Bridging the Gap: Maggie Thompson uses art to navigate a contemporary Native American identity

Maggie Thompson working the knitting machine in her studio // Photo by Tj Turner

Maggie Thompson working the knitting machine in her studio // Photo by Tj Turner

I’m sitting on a cushy red couch in Maggie Thompson’s sunbathed studio in the Northrup King Building of Northeast Minneapolis. The space is laden with virtually every agent of textile art imaginable: a giant knitting machine is surrounded by several smaller sewing machines, scraps of cloth, folded bolts of fabric, and large, vibrant spools of yarn. 

On the other side of the room, close to the bright, square-paned windows, is where Maggie keeps the colorful knitted textiles that she sells from her online shop, Makwa Studio. Next to that is a collection of cheery-looking plants, a speaker softly playing a Khalid song on repeat, and the spot where she’s installed a spinning pole for her chosen exercise regimen.

“That’s just another one of my passions: knitting, fine art, and pole dancing,” she says with a wry grin. She’s partly joking, but mostly quite serious.

With only a cursory glance around the room, you’d never know that the studio is home to a contemporary Native American artist. But that’s kind of the point. “I do identify as a Native artist, but I don’t want to talk about Native things all the time, because it kind of puts you in a box,” Maggie says. “So I think it will come and go where I talk about history or my family or stuff like that, but also thinking about a contemporary Native person’s experience of life. We exist in other spaces outside of Native-specific spaces.”

Growing up in Minnesota as the daughter of a white mother and Ojibwe father, both artists, Maggie says she rarely felt different because of her Native identity. That is, until she moved east to attend the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), starting in architecture but soon moving to the textiles program. It was during her senior year at RISD when she really started to explore her Native identity with her first body of work. 

“I wasn’t confronted by those differences between other folks until I was out East, where there weren’t a lot of Native students or people of color at my school,” she says. “It would be, like, a thing. Like, ‘Oh, you’re Native—can I shake your hand?’ Silly things like that.”

Thompson threading her knitting machine // Photo by Tj Turner

Thompson threading her knitting machine // Photo by Tj Turner

By stepping into realms outside of her Native identity, Maggie is advancing the conversation around contemporary Native American experiences. As she argues, it’s actually quite simple: “We’re moving forward with everybody else. Everyone’s growing and moving forward, together.”

It was at school that Maggie first started pushing back against broad-stroke notions of Native design. She cringingly remembers one instance when she was discussing with a professor a piece of her work depicting Ojibwe florals, intentionally specific to her own Ojibwe heritage. But, according to the non-Native professor, it wasn’t Native enough—he even went so far as to give the offhand suggestion that she “put a Navajo print on it.”

“Now I have this thing in me that’s stemming from that experience that’s just like, what does it mean to look Native? What the hell does that mean?” she says. “It could’ve been a moment where he could’ve asked more questions.”

But she’s also fielded baffling questions of identity about how, being three-eighths Native, she can consider herself Native American. “[Someone] has asked me, ‘Why do you consider yourself to be Native when you’re less than half?’ And I feel like that’s a really hard, kind of invasive question,” she says.

Her inner conflict with juggling a split identity became overwhelming, to the point that she decided to step away and look to other personal experiences for inspiration in her work. Several pieces of her fine art from her first collection  and later works have been explorations of death, including a body of work that grappled with the death of her father in 2014 of pancreatic cancer and one  in the works about her best friend, who recently died of esophageal cancer. For this piece, she’s using photo transfers and light to portray esophageal cancer cells, a concept she came up with while paging through a medical text. “Instead of digitally printing the fabric, I spent the time to transfer the photos and, like, rub off the paper,” she says. “There’s just something [about] really putting in the time and work and sweat and tears to really work on this piece.”

Though many of us would prefer to suffer with painful emotions in private, Maggie chooses to dive in deep, exposing her pain through her work in hopes that it resonates. “It’s hard to talk about [things] like breakups or death or identity,” she says. “If people can connect to it visually, and feel an emotion just by looking at it, I think that’s my goal with my fine artwork.”

The knitwear she produces through Makwa Studio keeps things a little lighter. “The knitting is just a way to release or have a break, because all of my fine art is emotionally heavy,” she says. “So it’s just a way to release and have fun, and also make my work more accessible to people and be functional.” 

A pile of the knitwear goods Thompson has made in Makwa Studio // Photo by Tj Turner

A pile of the knitwear goods Thompson has made in Makwa Studio // Photo by Tj Turner

Maggie likes to give herself room to experiment with color. On one wall of her studio, small samples are pinned up, displaying various color combinations and pattern ideas she tests out before committing to full pieces. “The patterns are colorful and playful, but the simplicity of the design, like the actual construction of the piece, is something I’m really into,” she says.

Since starting to sell her knitwear, she says she’s had several people reach out to her with a similar question: Is it okay for non-Native people to buy and wear her goods? Her short answer: Yes. In fact, please do. “I think always supporting Native artists and designers, that’s the number one rule,” she says. But in general, people should be aware of the line so as not to cross into the territory of appropriation. “It just really depends what it is, where it came from, and how it’s being worn.”

In the future, Maggie hopes to engage in more collaborations with other Native artists to make work that more broadly represents the community. This fall, she plans to head to Germany to learn the ropes of the Stoll industrial knitting machine, in hopes that she can bring it back to Minnesota. “I think it would be cool to make it accessible to other Native artists and designers—pushing the ‘contemporary’ to how they can bring their forms to knitwear, if they want to, as a new medium.”

Thompson adjusting her machine to fit the pattern // Photo by Tj Turner

Thompson adjusting her machine to fit the pattern // Photo by Tj Turner

But for now, Maggie is in the emotional grips of a new project revolving around romantic relationships. “[It] is something I’m still experiencing so I feel like it’s very fresh and I’m still trying to work through a lot of it,” she says. “But [it’s] talking about the positives of a relationship with the negatives, and everything in between.”

Bridging the divide between the Native and non-Native community is a role that’s come with the territory of Maggie’s work. Though she’s more aware and intentional about her position in the conversation now, she still doesn’t see a need to define herself in any way. She reflects back to being a kid, when she never had to answer questions of her “identity.”

“It was just never a focus of who I was,” she says. “It’s just me.”