Letting Artists Know They Are Not Alone

By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015

“I am not alone as an artist.” This was a key takeaway for Denise McKay (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe) at the First Peoples Fund Indigenous Arts Ecology convening this past February. An artist and culture bearer from Fort Yates, North Dakota, Denise makes traditional art and regalia for her family and the community. She has taught more than 20 traditional art classes at Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Denise attended the convening as a community artist with Sitting Bull College, a 2019 Indigenous Arts Ecology grantee.

Jennifer Martel (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe) speaks at the Rural Generation Summit.

Jennifer Martel (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe) speaks at the Rural Generation Summit.

Jennifer Martel (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe) is the Sitting Bull Visitor Center Coordinator and was able to observe Denise’s interaction with fellow Native artists at the convening. Jennifer is passionate about bringing traditional arts and culture back at the community level.

“Just being with the artists at the convening, and getting ideas, engaging, and seeing a connection with them really opened my eyes,” Jennifer says. “It made me ask myself questions, like how do I continue to help the artists? How do I encourage them, how do I make resources available for them? Understanding their needs and wants to be an artist was critical.”

Denis McKay (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe) and another participant sew together.

Denis McKay (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe) and another participant sew together.

Jennifer took the experience home to contemplate along with ideas and proposals that Sitting Bull College had initially put forth in their Indigenous Arts Ecology (IAE) grant. Guided by Lakota/Dakota culture, values, and language, Sitting Bull College is committed to building intellectual capital through academic, career and technical education, and promoting economic and social development. The college is located on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation which spans 2.3 million acres across southern North Dakota and northern South Dakota.

They offer cultural classes and workshops in making star quilts, shawls, horse masks, ledger art, parfleche, painting, pottery, regalia, skirts, ribbon shirts, baby moccasins, beading, and quilling. The college believes artists give life to a creative community by thinking outside the box and teaching traditions important to Lakota/Dakota lifeways.

Traditional foods class at Sitting Bull College.

Traditional foods class at Sitting Bull College.

Through work in the community, Sitting Bull College meets and offers resources to artists. In classes for traditional arts, students come to understand how the traditional community works with the value system of helping one another. Students gain an appreciation not only for art and culture, but community. Art and culture provide students with a sense of now, and motivates them to envision where they want to be. In turn, they become skilled in traditional art or craft and use those to teach others in the community. This has generated a revitalization of traditional Lakota/Dakota art in the surrounding communities who have started art classes.

The college’s focus with the Indigenous Arts Ecology (IAE) grant was on developing an arts organization. Now, Jennifer is taking conversations she’s had with artists like Denise, and reconsidering the urgent need to facilitate them traveling to markets outside their community and generating revenue. While the Sitting Bull Visitor Center and Sitting Bull College Bookstore are steady markets for many of their artists, Denise made an observation in Phoenix during the IAE convening: While people may not buy her art within her own community, off the reservation her work could sell.

The college recently hosted an FPF Native Artist Professional Development Training (NAPD) and community meeting to hear from local artists about their needs. Jennifer attended her first NAPD training in Oklahoma four years ago as part of her work with Sitting Bull College. She realized the potential it had to impact artists within the community of Standing Rock.

“There was good communication that was brought forth by the artists, who were engaged at the training,” she says. “They talked about things they would like to see as well as things that they are dealing with, offering ideas and making connections.”

A recent Artist Community Gathering held by Sitting Bull College.

A recent Artist Community Gathering held by Sitting Bull College.

After accepting an invitation to apply for and receiving an FPF IAE grant, Jennifer is evaluating the information gathered from artists and the recent community meeting. She is determining best ways to move forward that will help the artists the college serves.

“I am not an artist myself,” she says, “but we have those ideas on how to help artists in doing shows locally. But I’m realizing more and more through talking to artists that they don’t have the traffic. How do we get that traffic? That’s what we’re figuring out.”

Holly Young (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe), a local artist and instructor at Sitting Bull College.

Holly Young (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe), a local artist and instructor at Sitting Bull College.

For all the needs of artists, the IAE convening showed Jennifer one of the greatest is simply knowing they are not alone. They need to know that there are people who believe in them and are ready to offer support, resources, and markets for their work.

“They have creative minds, creative hands, creative thoughts,” she says. “How do I help get our people to be self-sufficient, self-taught, how to be engaged with the creative side of themselves?”

Jennifer is committed to finding the answers as she explores new markets and resources for the artists — all while letting them know they are not alone.