WOMEN YOU SHOULD KNOW IN WYOMING: Native American Visual Artist and Dancer Selected for Global ‘Women to Watch’ Exhibit (Part 3)

Sarah Ortegon HighWalking will share her Indigenous-inspired art at D.C. museum show

Sarah Ortegon HighWalking has been selected as the Wyoming Woman Artist to Watch by the National Museum of Women in the Arts for its 2024 show, New Worlds. (Courtesy photo from Sarah Ortegon HighWalking)

By Elizabeth Sampson

Special to the Wyoming Truth

In its Women You Should Know in Wyoming series, the Wyoming Truth is profiling five artists who were selected as Wyoming Women Artists to Watch 2024 for the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Part one featured Bronwyn Minton and Jennifer Rife; part two featured Katy Ann Fox and Leah Hardy.

When Sarah Ortegon HighWalking performs the jingle dress dance under back lights, only the reflective parts of her regalia are easily visible. You can’t see her face in the dark, but you can hear the dress jingling and see it leaping and spinning as if it is moving on its own.

“At that point, you’re not focused on the human that’s dancing,” she said. “It feels like there’s an inner spirit that is dancing with the regalia, and that’s what I wanted to focus on.”

Sarah Ortegon HighWalking performs the traditional jingle dress dance under blacklights, which make the dress look like it is dancing on its own. (Courtesy photo from Sarah Ortegon HighWalking) 

Ortegon HighWalking, 37, who splits her time between Denver and Wyoming, has been selected as the Wyoming artist for the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) exhibit, “New Worlds: Women to Watch 2024,” at the Washington, D.C. museum. The exhibit, slated for April to August 2024, will showcase the work of 28 emerging artists from around the world; Ortegon HighWalking was one of five Wyoming artists nominated by Jackson artist Tammi Hanawalt for the honor.  

Ortegon HighWalking, who is Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho, will contribute a piece that features a beaded cradleboard she made for her son Aenohe, who was born earlier this year. Surrounding the cradleboard will be paintings of jingle dresses dancing on their own—a nod to her performances. Ortegon HighWalking plans to incorporate beadwork to the canvas’s painted jingle dresses.

The jingle dress dance comes from the Anishinaabe people, who also are known as the Ojibwe. Metal cones are sewn into the dress, and they bounce against each other when the dancer moves. Ortegon HighWalking learned the art of the jingle dress dance by watching other dancers at the powwows she started attending at age 3. The dance is known as a dance of healing, and Ortegon HighWalking said her piece will reflect how motherhood has changed her life in a positive, healing way.

“I feel like everything I do relates back to me making sure that I am a good mother to him, so that’s impacting my art,” said Ortegon HighWalking, who recently was invited to perform the jingle dress dance at Lincoln Center in New York. “I feel like he has helped me heal in a lot of ways, breaking generational trauma through raising him with a good foundation, so that’s what I wanted to depict—the idea of a better future, of going forward.”

Hanawalt finds the depiction of jingle dress dancing on its own very intriguing.

“I saw one of her pieces that she has at the Denver Art Museum of a very urban house with street signs that was done in beadwork on hide,” Hanawalt said. “It was interesting to me that she is looking at Native people and at Native women.”

Connections to the land

As part of Sarah Ortegon HighWalking’s planned art piece for the National Museum of Women in the Arts, she is painting jingle dresses to surround a beaded cradleboard. (Courtesy photo from Sarah Ortegon HighWalking) 

Ortegon HighWalking’s art has evolved since she first picked up a paintbrush. She originally mixed graphite and turpentine, making it possible to paint with pencil. That medium faded over time, so she switched to paints.

Some of Ortegon HighWalking’s early work focused on Indigenous women and the strength they drew from where they lived. Creating two companion pieces, she painted a well-known Native American woman who may have faced many trials in her life, and then in a second painting, she painted the region where the subject lived.

“I was focusing on Indigenous women and the strength they draw from [their] world—how much strength it takes to survive living in the conditions we used to live in,” she said.

Wyoming has influenced much of her work. One of her early paintings with beading depicts the hill outside Fort Washakie that features the name of the town.

“I drew that out of graphite and turpentine, and then I beaded on the hill,” she said.

A visit to Dinwoody, located in the Wind River range, inspired another painting. While the area is known for its petroglyph art, Ortegon HighWalking represented how two sovereign nations — the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho — were forced onto a single reservation and the historical conflict that ensued.

“I depicted telephone lines and road signs, but within those telephone lines I didn’t connect them,” said Ortegon HighWalking, who sells her artwork directly to clients and online.

Artist, bushwhacker and Miss Native America

The 10th of 12 children, Ortegon HighWalking grew up in Denver and spent her summers on the Wind River Indian Reservation visiting relatives. She learned the art of beading from her mother when she was about 9 or 10, and she began making art in elementary school.

Ortegon HighWalking earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art from Metropolitan State University in Denver in 2013, the same year she was crowned Miss Native America, which enabled her to dance with the Native Pride Dancers in Moldova and Guatemala as part of a cultural exchange.

One of Sarah Ortegon HighWalking’s signature styles is applying beadwork on the canvas of her paintings. In this piece, the braided hair is made of beads. (Courtesy photo from Sarah Ortegon HighWalking) 

After college, Ortegon HighWalking traveled with the Lander-based National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to Alaska, where she sea kayaked and bushwhacked through the Chugach Mountains for several months. That experience led her to becoming an expedition leader for NOLS, which found her spending up to a month at a time outdoors in the Wind River Mountain Range.

“That was really intense,” she recalled. “I learned so much about relating to the outdoors, and just being outside, rather than being protected.”

Ortegon HighWalking also is an actress. She recently appeared in an episode of the “Yellowstone” spinoff “1883” and also had roles in the TV show “Jamestown,” the play “Black Elk Speaks” and the musical “Sitting Bull’s Last Waltz.”

Next up for Ortegon HighWalking will be a jingle dance performance in Venice, mural work and a potential move to Wyoming. She and her husband, Jason HighWalking, who grew up in Fort Washakie, would like to relocate to the reservation or Lander.

Being selected as the Wyoming artist for the global museum exhibit could help make that possible, she said. Currently, Ortegon HighWalking is an executive legal assistant for Native American Rights Fund—a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to Native American tribes, organizations and individuals—in Denver. But she is considering a career change.

“I might potentially make my art my focus of my life,” Ortegon HighWalking said. “That is something this has gifted me.” 

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