Saturday, September 24, 2022

National Museum of the American Indian, exhibits “Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe,”

Just as Native American cultures have evolved and changed over centuries, so also have their artistic expressions, reflecting Indigenous diversity and innovation. 

At the National Museum of the American Indian, we strive to reflect this reality through traveling exhibitions such as “Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe,” recently on view at our museum in New York City and scheduled to open at the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon, on October 29. 

Featuring the paintings of Yanktonai Dakota artist Oscar Howe—including “Fighting Bucks,” our September Object of the Month—this retrospective exhibition explores Howe’s commitment to blending cultural tradition with artistic innovation, illuminating his legacy as one of the most influential contemporary Native American painters and an inspiration for generations of Native artists. 

Along with the exhibition, there is a companion catalog that contains photos of nearly 150 of Howe’s works alongside 50 personal photographs of the artist at work and with family, tracing the development of his work from his early career in the 1930s to the emergence of his modernist style in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Oscar Howe was born in 1915 on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation in central South Dakota. As a child, he spent time in the care of his grandmother Shell Face, whose teachings about Dakota culture and beliefs served as a source of inspiration for not only his artistic process—which was rooted in Očhéthi Šakówiŋ language, aesthetics, and philosophy—but also his commitment to researching his cultural background. 

Howe attended high school in the 1930s at the Santa Fe Indian School, where non-Native instructors taught students the techniques of “traditional” Native American painting. 

Later, throughout college and graduate school, Howe gained exposure to mainstream Western artistic methods and began developing his own unique style, which involved experimenting with geometric abstraction and incorporating Dakota cultural, historical, and spiritual themes. Howe rooted his compositional technique in these themes and called it “tahokmu,” related to the Dakota term “tȟahóȟmuŋ,” which refers to a protective spiderweb. 

This technique can be seen in Howe’s 1958 painting, “Umine Wacipi,” or “War and Peace Dance,” an energetic scene in which the figures’ movement is mimicked by the lightning-like quality of the rock formations and trees that surround them as they chant, dance, and reach upward. 

Howe submitted the piece to the then-Philbrook Art Center for its “Indian Annual” painting competition and exhibition. The judges rejected his work, deeming it “not Indian.” Howe responded with a letter, that read, in part: 

Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting that is the most common way? Are we to be herded like a bunch of sheep, with no right for individualism, dictated to as the Indian has always been, put on reservations and treated like a child and only the White Man knows what is best for him... but one could easily turn to become a social protest painter. I only hope the Art World will not be one more contributor to holding us in chains. 

In taking a public stand against the mainstream art world, which was heavily mediated by white institution heads and critics, Howe paved a new way for Indigenous artists of his time and beyond. But Howe’s place in the art world wasn’t always so charged. 

Oscar Howe
Oscar Howe papers, Richardson Collection, Archives and Special Collections, University Libraries, University of South Dakota

For much of his career, Howe was an educator, teaching at Dakota Wesleyan University as he earned his bachelor’s degree, then at a public high school in Pierre, South Dakota, in the 1950s. In 1957, he joined the faculty at the University of South Dakota (USD) in Vermillion, where he taught until 1980. 

As a professor at USD, Howe continued painting, creating works like “Wounded Knee Massacre.” Using stark, yet naturalistic, colors to distinguish the figures from one another and the landscape, Howe depicts the brutality the Lakota endured at the hands of the U.S. Army at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota on December 29, 1890. In total, 300 Lakota men, women, and children were killed. 

“[It] was not meant to be a shocker but merely a recorded true event,” Howe said of the piece. 

Ultimately, Howe’s intention—to challenge the notion that there ever has been a standard definition when it comes to Native art and expression—is made clear through his life, words, and work. 

You can see images of Howe’s work and read more about “Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe” in the spring 2022 issue of American Indian magazine. 

David Saunders Signature
David Saunders
Director of Membership 

P.S. The museum is dedicated to working with Native peoples and their allies to foster a more informed understanding of Native and Indigenous history and cultures. We are grateful for your generosity and financial support, which allows us to elevate and honor Indigenous peoples' contributions to our nation’s history, present, and future through education, inspiration, and empowerment.


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