It all started with White Hawk’s decision against starting college immediately after graduating from high school in her home town of Madison, Wisconsin. She did take some classes at a local community college here and there, but mostly she worked full-time and enjoyed snowboarding and “living her youth,” as she put it.
And so it went for about six years, before White Hawk felt she was finally ready to go to college. Though initially where that college would be was an open question, the seeds of the possibility that Haskell might be at least a stop along the way had already been planted in the form of that photo on the fridge. It was hung there in the first place by White Hawk’s mother, who first visited Haskell for a work trip.
“She was like, ‘This is where you’re going to go to college,'” White Hawk said. “I remember being like, ‘OK, Mom.’ It wasn’t an order; she was just putting it out there, ‘This is where you’re going.’ I didn’t think much of it, other than I looked at it on the fridge all the time.”
What White Hawk did know at the time was that she wanted to go to school for art. The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico — where she’d eventually earn a bachelor’s degree — was already on her radar at that point, but it wasn’t a possibility quite yet given her family’s financial circumstances.
Getting from Madison to Lawrence, however, was a much more feasible prospect.
“I knew that tuition is covered for enrolled tribal students to attend Haskell, and there’s still fees but they were achievable for me on my early-20s working income,” White Hawk said. “I sold snowboarding equipment to get enough gas money and funds to go to Lawrence, Kansas, by myself and start school.”
Starting in 2000, White Hawk took all the art classes Haskell had to offer, eventually earning her associate’s degree in elementary education. Lawrence was more than just the start of her path through higher education, though — it was also where White Hawk met her husband and gave birth to her first daughter, a “Haskell rascal,” all while finishing her degree.
The next step, getting a bachelor’s degree, would be the next major life change. White Hawk said she initially thought that’d happen at the University of Kansas and had even enrolled, but she decided after about a week that the program wasn’t quite the right fit and it was time to go to Santa Fe. And so they went, once White Hawk’s husband had completed his bachelor’s degree, and she earned a BFA in studio art from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2008.
“I met my husband and we had our first daughter (at Haskell) and started our family there, but also some of our lifelong friends come from that time,” White Hawk said. “Some of my best friends, some of the people I am closest to come from the years that I was at Haskell and at IAIA. That has become our extended family. I think about it all the time — I am so grateful for the years that I had there.”
White Hawk has resided in Minneapolis ever since completing her master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011. In large part, that’s because her mother has lived there for the past two decades — and “where my mom’s at is home base,” White Hawk said. But she said Minnesota is also a friendly place for artists, and the Twin Cities are home to a substantial Native American population. After a four-year stint as a gallery director and curator, White Hawk took the plunge and transitioned into her studio practice full-time.
photo by: Contributed
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Soon after she was selected as a MacArthur fellow, White Hawk had a speaking engagement at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art on the Johnson County Community College campus, and a group of about two dozen current Haskell students attended. Her painting professor from IAIA, Norman Akers, was there, too. (Akers is now yet another connection she has with Lawrence; he’s currently a faculty member with KU’s Department of Visual Art.)
Looking out at the Haskell students was a profound reminder of when White Hawk was a 20-something college student building her family, and it prompted plenty of emotion. White Hawk said she was brought to tears, in fact, as she reflected on returning to a place so close to where it all started and the gratitude she felt for everyone who supported her at Haskell. It was a real full-circle moment, she said.
And after all the reflection, the MacArthur Fellowship allows White Hawk to look forward. She said she hasn’t had much time to think about many specifics, as she was working to meet a deadline for an upcoming exhibition and traveling for work. But what she does know for now is that the grant almost will be like having a steady salary for the next five years.
“Which, for me, feels like a gift of real stability for a five-year period of time that will allow me the freedom to dream and envision and walk toward large goals in the studio,” White Hawk said. “Because right now, the funds that the studio brings in support me, my family and every single person working at the studio, and that’s no small amount of money to have to generate to support all of those people’s paychecks.”
White Hawk said that’s very different from many other grants. The MacArthur Fellowship describes itself as a “no-strings-attached award to extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential,” as opposed to many other grants that are much stricter in their requirements for detailed spending plans, budgets and more. The reality is, White Hawk said, the art world doesn’t work like that. She said there’s nothing greater than a fellowship “given in trust” and without the burden of expectations.
White Hawk said it’s a tremendous honor to be selected for a MacArthur Fellowship out of an already small pool of “profoundly deserving” people working in many fields, not just the arts.
“To be plucked out of that amazing crowd of people, I’ve got to admit, being a tribal college graduate is one of the first things I thought about,” White Hawk said. “… For me, getting this is extremely important for my family, for me, for my studio, for the work, but I am elated at the fact that it can be a beacon of what’s possible for Native artists — for women, for female Native artists, for folks that have historically (thought) ‘Oh, we don’t get those things, we haven’t generally been included.'”