University Museums

Title: Ghost Dancer, From the Ghost Dancer Series
Name: Pastel
Date: 1981
Medium: Pastel on paper
Country/Culture: American
Dimensions: 29 1/2 x 41 1/2 in. (74.9 x 105.4 cm)
Signed: Lower right
Classification: Drawings
Credit Line: Gift of the artist, in honor of Helen Schuster and John Weinkein, faculty members at Iowa State University. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
Object Number: UM82.8
More Information
Born in Montana in 1940, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith grew up on Hupa and Nisqually reserves. As a child, she traveled among various reserves in the American Pacific Northwest with her father, a horse trader. He would draw little pictures of animals for her to carry in her pockets. As she described it, these drawings “took me into a place that didn’t have violence in it; didn’t have hunger.” They also sparked her desire to become an artist. “As early as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be an artist.” Yet in high school, after deciding she wanted to study art in college, a teacher pulled her aside to tell her that even though she drew better than the men, “you’ll never be able to be an artist. Women are not artists.” She went on to earn a BFA at Framingham State College and an MFA at the University of New Mexico. Today Smith, a citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation in Montana, lives and works as an artist in New Mexico, where she examines her Native American heritage as well as its intersection with settler society in large paintings that often incorporate elements of collage.

Ghost Dance Series refers to an intertribal Native American religious movement that emerged in the late 19th century at a time of particularly violent conflict with settler society. Based on the teachings of the Northern Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka, the Ghost Dance, if performed properly, was believed by some practitioners to be able to reanimate the spirits of dead Indians, who would join together with the living to force out white settlers and reassert native peoples’ way of life. It was partly in response to the Lakota performing this dance in 1890 that the cavalry was called in, resulting in the Wounded Knee Massacre in which more than 200 Lakota men, women, and children were killed.

In this artwork, Smith incorporates a number of symbols from Native American cultures, including a buffalo and horse along the bottom, which may refer to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, two important Lakota leaders of the late 19th century. The red teepee at the right has marks that can be read as the letter W, perhaps in reference to Wounded Knee. The dark pink figure at the top left appears to be dancing; the yellow figure before her, perhaps another dancer, a woman in mourning, or a spirit rising from the ground; the black cross and markings behind the dancer suggest they are in a cemetery. The buffalo and horse below may further symbolize past spirits being called, or perhaps the reassertion of an indigenous lifestyle after white settlers are removed. Smith combines these images with abstract swathes of color that recall the Color Field paintings of Mark Rothko and thus encourage contemplation. Smith explains that she uses her “work as a platform for my beliefs. . . can I tell a story, can I make it a good story, can I add some humor to it, can I get your attention, those are all things that I try to do with my artwork.”

Written by Dr. April Eisman, Associate Professor, Art and Visual Culture for the exhibition (Re)discovering S(h)elves.

*Quotes from an interview with the artist,, and from the Smithsonian American Art Museum,, Last Accessed: May 30, 2015.