Art lies in the moment of encounter: we meet our truth and we meet ourselves; we meet ourselves and we meet our self-expression. We become original because we become something specific: an origin from which work flows.
Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
The Oglala Lakota Sioux Indian tribe on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota hosts traditional wacipi (wah-CHEE-pee), meaning “powwow,” ceremonies full of dancing, singing, chanting, drumming, storytelling, regalia, food, and gifts to celebrate life, promote wellness and healing, and build community. Healers use a variety of earth-based, sacred objects to honor and respect Father Sky, Mother Earth, Grandfather Sun, and Grandmother Moon. They speak, chant, sing, and drum with an immediacy and intimacy. A traditional wacipi is beautiful and moving to experience.
At every ceremony I attended on Pine Ridge, participants were eager and proud to show me something they were wearing, holding, using (in a wacipi ceremony), or gifting (in a giveaway ceremony) that my friend Miya had made. I am proud to have some of her hand-crafted Native art among my treasures.
Miya was a self-taught artist – a maker of exquisite star quilts, hand-scraped and hand-painted buffalo and elk hides, ledger art, cottonwood-framed drums, beaded bracelets and necklaces, hand-stitched dolls, porcupine-quilled medicine bags, and other Native American art forms. With meticulous care, she created boldly colorful pieces that have beauty, honor, tradition, originality, and her unique whimsy. Heavy on symbolism, her art tells stories and honors the traditions and pride of the Native artisan.
I connected to Miya’s art on a visceral level. “You pay attention, Miya,” I said to her.
“I think that’s what being an artist is all about,” she replied.
A few of the treasures she made for me over the years include a beautiful, hand-stitched Oglala Lakota doll, beaded bracelets, an elk hide drum, and a leather pouch bag for one of my Native American flutes. The doll measures 15 inches tall with an 8-inch arm span. Its body, made of white broadcloth, is soft and pliable, and its clothes and moccasins of golden-brown buckskin leather are adorned with beads. The braided hair is genuine horsetail, and Miya’s simple beadwork gives its face a serene expression.
Years ago, Miya tried to teach me to draw and paint the horses, coyotes, and buffalo I met on the prairie. Unfortunately, having the willingness and eagerness to learn something isn’t the same thing as being any good at it. So, I confined my art to collages and pictograph story sketches – black-ink stick figures I based on Sioux pictography and my own imagination. It was a fun way for Miya and me to connect, for me to learn about her culture, and for her to learn about me.
Early in our relationship, we spent hours together creating art. Whether we were trying to capture a moment in time, an emotion, a memory, or a historical event, or we were just being playful and having fun, our imaginations were strong forces. We summoned what we knew, remembered, and imagined.
Sitting beside each other, our heads down, our fingers and hands working, we focused on colors and shapes, hides and paper, tools and paints, words and figures. Singing songs in our native languages, we shared lyrics about spirit animals, water carriers, rains, trains, and the blues.
It was a wonder to hear Miya speak and sing in her Native Lakota language. It is a beautiful, gentle, peaceful, and poetic language. “I love the Lakota language,” she said. “I am proud to speak it. Saving our language is saving our Nation.” And Miya liked how I used English. So, she painted and drew about complex issues while I wrote about them.
Although I am not Native American, I keep native languages alive in my own life through poetry, songs, and chants. I know a handful of words in Lakota, Dakota, Cherokee, Navajo, and Winnebago languages, taught to me by Miya and other Native friends, and I have spoken and sung them to my pets – first to my cats Marmee and Chloe, then to my dog Pasu (whose name I chose from the Dakota word pasu, meaning “nose”), and now to my dog Dixie. I do not pronounce the words perfectly, but it’s the intention, meaning, and tone that matter. I also enjoy listening to recorded Native American music, especially flute and drums.
Ledger art is another art form unique to Native American artists and practiced by Miya. She said it got its start when Native prisoners of war were given pieces of paper and pencils by white prison guards. During the Indian wars in the 1800s, when many Native American Indians were put into prison camps, the guards would give the prisoners paper, pencils, and crayons so that the prisoners would have something to do. Some of the paper was from ledger books; other paper included military documents and maps.
In the confines of a cell, a Native prisoner would draw something, traditionally inspired by what they had painted on buffalo hides, shields, teepees, shirts, leggings, and robes before the white man took their land and killed their buffalo. When U.S. Cavalry soldiers, miners, explorers, traders, and settlers wiped out the buffalo herds to near extinction, the Native storytelling medium changed from hide to paper. The tools changed also. When the mineral pigment paints and bones and sticks used for brushes vanished, the Native storytelling tools changed to pencils, pens, crayons, and watercolor paints instead.
Today, ledger art is a flourishing Native art form. The antique, 19th-centure paper sought after for use in ledger art gives it authenticity and cultural continuity between the past and the present. Both men and women practice the tradition of ledger art and at the same time explore new, fresh artistic freedom with it. Ledger art is no longer just about telling war stories.
Another art form that evolved due to influence from white people and the Indian wars is pottery production. In my collection of Native art given to me by members of the Oglala Lakota tribe on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, I have three pieces of Sioux pottery, two of which were made on the reservation sometime between the 1940s and 1960s. They are signed by their potters, Olive Cottier and Bernice Talbot. In the photo below, the mottled vase was made by Cottier, the creamer by Talbot, and the bulbous arrow stairstep vase by someone whose signature I cannot read.
It is interesting to note that there is no tradition of pottery amongst the Lakota Sioux Indians of the Great Plains. They were a nomadic people who followed the buffalo herds; as such, they were light travelers. They used baskets rather than pottery, and the pottery they did use was functional, not decorative.
Although decorative pottery was brought to Pine Ridge by white people, pottery production on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is significant in the history of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Indians and their art forms. Miya told me the history and herstory of pottery on Pine Ridge, and I did some reading of my own to learn more about these potters:
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was established in southwestern South Dakota in 1890. In the 1930s, the Work Progress Association (WPA) set up a boarding school on the reservation. Its goal was to remove Indian children from their homes and place them in school where they were required to speak only English, prohibited from speaking Lakota, expected to practice Christianity, and discouraged from Native cultural and spiritual practices.
The WPA project brought white instructors to the boarding school to provide pottery for home use and to help the Indians sustain themselves as craftspeople. Bruce Doyle, a potter from North Dakota, connected with Margaret Cable, director of ceramics at the University of North Dakota. Doyle is credited with making molds on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and with formulating glazes suitable to the local clays. Cable is credited with teaching a ceramics course on the reservation for both ceramics instructors and community members. Together, Doyle and Cable established a productive pottery program at the boarding school.
Among the potters trained by Doyle and Cable were three sisters of Sioux origin: Ella Irving (formerly Ella Woody and Ella Cox), Olive Cottier, and Bernice Talbot. They are credited with continuing Pine Ridge pottery production after the boarding school pottery program ended in the early 1940s when Doyle left the reservation. The sisters secured a loan to purchase a log building in Pine Ridge to continue pottery. They dug clay near the area and produced glazes locally. They also did the work to mold and throw the pots on the wheel, to cast, glaze, and decorate the pottery, and to bake the pots in large kilns.
Their pottery is identifiable by their incised mark “Pine Ridge Sioux” under a pine tree on a ridge, along with their first initial and last name. Their pottery can be found in the Smithsonian Institute.
Below are photos of the two antique pots gifted to me.
During one of Miya’s visits to Portland, we toured the Portland Art Museum’s collection of Native American art. Housed in the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Center for Native American Art, the collection is remarkable. It consists of more than 5,000 prehistoric and historic objects created by 200 cultural groups from throughout North America. Each gallery in the Center is devoted to art from a specific cultural region, including the Plains Indians, to which the Oglala Lakota Indians belong.
Miya’s response to Native American art and history exhibits was always mixed and intense. She did not like the black-and-white photos of Native American communities. “They are from the conqueror’s perspective,” she said. She did, however, like the authentic objects from Native cultures showcased in the Portland galleries. “They give us back our color.”
Below are photos of Plains Indians items from the Portland Art Museum’s collection.
Miya was glad that these exhibits exist and that tribes are consulted in creating them, because they represent the history of Native peoples. On the other hand, she believed that to change perceptions about Native peoples, more education is needed on the serious past and present injustices so that non-Indians can understand their trauma and the barriers to their recovery, along with their strength and resiliency. “Not everyone was born in a teepee,” she said.
After her cancer diagnosis, Miya made for me a beautiful blue and brown star quilt, measuring 40 inches by 40 inches. Giving it to me, she draped it over my shoulder and said, “Hunka, this is for you and your baby Dixie. May it protect you both.”
For Miya and her Lakota tribe, the star quilt represents honor and generosity – the honor that comes from giving to others. The pattern is inspired by the Morning Star, which is the last and brightest star in the eastern horizon before dawn. The Lakota people believe the Morning Star represents the way spirits come to earth; it is a link between the living and those who have died. The star quilt Miya gave me is now draped over the back of a chair in my home.
While my imagination is a strong force and my brain is full of vivid memories, it is wonderful to have real, solid objects from Miya in my home that I can touch, wear, use, and enjoy in addition to solid memories. I can hold onto them when the work to mine my memories feels overwhelming. The art of storytelling is a helpful guide to the narrative of my own life.