Tag Archives: Native American

Dakota Discovery Museum—Part 1

On the attractive, tree-shaded campus of Dakota Wesleyan University, I located my next destination: the Dakota Discovery Museum. Alas, photography is not allowed inside, so I can’t share the wonderful things I saw within the museum. Fortunately, however, they also collect historic buildings, and those I could photograph—and which you’ll see in the next post.

Inside, my first surprise was a Native American pictograph, painted on buffalo hide, of a battle between Sioux and Crow, painted by the Lakota at Pine Ridge in 1891. The reason it was a surprise is that I’ve seen it in history books, and I really didn’t expect to find it here. (So a pleasant surprise.)

The museum focuses as much on Native American culture as it does on European history in the region. The quillwork was glorious, and it was interesting to see it morph into beadwork, as glass beads became available with the introduction of the fur trade. Walking around the museum, the displays continued to reveal the changing frontier, from Native American to fur trade, pioneer to farmer, growing towns, and into the 20th century. There were a few big items, such as a threshing machine and an old sheep wagon fitted out as a horse-drawn mobile home. However, most exhibits focused on the intimate details of daily life. Wonderful.

Rod Brown, the newly appointed director of the museum, seeing that I appeared to be more than casually glancing at exhibits, introduced himself and began to offer interesting details on the history of South Dakota. On a large map, he pointed out the Missouri River, which I normally associate with Lewis and Clark, but Rod related that this constituted the South Dakota’s “middle border.” People to the east of the river moved here from the East, and those west of the river moved from the West. There are definite cultural differences between the two regions, which are identified by locals as East River and West River. West River tends to be more Wild West. That’s where you have Deadwood, the Badlands, and the Black Hills. There is more tribal influence in West River, and more ranching. East River is more farming, and the landscape is less dramatic. A further designation is Middle Border Country, the land immediately adjacent to the river, on either side. The proximity to the water made this area easier to settle—even before Europeans arrived (hence the Prehistoric Indian Village on the other side of town). It’s a great place for farming, and following the river leads through a lot of handsome farms.

Mitchell is solidly in Middle Border Country, as are most of the Hutterite Colonies founded here. The largest ethnic groups to settle Middle Border Country were Germans and Norwegians, though there were also settlers from Bohemia, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Great Britain, Hungary, Luxembourg, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland. So a remarkably diverse area.

Then time to head upstairs.

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Oscar Howe

Oscar Howe in front of the Mitchell Corn Palace

Oscar Howe in front of the Mitchell Corn Palace

While Oscar Howe is closely associated with the Corn Palace, his career extended far beyond it, and I saw things he’d done in several other locations I visited in Mitchell.

Howe’s story is one of success despite an inauspicious beginning. Fortunately, South Dakota has long been a state that valued and recognized artistic skill, which led to Howe’s not only being able to pursue art, it also resulted in his eventually being named Artist Laureate of the state.

Howe, a Yanktonai Sioux, was born in 1915 on the Crow Creek Reservation of South Dakota. Poverty haunted his childhood, but his youth was also enriched by the stories of the history and legends of his people shared with him by his grandmother. His love of art emerged early on, and he would draw with whatever medium he could find, from drawing with twigs in the dust to using charcoal from the wood-burning stove. His talent was recognized and he was enrolled in the famous art program of the Santa Fe Indian School. Here, we was not only instructed in art but was also encouraged to take pride in his cultural heritage.

Upon returning to South Dakota, Howe taught for a while in the state capital before being selected to paint murals under the Works Progress Administration’s South Dakota Artist Project. He then served in North Africa and Europe during World War II. After the war, among the art projects he took on was designing the murals for the Mitchell Corn Palace—a relationship that would last from 1949 until 1971.

During this period, Howe also earned both a B.A. (at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, where he also taught as Artist in Residence) and M.F. A. (at the University of Oklahoma). The Howe Gallery not being open yet at the Corn Palace, the majority of his work that I saw, other than in photographs, as at the Dakota Discovery Museum (about which more in a later post), which is located on the grounds of Dakota Wesleyan.

A collection of Howe’s work can also be seen at the University of South Dakota, where he was a member of the art faculty and artist-in-residence from 1957 to 1961.

Howe received numerous honors, local, national, and international, and in 1954, he was named Artist Laureate of South Dakota. Other important awards include the Waite Phillips trophy for outstanding contributions to American Indian art from the Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1966; the South Dakota Governor’s Award for Creative Achievement in 1973; and the Golden Bear Award from the University of Oklahoma, Norman, in 1970.

Howe’s work became widely recognized, both for its style and for its interpretation of themes from Howe’s heritage. He is also widely credited with leading the way for other Native American artists to break away from stereotypes of “Indian Art.” I found his work to be accessible and evocative. I also loved the fact that he recognized the remarkable opportunity afforded by association with the Corn Palace—which continues the tradition of highlighting the work of local artists.

After a remarkable, influential life, Howe succumbed to Parkinson’s disease in October 1983.

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Iowa State Historical Museum, Part 1

Not far from the capitol was the impressive State Historical Museum. Learning more of the agricultural history of the region was my main objective, but I’ve always been interested in Native American history and culture, so I spent a fair bit of time in these exhibits, as well as in those of the region’s natural history.

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Here are a few insights I gleaned from the Native American section of the museum.

I’d seen the Grass Dance at many powwows, but learned here that it originated with the Omaha and was passed along to the Sioux—so essentially a Midwestern dance—which makes sense, given that the Midwest was largely grassland.

An excerpt from The Autobiography of a Fox (Mesquakie) Indian Woman, by Truman Michelson, explained that Indian girls had dolls so that they could practice on a small scale the clothes making and beading skills they would need when they were older.

Francis LaFlesche, an Omaha, was the first Native American ethnologist. He worked for the Smithsonian Institution in the 1800s and wrote dozens of books, many of which can still be purchased. A quote from him related that, “The White people speak of this country at this period as a ‘wilderness,’ as though it was an empty tract without human interest or history. To us Indians it was clearly defined than as it is today; we knew the boundaries of our friends and those of our foes.”

I’ll include more in a second post—but these will just be highlights. There is a lot more to see and learn. For more information, including hours, you can visit the museum’s website: http://www.iowahistory.org/museum/index.html

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