The Heritage Center on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Published in Indian Country Today in 2012. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

The Heritage Center of Red Cloud Indian School, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is already one of the country’s most important exhibitors of Native American art, despite its small size and remote location, and it’s poised to get bigger and more influential. As many as 12,000 visitors a year already visit its sleek, white-walled little gallery, shown here, to view historical and modern works by leading Native, primarily Lakota, artists.

The center’s biggest draw, attracting some 70 percent of viewers, is the annual summer Red Cloud Indian Art Show, now in its 44th year. Other exhibits draw on the permanent collection of some 10,000 pieces dating as far back as the early 1800s, while a 2010 special show, Making New Traditions, took thought-provoking modern works to the Dahl Center, in Rapid City, and other institutions in the region. One recent VIP visitor was Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who proclaimed the Heritage Center an institution where you see art that’s quintessentially tied to its locale—its “place.”

Peter Strong.
“Creative place-making” is a new buzzword in the arts, explained Peter Strong, the Heritage Center’s director. The term refers to arts that arise from a community, producing singular kinds of beauty that couldn’t be made anywhere else. On Pine Ridge, said Strong, art is defined by the connections between artist, culture and community, giving both traditional and modern works both incredible breadth of technique and materials and a sense of shared concerns.

The term also has economic meaning, as communities learn that art can drive prosperity. Some locales strive to attract artists and thereby tourists and other economic benefits; other communities, like Pine Ridge, already have plenty of artists and craftspeople, but need to help them better market their work. There’s currently no art infrastructure in the Northern Plains, as there is in cities like Santa Fe or New York, with their many galleries, museums and art enthusiasts, but Strong and curator Mary Bordeaux, Lakota, are determined to help create one. The Heritage Center currently contributes about $1 million to Pine Ridge’s economy, said Strong, and will soon be doing even better, thanks to a $110,000 grant from the NEA and its affiliate ArtPlace that will allow the center to improve its website and purchase more items for sale via the internet.

Some crafts can already be found on the center’s website (go to and click on “shop online”), but they’re a small portion of what’s available in the well-stocked bricks-and-mortar store. At the Heritage Center gift shop, brightly dyed porcupine-quill earrings share display space with gleaming German-silver bracelets and pendants, some inlaid with agate, the distinctive reddish local stone. Leather crafts include lavishly beaded leather moccasins with replaceable rawhide soles and hard-sided, decorated rawhide boxes and totes called parfleche. On one wall, colorfully painted wood carvings by Sam Two Bulls share space with decorated items by Joy Lynn Parton, who applies exuberant painted designs to a wide array of found objects—from running shoes to feathers. Because the gift shop is part of a nonprofit, its mark-up is small, and prices tend to be lower than those at similar stores, said manager Delmarina One Feather, Oglala Lakota. 

Delmarina One Feather, shown in the shop.
Expanding and improving the Heritage Center’s physical spaces—for exhibitions, storage and sales—will soon get underway with help from a $100,000 “Space for Change” planning grant from Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC) and the Ford Foundation. More space is a critical need for the center, which is packed with exquisite artworks. “Mary Bordeaux could do a new show every week without repeating herself,” said director Peter Strong, as he showed one storeroom after another filled with precious items, some dating back to the 1800s.

Serried ranks of framed works on paper, a room of rolled-up quilts and shelves of sculptures, pottery, moccasins, headdresses, weapons and other three-dimensional items were waiting for their turn before the public, either in the Heritage Center or on loan to other museums, such as the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves transformed a narrow hallway into a research library. In bestowing the LINC grant, the funders called the collection “unmatched in breadth, stature and quality.”

The LINC funders also dubbed this moment in the center’s history “a societal milestone” and an opportunity “to continue to strengthen its relationship with the Pine Ridge Reservation, actively engaging the local Lakota community.” The center wants to respond to the community’s needs with not just exhibitions, but art classes and school curricula, exhibitions in outlying districts and more, said Strong, adding that when the center reaches out, the community gives back. “Often, someone is able to tell us about a piece whose makers we hadn’t been able to identify—they may recognize a family’s traditional beadwork pattern, for example.”

During a drive around the reservation, community backing for artists and artisans was clear. In Kyle, Oglala Lakota College has a well-respected art department, and Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce recently put on a children’s art show and powwow. Most shops, lodgings and other businesses displayed art for sale: from satin star quilts, Sioux pottery and beaded jewelry in the Lakota Prairie Ranch Resort’s gift shop to war clubs hanging on the wall behind the counter of the Pine Ridge Building Products, in Pine Ridge village. “We always want to help our artists,” said the building-supply company’s owner, Eddie Abold, Lakota.

Art is a cultural force on Pine Ridge, woven into every aspect of life, said Strong. “Art and the Lakota language helped the people survive while the U.S. government was attempting to tear apart their culture. It’s good to be a part of helping this community recover from a horrible century.”

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs c. Joseph Zummo.

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