By Mary Maxon, Director of the Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School
Native American art cannot be defined by one aesthetic, medium, or tradition alone. It is constantly changing, reflecting the diverse cultures and experiences of Native artists themselves.
Over the last five decades, the Red Cloud Indian Art Show has celebrated the continuum of Native art—and honored the artists who create it.
Held on the Pine Ridge Reservation in western South Dakota, the Red Cloud Indian Art Show is the largest and longest-running Native art exhibition of its kind—and one of only a few held in an indigenous community. Hundreds of artists from tribal nations across North America have shared their work through the Red Cloud show, in categories ranging from painting and photography, to beadwork and quillwork.
The Art Show began with Rev. Theodore “Ted” Zuern, S.J. (1921–2007), who became president of Red Cloud (a Catholic elementary and high school administered in partnership between Jesuits and the Lakota people) in 1968. As an educator, Fr. Ted had long recognized the need to further integrate Lakota culture, language, and art into campus life—an instinct which led him to collaborate with Robert “Bob” Savage to organize the inaugural Art Show. That first show was modest and informal—but it accomplished something groundbreaking. By allowing “any American Indian 14 years or older” to enter, it encouraged young artists just beginning their careers to share their artistic vision, alongside more seasoned and professional artists. This approach continues today, building community and sharing amongst the artists, no matter where they may be in their careers.
To further the goal of supporting artists and keeping Native art in Indian Country, rather than in museums far away from the reservation, Red Cloud Indian School staff purchased three award-winning pieces from the first annual Red Cloud Indian Art Show. Red Cloud’s campus bookkeeper, the incomparable Br. C.M. Simon, S.J., took on the task of managing future Art Shows, a role he would hold for decades to come. He continued to support and celebrate newer Native artists by purchasing works from the Art Show and other sources.
In 1982, The Heritage Center was formed to protect and grow that collection. What began with those three early pieces now includes an estimated 10,000 pieces of Lakota and other Native arts, from priceless historical artifacts to cutting-edge modern works.
Through the years, Br. Simon not only built a significant collection of Native American art objects that would eventually become the permanent collection of The Heritage Center, he learned more and more about how the world is seen through Lakota eyes. He became a scholar in the field of Native Arts, and began a tradition of creating formal exhibitions to share throughout the region and country. He also ran the center’s gift shop, which has since become a strong program in capacity-building and providing access to market for many members of the Pine Ridge communities. From 1982 until his death in 2006, Br. Simon devoted all his considerable talent and energy to building up both the Heritage Center and the Red Cloud Indian Art Show.
The Red Cloud Indian Art Show’s long-standing mission serves to create opportunities for all Native artists to show their work and share their voices. By bringing new visitors to Pine Ridge, creating traveling exhibitions for galleries and museums, and developing cutting-edge arts education programs, it encourages new audiences to experience the power of Lakota and other Native arts. And with each passing decade, the show continues to celebrate each new generation of Native artists by giving them a platform to share their work with the world.
But what sets the show apart is its inclusion of all Native artists. Its purpose is to create opportunities for them to explore their talents and share their perspectives, regardless of their previous exposure to the art world. Grounded in community and culture, the Red Cloud Indian Art Show allows the artists themselves to guide the narrative on Native art and indigenous experience.
The current rules to enter the show simply state that the artists must be at least 18 years old and enrolled in a federally recognized tribe (per federal law); in addition, all of the work must be for sale. After all of the artwork is received at Red Cloud each year, the works are juried by Native Arts professionals and practitioners in several different categories, who also determine monetary awards for participating artists. Proceeds from the Art Show sales are used to support individual artists, as well as the programs of The Heritage Center.
The Heritage Center is typically open seven days a week from Memorial Day through Labor Day, so that visitors in the area may enjoy the amazing talent and creativity of Native artists from across the country. Unfortunately, with Covid-19 continuing to sweep the nation, we are unable to host visitors to our gallery at this time. However, we will still support the art and artists whom we serve through the Art Show through online gallery tours, presentations, interviews, awards, and opportunities for the public to purchase their work. And all works entered in the 53rd Annual Red Cloud Indian Art Show will be available to purchase through our online store at RedCloudSchool.shop. Activities will be presented and made acessible through social media and our website, redcloudart.show.