Pictured: Oscar Howe (Yanktonai Dakota) is a modernist painter who shared his Sioux culture worldwide (1973). Credit: Digital Library of South Dakota (photographer not named).
Where identity is baked into aesthetics
One of the most respected American painters of the last century–Oscar Howe–was born in 1915; the same year Babe Ruth hit the first in his string of 42 home runs for the Boston Red Sox.
And in 1915, Hollywood saw its first blockbuster film that would rank number one for nearly 25 years, until the epic Gone with the Wind premiered in Atlanta.
Like David O. Selznick’s cinematic opus based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Birth of a Nation famously championed Southern gentility and virility while denigrating enslaved Blacks as stupid and animal-like.
While some Americans were consumed by baseball and movies, the year 1915 also simulated an erasure of the first Americans.
James Earle Fraser debuted his 18-foot-tall sculpture of “The End of the Trail,” which premiered at the Pan-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco in 1915, and depicts a Native American slumped over his horse.
Both man and horse keel downward, dejected…collapsed.
The sculpture came to symbolize the death of Native ways of life in North America.
Thousands of prints and photographs of the statue were sold “following the Exhibition,” noted Shannon Vittoria in an article on the statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern of Art (the MET).
Pictured: James Earle Fraser in his studio with “End of the Trail” Sculptures (1910). Photographer not identified. Syracuse University Libraries, New York.
In 1918 Fraser began producing bronze reductions of the sculpture in two sizes. Today, an online image search for “End of the Trail” returns tens of thousands of results, as the work has been endlessly reproduced in paintings and in prints, on posters, T-shirts, pins, bags, belt buckles, and bookends.
It was even featured on the cover of The Beach Boys’ 1971 album, Surf’s Up.
Despite its appeal as a popular American icon, Fraser intended the work as a pointed commentary on the damaging effects of Euro-American settlement on American Indian nations confined on government reservations. Seated upon a windblown horse, Fraser’s figure slumps over despondently, embodying the physical exhaustion and suffering of a people forcefully driven to the end of the trail (Vittoria, 2014).
In contrast, Oscar Howe (Yanktonai Dakota) spent his adult life examining the resilience of Indigenous. peoples and the Dakota culture through his powerful paintings.
What Dakota Culture Wrought
One example, which can be seen now through 14 May 2023 at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, is a painting titled, “Fleeing a Massacre” (1969), which depicts a woman in her buckskin dress, galloping on a bloody horse, set against a black sky, encircled by symbols and shapes.
Pictured: “Fleeing a Massacre” by Oscar Howe, 1969. Photo credit: BankWest, Pierre, South Dakota.
Many writers speculate the woman is Howe’s grandmother, Shell Face, who told Howe stories about their culture–a culture “so beautiful and so precise” and “full of truth.”
Shell Face cared for Howe after he was sent home from boarding school for Indians in Pierre, South Dakota, where he was placed when he was seven years old.
The language spoken at the strange school was foreign to Howe, as were the customs and practices of the teachers.
Howe became ill and depressed, and, when staff learned his mother, Ella Fearless Bear, had died, he was allowed to return home.
Shell Face healed him and shared countless lessons and stories of Dakota history and knowing-ways before Howe returned to school about a year later.
Howe said painting gave him a visual account of Dakota culture:
The formal Indian verbal poetic form is given a visual form. The intellectual impart a truth in culture while the emotive effect esthetic experiences.
The [Dakota] Indians tell of their culture and activities, being actually there and experiencing and enjoying their lives in nature. They described in detail a beautiful culture–so beautiful and so precise with so clear a picture with words and songs.
I have never read a book on Indians that equaled what I heard from these Dakota Indians. I heard the truth from them and responded by painting them in like manner of their words. So you see what my painting is–a visual response in the Dakota language to known facts: the Dakota Indian, his culture, activities, Indian art and processes.
The exhibit in Portland follows the arc of Howe’s artistic style, beginning with paintings from college days in the 1930s at the Santa Fe Indian School’s Studio.
In one of the last articles he wrote for the New Yorker before he died, Peter Schjeldahl called Howe a “leading light in what was dubbed Studio Style, which originated at the school.”
Howe learned the “Santa Fe Style,” and “paint[ed] scenes of Indian life in a flat, decorative way…the type of art being taught to Native American artists at that time,” according to a story from South Dakota Public Radio.
Howe would “reject this way of painting” in favor of a more fluid approach.
Pictured: Woman and Wolves, by Oscar Howe, 1946 (gouache on paper). Image downloaded from South Dakota Public Radio.
In fact, the Dakota Modern Exhibit lets viewers explore Howe’s paintings in their respective periods.
After discovering his Santa Fe Studio artwork, visitors witness shifts in Howe’s creations, which Schjeldahl says reflects “surrealism and abstract expressionism.”
Yet Howe refused labels.
When critics defined one of his periods as “cubist,” Howe rejected the notion and explained that geometric designs have long been part of Sioux expression, and that, foremost, his inspiration arises from the melding of existence and essentialism intrinsic to Dakota life.
Schjeldahl aptly described ecclectic, yet consistent, corpus:
A palette of russet, yellow, and black has precedents in the Lakota and Dakota crafts of hide painting and beadwork. But racial identity wasn’t so much asserted as baked into Howe’s pragmatic appropriate, and advancement, of sophisticated aesthetics.
7 November 2022
My mission is to honor my Osage (Wah-zha-zhe) and Kiyuska (Sioux) heritage, as well as honoring the Indigenous peoples on whose territories in the Pacific Northwest I now live, as a guest.