Skip to main content

Lakota artist Roger Broer creates his art from the fingers and heart

  • Author:
  • Updated:

His hands are mismatched. The right is perfectly normal while the left is rough looking with its nails dead from years of turpentine use and its fingertips sanded.

Yet, it is the left one Roger Broer, Oglala Lakota who lives in Kent, Wash., uses rather then the standard paint brushes to create some of today's most compelling Indian art called monotypes.

"A monotype is executed on a nonabsorbent surface like Plexiglas. I use wads of toilet tissue, cardboard, anything that I push with my fingers to move the paint where I want it to be. I work backwards, a "heyoka way," because if I want a subject moving to the left I paint going to the right. So before I paint, I sand my fingertips so they won't leave impressions on the surface," Broer explained.

It is a technique that needs to be done quickly, usually in less then half an hour, which why he calls it art from the fingers and heart. His passion is evident in his work.

An ethereal style, which has also been categorized as mixed media, it has an occasional spiritual thought written alongside the painting or an object attached to the surface.

Broer said he knew as a small child he was meant to create. He was taken from his Native mother by the state of Nebraska shortly after his birth, for unknown reasons. In the '50s, it was common to remove Indian babies from their mothers to be adopted by white families.

Now Broer regards that practice as "a sophisticated form of genocide, to take Native babies and meld them into the dominant society. "Then eventually there's noneed for reservations and enrollments."

A white family adopted him, but discouraged his artistic bent. They believed art was an unmanly endeavor, forcing him to become a "closet artist." Nor would his foster family admit he was adopted or an American Indian. Yet, when it came to their family cultural traditions, such as singing German songs, he was not allowed to participate because he was not German.

Broer said he grew resentful of the contradictory behavior. At 18, he left home to join the Air Force. He became increasingly curious about his background, but said it was still a repressive time when people were helpless to track down their biological parents.

He returned to the orphanage for answers and was able to read his confidential and purposely unattended file when the administrator left the room.

He said he immediately went to Pine Ridge where he was reunited with his cousins and grandmother. "Grandma looked at me and smiled. Then she said 'I knew you would show up one day.'

"It was the first time in life I felt like I was part of a family. With my adoptive family, I was a member, but not a part of it. But that's how Indian people are. They accept you absolutely unconditionally, under any circumstances. We don't throw you away."

After his Air Force stint, he returned to the reservation where he worked and learned traditional ways.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Still Broer said, he wanted to pursue his artistic needs. He decided to take advantage of the GI bill and attend college. The admissions office discouraged him from enrolling because his entrance exam showed he had a 50 percent chance of maintaining a C average. But they underestimated his determination.

Broer graduated with a 3.76 GPA and was recently honored as an outstanding alumnus.

That drive and what he openly terms "craziness" is what has brought him success and admiration from all those who know and work with him.

His close friend, Ben Sherman, Oglala Lakota and chairman of the Western American Indian Chamber, said Broer's uniqueness is the reason they met.

"Roger was applying for an art market that I was working with. There were about 150 applications. All the rest sent in the standard form, but Roger. He sent in his application with a dog image along with the message, "let me into your art show or I'll eat your dog."

Since that fateful encounter, Broer and Sherman have worked together through various nonprofit organizations to help Indian people. They are presently involved in the Buffalo Gap Land Rescue that attempts to retrieve lost tribal lands to restore them environmentally. They have been raising funds for buffalo herds in the Black Hills.

"He gives generously supporting Indian causes," Sherman said.

Anne Anderson, Mitchell, S.D., schoolteacher agrees with Sherman's assessment of Broer's generosity.

"Roger donated his time to conduct an art seminar for my class where he held the students enthralled by the magic of his personality and art."

For others such as Andrea Nussbaum of Mitchell, Oscar Howe Museum curator, Broer is a "huge inspiration. He is such an interesting man. His art is very emotional especially the pieces done for his son. It really moved me."

Those are the feelings Broer said he aims for. Even though famous people such as Pierre Cardin own his work, he isn't concerned who buys them. "I don't care if the people are famous. I prefer that my work leaves them weak in the knees."

Broer has won almost every Indian art award and is an annual favorite at the Northern Plains Tribal Art Show. His Elk Dreamer III won the 1992 NPTA show and became the 1993 logo. He also won Best of Show for 2000.

For Broer, art is not a way to make a living, but as he says, with vigor, "If I couldn't paint, I'd die. I live to make art."