‘Horse Nation’ Tour Stops at Plains Art Museum
A Glimpse into the Relationship between the Oyate and the Horse
BY MELISSA GONZALEZ / (VIDEO BY LEAH BACKSTROM)
James Star Comes Out’s intention for his family’s memorial for his nephew was to go back to ancestral customs.
To the Lakota, the giving of horses marked important events such as honoring or remembering a relative, the identification of a warrior society, ceremonial dances or any other type of celebration. Thinking back to older relatives’ artwork, Star Comes Out remembered horse regalia that were intricately beaded to honor and adorn the horse.
Star Comes Out starts his story, walking among his audience, with horses not far away. The air is crisp as he walks around the display set up for his presentation. He stands in front of his audience: Women and men dressed in coats, boots, and scarves. The temperature might not be subzero, but it is still a cold afternoon at the North Dakota State University Equine Center. Sun is shining outside and birds find their way into the corral and make their presence known to anyone who will listen.
Star Comes Out begins by sharing videos of parades and memorial walks with horses dressed in regalia he crafted himself. In order to honor the horse and a certain symbolic rider — his nephew — Star Comes Out decided to reach back to beading and leather arts his grandmother taught him and make regalia to pay homage to his nephew. It was there that his journey began. His purpose in continuing to make regalia is to revive customs of his people and to pay respect to the horse nation and continue to honor his nephew.
A Lesson in Naming: What the Oyate Call Themselves
Horses gave the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people – known by European settlers as the Sioux Nation – advantages it previously lacked and helped it grow into a powerful nation.
Now, in 2018, the people of Fargo-Moorhead can learn of the bond between the horse and the Oyate — “the people” of the Great Plains — by visiting the Plains Art Museum.
“The Horse Nation Tour” exhibit is visiting the Plains Art Museum in downtown Fargo. The exhibit showcases a variety of imagery dedicated to the horse. Multiple indigenous artists submitted two-dimensional and three-dimensional pieces for “The Horse Nation Tour.”
Laura Youngbird, the director of Native American arts program at the Plains Art Museum and alum of Minnesota State University Moorhead, is responsible for bringing the exhibit to Fargo.
The Lakota, Dakota and Nakota make up the Oceti Sakowin. The term means The Seven Council Fires and is the formal name for the Great Plains tribal system. The three groups are separate tribes of different bands, or units of extended family members. Each division and subdivision has a distinguished dialect and way of life.
The three groups are commonly known as the Sioux. But, that term is incorrect and demonstrates the language barrier that existed between Native Americans and French fur traders in the past. When traders explored farther west, they met a nation of people who would not let them travel any farther. The traders returned to where the Ojibwe were and asked who the unknown people were.
The Ojibwe used the word “Nadowessi” to describe them. The French interpreted that word to mean “snake people” and added the “oux” suffix to pluralize the word. So Nadowessi became Nadowessioux. It was later shortened to “Sioux.” Other definitions of the Ojibwe term Nadowessi show that it actually refers to the “snake-like” river, home ground to the other nation in northern Minnesota.
Sioux is not what the Oyate call themselves. The three main groups of the Oyate are made of seven tribes. Those tribes are comprised of bands. The Dakota group includes the tribes Mdewakantonwan, the Wakpekute, the Wahpetonwan, and the Sissetonwan. The Nakota group, also called the Yanktons, include the tribes Ihanktonwan and the Ihanktonwanna. The Lakota group is the tribe Tetonwan, which, in turn, is made of many smaller tribes. All of these tribes are made up of smaller bands, or units, with their own names. But it is these seven tribes that make up the Oceti Sakowin. The complex naming and misnaming story of the Oyate is visually explained in South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s film, Oceti Sakowin – The People of the Seven Council Fires.
A Brief History: The Horse and the Oyate
Horses were a crucial factor in the success of the Oyate’s way of life. Before Columbus came to the continent, the species of horses who lived in North America died out. But horses were reintroduced to the continent as Columbus and the Spanish brought them across the Atlantic Ocean on voyages to conquer what they called “the New World.”
The horses then migrated from central and South America toward the northern continent. Colonization, specifically the conquering of North and South America by Europe, was a destructive force in the lives of indigenous people, but the reintroduction of the horse helped the people in their migratory lifestyle. It was during the late 1700s that horses finally reached the northern tribes and rapidly improved their way of life.
Horses became part of everyday tasks and improved the Oyate’s method of hunting, traveling and combat. Riding skills were important and emphasized. Horsemanship training began once children were old enough to hang on. Naturally, horses became a status symbol and were used as gifts meant for honor, celebration and marriage proposals. Despite their late reintroduction to the continent, it only took a few generations before the horse was fully integrated into cultural practice.
As the 13 original U.S. colonies continued their western expansion, the lifestyle of the Oceti Sakowin changed dramatically. The United States’ society could not sustain its previous migratory ways, and the Oyate could no longer be the same hunters and gatherers they were before. The relationship between the horse and the people has changed, but it persists and is respected.
Artists as Storytellers: Visual Art and Representation Come Together
Laura Youngbird, 63
Director of Native American arts program, Plains Art Museum
Minnesota Chippewa Tribe – Grand Portage Band
Motivator: To bring awareness to social injustices, particularly in regard to Native American history.
An artist with a master’s degree in printmaking and drawing, Youngbird’s own art hangs on the walls of the museum. She is a member of the Chippewa tribe of Grand Portage, Minnesota, and understands the need for representation of indigenous people in art. Bright light shines through the windows of her office. She smiles and looks around at her decorations and stacks of paper. Other staff members work in proximity. Youngbird’s soft voice recounts her own path as an artist.
She was inspired to pursue art as a young child. Before moving from Arizona to Minnesota, Youngbird met a commercial artist who showed her how to draw using simple shapes. It was like she had an epiphany, she says, and she scrapped her plans of becoming a ballerina and chose a career in visual art instead. Now, as the director of the program at the Plains, one of her responsibilities is to go in search of new indigenous artists and their work and bring them to the Plains Museum.
Youngbird met Keith BraveHeart, the artist behind the exhibit, at a show for native artists in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 2015. Last year, Youngbird requested the tour include a stop in Fargo and BraveHeart agreed. From Jan. 25 until May 14, the art of “The Horse Nation of the Oceti Sakowin” will be installed for the public to see at the Plains.
To supplicate the art, workshops and events will be held as an opportunity to further educate the community. The workshops began in March with Star Comes Out’s talk and display at NDSU, and continue this month with events featuring Nelda Schrupp and Keith BraveHeart.
James Star Comes Out, 47
Wagner, South Dakota
Surveillance and game IT technician at Ohiya Casino in Niobrara, Nebraska
Motivator: Revitalize the culture of honoring the horse and his nephew, as well as keeping the horse regalia custom alive and bringing it more prominence.
Besides being an artist, Star Comes Out is a horse regalia-making consultant. He is a mixed-media artist whose work includes amulets, beaded war shirts, buffalo dolls, and other hide and bead work. The ‘Horse Nation’ workshop featuring his horse regalia artwork was March 17 at the NDSU Equine Center.
His interest in art started at a young age. He doodled a lot as a kid and always felt a strong connection to horses. His family members, like his father and grandmother, practiced beadwork and other traditional art forms. It was natural for him to be inspired by the art around him.
“I learned just by jumping in and doing it,” Star Comes Out said. His introduction to art came mainly from his grandmother. She made beadwork and star quilts. In his youth, Star Comes Out learned how to do bead work from her. As she grew older, her vision declined but she continued to teach and walked him through the process of her craft. Through her, Star Comes Out learned of the creativity of his people and continued to try new things.
Star Comes Out’s journey with making horse regalia is rooted in the passing of his nephew in 2005. TaCanku Wakan Thomas was a singer and a grass dancer. Star Comes Out said he was a “very mature, respectful, helpful and generous person.” He was 14 when he passed away. To grieve, Star Comes Out and his family organized a powwow circuit.
The circuit was intended to span four years. The length of time is common for the mourning process, with the first year, known as the Keeping of the Spirit, being the most important. Those who came in next three years to dance in honor of his nephew won prizes such as moccasins, Wapesas, a traditional-style head ornament, and dance regalia. The fourth year was to be a Lakota memorial with the winner receiving horse regalia constructed by Star Comes Out himself.
“As an artist, I feel it is my obligation to share this custom to revitalize and strengthen the understanding on this aspect of horse culture,” Stars Come Out said. “In addition, I create such items as masks, headstalls, saddles, and other forms of horse tack that substantiates the usage of horse regalia among the Oceti Sakowin. I believe these are not just works of art but rather who we are as a people within the Oceti Sakowin.”
Today, he makes the horse regalia to keep the tradition alive. He makes them as gifts, for shows, and some clients ask for custom orders. Star Comes Out says the regalia, which can include a horse mask, saddle blankets and moccasins can take about nine months to make.
Star Comes Out met BraveHeart before this exhibition as well. At a South Dakota Governor’s Award show for art, both Lakota men were selected as up-and-coming artists. A year or two later, he says, they formally met in person.
Keith BraveHeart, 35
Vermillion, South Dakota
Visual art graduate student of University of South Dakota
Motivator: To use the gifts he holds as an artist to create and make art.
Keith BraveHeart specializes in paintings and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of South Dakota. He is working on his master of fine arts degree.
His many experiences include attending the Oscar Howe Summer Art Institute, the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and an art residency at the Plains Art Museum. Before this exhibit, BraveHeart worked at the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota as a social marketing manager at the SGU Tiwahe Glu Kini Pi program, which included equine-assisted mental health therapy. The program worked with at-risk youth and adults on the reservation.
As the social marketing manager, it was BraveHeart’s responsibility to help spread the message of the program and increase recruitment. Although he didn’t have experience in film, he decided to make a short video to raise awareness of the program and its location. Jim Cortez, his co-director, helped him understand the process of film making as they went along.
Sunka Wakan – The Horse Nation Tour is Born
It was at Rosebud that the Horse Nation Tour was born. Although the project was meant to stay in Rosebud to document the improvement of the lives of children and their families because of the horse therapy, it quickly evolved into something much bigger. As BraveHeart and Cortez began interviewing people in Rosebud, elders and cultural keepers from other communities came to share their perspective on the importance of the horse to the Oceti Sakowin.
As the project grew, BraveHeart wanted to include more artists. For this reason, he reached out to the Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota because its heritage center includes works from many artists. Unfortunately, because of scheduling, the Red Cloud artwork did not make it to the final cut of the film. It was then that Mary Maxon, curator of the heritage center, suggested curating an exhibition about the Horse Nation.
The project became massive. Only a portion of it fits in the Plains Art Museum. As Youngbird guides a tour of the exhibit, visitors can see the many names of artists hanging on the walls: Nelda Schrupp, Dwayne Wilcox, Felix Walking, Roger Broer, Herman Red Elk, Oscar Howe, Michael Two Bulls, and more.
The organization of the exhibit is specific and deliberate. Each of the seven sacred directions is accounted for. The north wall is white; the west wall is partially painted black. The east wall is red, and the south wall is yellow. The partitions in the center of the room are painted gray. Near the bottom of one partition is a green band representing the direction “‘below” and near the top of another partition is a blue band representing “above.” And on the floor, in the center of the gallery, is a purple circle, representing “center.”
The gallery lights illuminate the paintings or sculptures that hang on the wall. Beaded clothing, horse regalia, and earrings accentuated with horsehair complement the sculptures and three-dimensional work placed among the paintings. The gallery is quiet and allows for reflection, contemplation, and recognition of the human and historical magnitude of what the art represents.
“Kinship is at the heart of philosophy and practice for the Ocethi Sakowin,” BraveHeart said. “The teachings that emphasize being a ‘relative’ to our surroundings (all forms of life, energy) demonstrate our identity.” To the Oyate, there is no word for animal. For them, the concept of animal denotes a meaning of second-class citizen. Rather, the Oyate refer to all beings as their own nation: The Horse Nation, the Plant Nation, Eagle Nation, the Buffalo Nation, and so on.
“This concept relates to other life forms; animals, plants, cosmos, and reminds the individual that there is harmony in existence and relations,” BraveHeart says. “The human is not at the center of life. Horses are only one nation we can experience and visually understand these teachings through.” BraveHeart’s documentary includes multiple perspectives on the importance of the horse. Among them are the spiritual reverence horses have and the bond they share with humans.
BraveHeart’s hour-long film, “We Are a Horse Nation” will screen at the Plains Art Museum on Thursday, April 19 from 6-8:30 p.m. A discussion will follow the screening. The event is the last before the tour travels to its next destination. “The Horse Nation of the Ocethi Sakowin” has been traveling across the homelands of the Oyate since 2016 and will complete its tour in 2019.
As Youngbird wraps up the tour, she turns and her black hair makes a sweep behind her shoulders. The significance of this exhibit is clear to her. “We have a history and it’s important to recognize Native American artists,” she said. Youngbird is hopeful that the work will help teach people in the Fargo-Moorhead area what happened to the Indigenous people of this land.
She hopes that members of the community will want to learn and find out even more about the indigenous people of the area after seeing the blankets, vests, paintings, and horse masks. There is beautiful quill and beadwork on pieces of dresses, high-heels, and even a beaded baby rattle. Bronze carvings, metal, marble and other sculptures hang on the walls, all dedicated to the horse.
Through Art, the Horses and People Share Their Stories
The Equine Center at NDSU turns quiet as guests watch Star Comes Out’s brother-in-law, Orlando Frazier, pick up a drum. Frazier pauses for a few moments before pounding on the drum. He sings a prayer song to honor the Horse Nation. His voice lilts and rises as he gives thanks to the relative who brought the Oyate companionship and kinship. As Frazier sings and the drum beats quicken, as if on cue, a horse in the corral behind the audience neighs in response. Members of the audience glance at each other with raised eyebrows and knowing looks.
It is an unfortunate truth that indigenous peoples of North America are often referred to in the past tense. Despite the fact many Native Americans died in the making of this country, the tribes are still here. Art is powerful in society and is a way of storytelling. With this art exhibit, the people of the Oceti Sakowin can tell an important story about their culture, history, and way of life. They can tell their story and say, “We exist” and share their existence with us. An existence that is as important to understand now as in its prosperous days before European settlers’ expansion.
(Melissa Gonzalez is a senior majoring in multimedia journalism at MSUM. She is a freelance writer for the university’s newspaper, The Advocate, as well as a reporter for MSUM’s Campus News program. She plans to join her family in California after graduation and find a career in journalism there. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(Leah Backstrom is a senior majoring in multimedia journalism at MSUM. She is the chapter vice president of the National Society of Leadership and Success as well as a producer for MSUM’s Campus News program. She aspires to work in the video production industry after she graduates. Contact her at email@example.com.)