Art Works Blog

Spotlight on the Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School

“In the Lakota language, there is no single word that translates to ‘art,’” said Peter Strong, director of The Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School. In an e-mail, he said that instead, “There are words that mean ‘bringing out the beauty’ of an object.’” Strong was referencing the Lakota tradition of "enhancing the natural beauty" of everyday objects through elaborate decoration and adornment. However, the linguistic nuance he mentioned is an apt metaphor for Lakota artistic heritage, which indeed cannot be easily defined by the single, simple word “art.”

Located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the Heritage Center---a recent ArtPlace grantee---opened its doors in 1982, and has since  become one of the region’s most prominent centers of Native American artwork. Featuring fine art by Native artists and traditional tribal Lakota pieces, the museum offers a comprehensive view of Native artistry while challenging stereotypes of what Native art should be. Below, Strong describes images of pieces from the museum’s collection in his own words.

Keith BraveHeart, Oglala Lakota, Unenrolled Wicasa, 2007, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School

STRONG: "In addition to traditional imagery and techniques, contemporary artists are using Western mediums to communicate with their viewers their feelings about issues that are important to Lakota people living in today's world: tribal sovereignty, federal policy, cultural pride, identity, environmental issues. This painting places problems that began in the 1800s and continue today regarding the differences between cultural identity and heritage against the federal policies regarding the "official" tribal enrollment policies for wicasa (Lakota for man)."

Chief American Horse's Top Hat, Oglala Lakota, ca. late 1800s. Gift of Ralph and June West. Image courtesy of the Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School

STRONG: "This beaver skin felt top hat is typical of the clothing the federal government gave Native chiefs to impress them on their visits to Washington, DC. When American Horse returned home, his wife thought the top hat was plain and used her talents to decorate it, giving it more meaning and culture as fitted her eye. This is believed to be one of the only top hats so decorated to have survived. The hat is part of the recently opened exhibition Song of the Horse Nation at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC."

Lakota leader shirts, unknown Oglala Lakota artists, late 1800s. Dawson Family Collection. Image courtesy of the Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School

STRONG: "These amazing shirts, decorated with beads, porcupine quills, natural dyes, and adorned with locks of human hair, would have been worn by the recognized leader of a tiospaye or extended family group that was the standard for traditional Lakota people. Because a person's hair was considered special and important, the hair represented the support of the members of his tiospaye for his leadership. Also, the beadwork designs on each leader's shirt would be unique and would be recognizable as a design from his particular tiospaye. The Dawsons owned the first trading post in Pine Ridge village when the reservation was formed in the late 1800s, and their descendants donated their entire collection to The Heritage Center as a way to return the pieces to the culture from which they came."

Beaded slip-on shoes, unknown Lakota artist, ca. 1990s, commercial canvas shoes, beads. Image courtesy of the Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School

STRONG: "Clothing, supplies, and other parts of Lakota daily life have changed, but the practice of making everyday items more beautiful has not. These non-descript slip-on shoes were made into a work of art by adding the wonderful beadwork."

Buffalos by artist Micheal (Schweigman) Two Bulls, Oglala Lakota: Untitled, 2008, paper mache with parchment, stick on letters / Flying Buffalo, 2005, paper mache using dress patterns, willow branches. Image courtesy of the Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School

STRONG: "Contemporary artists are also working with traditional---and sometimes stereotypical---imagery in wonderful ways using media that were not available prior to Western contact. These buffalo are delightful interpretations of an animal that was incredibly important historically to the Lakota people. The artist experiments with materials and perspective, yet still incorporates some traditional aspects of the culture."

View of the Making New Traditions exhibit, installed at the Dahl Arts Center in Rapid City, South Dakota. Image courtesy of the Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School

STRONG: "The Making New Traditions exhibit, co-curated by The Heritage Center and the Dahl, features the work of eight Northern Plains Native artists between the ages of 25 and 35. With respect for cultural identity and tradition, these eight young artists (Keith BraveHeart, April Holder, Layli Long Soldier, Floyd Nez, Henry Payer, Jr., Hoka Skenandore, Micheal (Schweigman) Two Bulls, and Marty Two Bulls, Jr.) approach creativity with their eyes wide open to the layers, complexities, and truths of our time. By taking inspiration from the modern as well as the traditional, they communicate their experiences as contemporary indigenous people and through that process create progressive statements in Native art.

This exhibition has shown at The Heritage Center and the Dahl Arts Center and is now on display at the South Dakota Art Museum in Brookings until late January. It will show in Minneapolis at the All My Relations gallery through February."

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