Art Works Blog

Spotlight on the Cloud Horse Art Institute

The Cloud Horse Art Institute is a non-profit arts organization located on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Founded in 2001 by Tilda Long Soldier St. Pierre and now co-run with her husband Mark St. Pierre, the Institute’s programs in traditional Lakota folk arts including hide tanning, hide painting, quill, bead and feather work to name just a few as well as creative writing, theater, traditional food gathering and preparation, and more. In addition to keeping Lakota cultural practices alive for another generation, Cloud Horse’s programs—which are primarily run by volunteersalso provide community members of all ages with skills they can use to generate an income, an element that is vital in this impoverished area where unemployment is at approximately 50 percent.

The institute’s work has been supported by grants from both the NEA and USDA. Since 2011 Cloud Horse has received two Folk and Traditional Arts grants from the NEA to support its projects. We spoke with Mark St. Pierre—who is also a 1990 NEA Literature Fellowto hear about the many ways Cloud Horse has helped strengthen the Pine Ridge community and preserve Lakota culture while building a better economic future for its residents. 

On Providing Economic Opportunties through Arts Education

School systems on the reservation are sometimes not what they should be and with No Child Left Behind and the federal control of schools on the reservation, we don't have the art programs that we had 20 years ago. There's not a single band program on the reservation. There's very little arts being taught in schools on the reservation and so we feel like we're providing some of the young people who really have talent with a chance to grow that talent and get some additional experiences beyond what they would get in our school system.… We live in the highest unemployment area in the United States…. We feel because of that that our teaching should also include an economic factor. We try to bring in professionals who can help people understand and access the next level of whatever art they're passionate about so that it could possibly have an impact on the family's ability to support themselves.

Keeping Lakota Arts in All Forms Alive for Another Generation

We have taught every level of traditional food gathering, food preparation, and cooking, both to keep traditional foods alive but also because they're very healthy. We have a big diabetes and obesity problem in Indian country and it's because people have switched to a Western, American-style diet and they don't do very well on it. Teaching young people how to cook and to use traditional foods that they can gather right off the land here has been a very big emphasis over the years. If we had a sound stage, we would probably produce a television show on traditional Lakota cooking entirely in the Lakota language…. Another whole battle that Lakota people have is the revitalization of Lakota language. [My wife Tilda] is a state-certified teacher in Lakota language and is now teaching Lakota language in the K-8 school system in Pine Ridge. She teaches eight grades Lakota language but she also incorporates traditional folk arts and the language that goes with those folk arts into language curriculum.… Forty-five years ago, over half the population used Lakota language in their daily life and we're down to probably about 10 percent today, maybe less than 10 percent.

We have over 1000 items of contemporary Native-American art in our Cloud Horse collection. We also have the potential to become a museum, and an archive, and a teaching facility…. Our book library, our photograph library, our literal folk arts collection is unprecedented.... We have resources that no one in the whole United States has that we can't even use because we don't have secure facilities. When we teach a class in traditional folk arts, we're able to show our students both photographic--black and white, color--images as well as actual art objects that they can handle and touch and examine.

We're [preserving] some art forms that are so close to extinction that perhaps we are the only source of information now how to do that, so we're also a research organization…. The only reason I can teach how to make buffalo horn spoons is because when I was 25 years old, a person who was born in 1900 showed me how to do it. We've also taught acrylic painting, Western style painting, painting Native scenes, you know using modern acrylic paints and brushes and stretched canvas. We've taught sculpture using soft regional stones and just simple tools like chisels and files, and we've taught silver jewelry making. [We’re also] teaching children how to camp in a tipi in the winter time with three feet of snow on the ground. I mean we've done crazy exciting programming and arts programs that no one in North America has done.

If you go to a pow-wow and you look at the headdresses that men are wearing, in Lakota they're called wapesha. Those wapesha are made of White-tail deer hair, from the tail of the deer, and porcupine guard hairs from a porcupine. To make those beautiful headdresses you have to know how to use and gather fibers from a number of different animals that live in our environment here, and the people that make those, it's probably down to a handful. All of these things, if we can bring in teachers who are still practicing those art forms and we teach that to five or six, seven, eight people, we've now tripled or quadrupled the number of practitioners of an ancient art form that is Pre-Columbian. My wife, for instance, teaches all her students how to make thread out of tendon. In history books if you look, I mean the tiny bit that's in history books about Native people, it probably would say something like "Indians made their thread out of tendon or sinew," but what tendon is it? Where does it come from in an animal? How do you extract it? How do you prepare it? How do you take that tendon and make it into threads that are so small that you can put them through the tiniest beads?… Tilda's one of the last people on the Northern Plains who's teaching young people how to do that. And I'll tell you what, that thread is the strongest thread you'd ever see--I doubt there's many synthetic threads even high-tech synthetic threads that are as strong as that natural tendon. So if you're teaching a young person how to make moccasins, and you want the bottom soles to stay on the moccasins for a long time, then you teach them how to put those moccasin bottoms on with tendon thread and how to do all of that.

On Documentary Filmmaking in the Native Community

We just produced a major documentary film called Who Will Bury the Dead? The Death of Christianity in Lakota Country? It was just nominated for Best Documentary Film at the American Indian Film Institute Festival in San Francisco, and we already have an agent that wants to represent the film. That film was done primarily with people here 25 years and under as the actual crew that shot the film, edited it, and actually were involved in the production of a very good piece of intellectual property. We are not only teaching art, we're very much moving forward with setting an example of how that can change the lives and impact young people who have computer skills, who have a dream or desire to be communicators or storytellers and putting the pieces together so that they might have a future in film.

You look at the whole issue of diversity in Hollywood which has been in all the papers, and it's a huge issue and it's a huge problem. You know the filmmakers in the dominant society are not investing in minority communities. They're not acquiring stories from Native communities. It's just business as usual. If that's going to change, we are the ones who are probably going to have to change it. So you've got to prove to the broader entertainment community, whether it's documentary or narrative film, that you can produce finished products that have a real earning power and a real value to it at the same time you're producing a beautiful piece of art. Our film,Who Will Bury the Dead? was shot cinematically at 24 frames per second with glass lenses and that film is a gorgeous look at Native America. You're seeing faces that the American people have seldom seen. Our documentary film has I think about 17 different speakers and half of them are women. That's never been done in a documentary. Our women speakers have as much time on the film as our male speakers… because we live in a matriarchal and matrilineal culture. Every time filmmakers from the outside world come in, even if you look at the BBC or Discovery Channel or any of the big documentaries that are done on Native American history, all the speakers are men.

The world right now is paying attention to what's going on up in North Dakota with the oil protests. Those are Lakota people that are participating, well a lot of tribes, but principally Lakota people are participating in those protests. That's going to produce documentary films; that's going to produce all kinds of media. Who is going to control that media? Who's going to produce that media? Who's going to benefit from that media? Who's going to own that media?... Intellectual property rights, whether it's poetry, or a novel, or a historical writing, or film documentary or narrative film, have the potential to create economic returns and once you produce a documentary film, you own that piece of intellectual property. The destiny of that property in terms of earning power should pass back through to the Native communities and the Native producers that make those intellectual properties.

For another perspective on arts in the Native community, check out our 2015 podcast with Lakota flute player and hoop dancer Kevin Locke, a 1990 NEA National Heritage Fellow. 


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