Ordinary People, Extraordinary Art!


Iconic Images of
Lakota culture     (eagle photo by Tom Michalski)



"What treaty have the Sioux made with the white man that we have broken? Not one. What treaty have the white man ever made with us that they have kept? Not one. When I was a boy, the Sioux owned the world; the sun rose and set on their land; they sent ten thousand men to battle. Where are the warriors today? Who slew them? Where are our lands? Who owns them?  What law have I broken? Is it wrong for me to love my own? Is it wicked for me because my skin is red? Because I am a Sioux; because I was born where my father lived; because I would die for my people and my country?"
-- Chief Sitting Bull


"All men were made
brothers. The earth
is the mother of all
people, and all
people should have
equal rights upon it."

-- Chief Joseph





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Culture ...

(Northern Plains emphasis)

A short commentary on Indigenous culture, as represented through art ...

To appreciate, and not just collect our art, you may want to learn why and how it was created.  The artists aren't just painting pictures, carving sculptures, or creating quilts and beadwork.  They are depicting who they are, their artistic expressions formed by personal experiences, familial teachings, and tribal traditions.

A traditional symbol in the Plains Indigenous culture is the revered medicine wheel. The wheel represents the unending circle of life, with no beginning and no end. Its quarter segments represent the components of our existence that, through combination, form our beliefs, our values, our identity. It represents the four directions; the four races; the four virtues; the four characteristics that define us as individuals; and, the four elements. Four directions have meaning far beyond compass points of W-N-E-S.  Four races indicates the Indigenous people value diversity. The four virtues are Courage, Wisdom, Generosity, and Fortitude -- key virtues in any society. The four characteristics are Body, Mind, Spirit, and Soul (Compassion).  The four elements are Fire, Air, Water, and Earth.

The following few paragraphs represent my personal opinions, stimulated by a cigarette advertisement inserted in a popular magazine I subscribe to.  A portion of the ad is shown at left.  Including it on this Culture page is appropriate because the image trades on the positive image many European, African, and Asian Americans have of Indigenous people of America, in general, and the Lakota / Dakota culture in particular.  However, the converse isn't necessarily true, at least with respect to the invasion of European Americans, whose soldiers "conquered" Indigenous American warriors only after hundreds of battles spanning more than 50 years.

In selecting four iconic images (top left)  to symbolize Northern Plains Indigenous culture, we purposefully omitted an image of the canupa (referred to by some as the chanupa or calumet), but known as the "peace pipe" to most of us.  Most pipes are comprised of pipestone, mined from quarries 50 miles from here in Pipestone, Minnesota, and fitted with cottonwood pipe stems.  The pipestone pipe is sacred in the Lakota and Dakota traditions, so it is not respectful to include it here as an icon.  Yet, the advertisement above seeks to exploit our limited and stereotyped awareness of the traditions of Indigenous cultures by trading on the iconic power of the pipe, headdress, feather, and color red, as associated with America's Indigenous people.  The "American Spirit" is one we "nuevo Americans" should be ashamed, not proud, of. 

The Indigenous cultures nearly were destroyed, 150 years ago, with the emigration of European settlers, because their introduction of deadly viruses created a pandemic among the millions of Indigenous people who lived sea-to-sea across North America.  Their land was illegally taken, East to West, slowly but inexorably.  Their source of food, the buffalo, was nearly wiped out when the buffalo were slaughtered, initially to provide food for railroad workers and soldiers, fur for coats and hats, but then, unfortunately, simply for sport.  Vast herds of as many as 60 million buffalo were killed off to the point of extinction.  The Indigenous peoples' own symbol of strength and grace, the American eagle, was nearly exterminated.  The Indigenous people's way of life, which included moving their tipis to keep their camps "sweet" and to accommodate the changing seasons and food supply, was forever changed as they were duped into signing bogus "treaties", and then herded by Government soldiers onto reservations, which in some ways were simply large outdoor prisons. 

The pipe may be iconic for us, but it is revered by the Lakota and Dakota people.  For those of you who have visited our gallery, you know we do have a few pipes for sale.  We display and treat them respectfully, with the pipestone bowl separated from the stem.  Still, from time to time we have an Indigenous person express strong disagreement with our having the canupa for sale.  Their point of view is legitimate.  But -- and this may simply be our rationalization -- the pipe has great artistic, historical, cultural, and spiritual significance.  In the gallery, we treat the pipes as a work of art, as well as a traditional ceremonial object.

For those of you who haven't seen a canupa as a work of art, a photo is included below.