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Lakota Sioux artist's work makes "the connection that we are all equal"

April 12, 2012

Lakota Sioux artist's work makes "the connection that we are all equal"
For Richard Red Owl, a 72-year-old self-taught Lakota Sioux artist, learning about his culture helped shape the professional art he creates today.

As a child growing up in Nebraska, Mr. Red Owl doodled spaceships and little cartoons. He attended all-white schools and said he was denied his Native culture. Even when his parents, who were migrant workers relocated to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, he eventually was forced to attend a non-Native school by the time he was in sixth grade.

"They wouldn't take outsiders that lived off the reservation. I had to attend white schools," he said. "When I became a professional artist, I had to learn a lot of stuff - traditions. When I started that, I was doing different paintings. There would be Indian people that would say, 'this is the way they did it' or 'this is what they wouldn't do.' What better criticism could I get but from my own people?"

About 25 years ago, while at a show in California with his cousin, Mr. Red Owl was inspired to make art his career. He sold every last one of his paintings, and he said patrons were truly fascinated with his work.

"It was all there and it just hit all of a sudden like that," he said. "Ever since then, I call myself a professional artist."



Mr. Red Owl currently lives on the reservation in Kyle, SD. One of his notable works hangs in the headquarters of Native American Natural Foods, also located in Kyle. The painting is featured at the top of this story. It depicts the Lakota historical story of White Buffalo Calf Woman. The painting was originally commissioned to him by Oglala Lakota College - to create a painting that would represent the societies of the Lakota people.

"I didn't know what to do, but I asked an elder that was what you may call a medicine man, but we call them spiritual leaders," he said. "He told me that, as far as we know, we are the Buffalo Society. We depended on the buffalo and everything was based on the buffalo ... wherever the buffalo went, we packed up and went where they went."

Mark Tilsen, president of Native American Natural Foods, said the painting reminds him of a time that the late John Around Him, an elder on the reservation, and Mr. Red Owl had lunch with the Tanka team.

"When we were talking about the Tanka Bar, both of these wise elders were very enthusiastic and gave us a lot of encouragement that we were doing the right thing -- for the people and the buffalo," he said. "When I look at the painting, and I see how much history is in every corner of this piece of art, it makes you think of the Winter Counts of the past that were used to record history."

In the story, White Buffalo Calf Woman gives a sacred pipe to a young warrior who believed in the Great Spirit and told him to pray with it to help his people. She later transforms into a buffalo that turns white, red, yellow and black -- all colors Mr. Red Owl used in the artwork. When he finished the painting, he said it felt empty so he squared the picture up in half and painted all four colors through each buffalo. He was pleased to discover the colors met right where the warrior is holding up the pipe.

"The four directions are within the picture. I painted the stars -- they represent the Star People that came down and created the Buffalo Nation," he said.

Recalling inflammatory depictions of Native people from the past, Mr. Red Owl said he believes that non-Natives can learn about the Sioux people through their art. He said although each Sioux artist has his or her own style, they still depict Lakota tradition.

"Through artwork, we can make the connection that we are all equal and we weren't really savages at the time. Through artwork, [people] can learn these things," he said. "If I was living in the city, I could never get the same feelings. I would be painting modern art. What more could you ask for, living on the Indian reservation where an artist lives? He can touch the earth and talk to the people. It's all here."





To contact Richard Red Owl, visit his website at lakotamall.com/redowl/

To learn more about the Buffalo Nation: The Buffalo are Prairie Makers

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