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Pine Ridge's Heritage Center Ready to Go Global

The Heritage Center of Red Cloud Indian School, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, is already one of the country’s most important exhibitors of Native American art, despite its small size and remote location—and it’s poised to get bigger and more influential.

As many as 12,000 visitors already visit its sleek, white-walled little gallery yearly to view historical and modern works by leading Native—primarily Lakota—artists. The center’s biggest draw—attracting some 80 percent of viewers—is the annual summer Red Cloud Indian Art Show, now in its 44th year, which will run through August 11. Other exhibits draw on the permanent collection of some 10,000 pieces dating as far back as the early 1800s, while a 2011 special show, Making New Traditions, took thought-provoking modern works to the Dahl Center in Rapid City, South Dakota and other institutions in the region. One recent VIP visitor was Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), who praised the Heritage Center as an institution where you see art that’s quintessentially tied to its locale—its “place.”

“Creative place-making” is a new catchphrase in the arts, explains Peter Strong, the Heritage Center’s director. The term refers to arts that arise from a community, producing singular kinds of beauty that couldn’t be made anywhere else. On Pine Ridge, says Strong, art is defined by the connections between artist, culture and community, so both traditional and modern works display an incredible breadth of technique and materials and a sense of shared concerns.

The term also has economic meaning, as communities learn that art can drive prosperity. Some locales strive to attract artists and thereby tourists and other economic benefits; other communities, like Pine Ridge, already have plenty of artists and craftspeople, but need to help them better market their work. There’s currently no art infrastructure in the Northern Plains, as there is in cities like Santa Fe, New Mexico or New York, with their many galleries, museums and art enthusiasts, but Strong and curator Mary Bordeaux, Lakota, are determined to help create one. The Heritage Center currently contributes about $1 million to Pine Ridge’s economy, says Strong, and will soon be doing even better, thanks to a $110,000 grant from the NEA and its affiliate ArtPlace that will allow the center to improve its website and offer more items for sale via the Internet.

Some crafts can already be found on the center’s website by clicking "shop online," but they’re a small portion of what’s available in the well-stocked brick-and-mortar store. At the Heritage Center gift shop, brightly dyed porcupine-quill earrings share display space with gleaming German silver bracelets and pendants, some inlaid with distinctive local reddish agate. Leather crafts include lavishly beaded leather moccasins with replaceable rawhide soles and hard-sided, decorated rawhide boxes and totes called parfleche. On one wall, colorfully painted woodcarvings by Sam Two Bulls share space with decorated items by Joy Lynn Parton, who applies exuberant painted designs to a wide array of found objects—from running shoes to feathers. Because the gift shop is part of a nonprofit organization, its markup is small and prices tend to be lower than those at similar stores, says manager Delmarina One Feather.

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Expanding and improving the Heritage Center’s physical spaces—for exhibitions, storage and sales—will soon get under way with help from a $100,000 “Space for Change” planning grant from Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC) and the Ford Foundation. More space is a critical need for the center, which is packed with artworks, each more exquisite than the next. “Mary Bordeaux could do a new show every week of the year without repeating herself,” says Strong, as he shows one storeroom after another filled to the brim with precious items.

Serried ranks of framed works on paper, a room of rolled-up quilts and shelves of sculptures, pottery, moccasins, headdresses, weapons and other three-dimensional items were waiting for their turn before the public, either in the Heritage Center or on loan to other museums, such as the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves transformed a narrow hallway into a research library. In bestowing the LINC grant, the funders called the collection “unmatched in breadth, stature and quality.”

The LINC funders also dubbed this moment in the center’s history “a societal milestone” and an opportunity “to continue to strengthen its relationship with the Pine Ridge Reservation, actively engaging the local Lakota community.” The center wants to respond to the community��s needs with not just exhibitions, but art classes and school curricula, exhibitions in outlying districts and more, said Strong, adding that when the center reaches out, the community gives back. “Often, someone is able to tell us about a piece whose makers we hadn’t been able to identify—they may recognize a family’s traditional beadwork pattern, for example.”

During a drive around the reservation, community backing for artists and artisans was ubiquitous. In Kyle, South Dakota, Oglala Lakota College has a well-respected art department, and the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce recently put on a children’s art show and pow wow. Most shops, lodgings and other businesses displayed art for sale: from satin star quilts, Sioux pottery and beaded jewelry in the Lakota Prairie Ranch Resort’s gift shop near Kyle, South Dakota to war clubs hanging on the wall behind the counter of Pine Ridge Building Products, in Pine Ridge village. “We always want to help our artists,” says the building-supply company’s owner, Eddie Abold, Lakota.

Art is a cultural force on Pine Ridge, woven into every aspect of life, Strong explains. “Art and the Lakota language helped the people survive while the U.S. government was attempting to tear apart their culture. It’s good to be a part of helping this community recover from a horrible century.”