SHERIDAN — A Native American scholar provided education in a few different forms last week in Sheridan County.
Craig Howe, founding director of the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies in South Dakota, gave tours for an exhibit at The Brinton Museum and spoke at Sheridan College.
“How the Lakota Came Upon the World” is a traveling art exhibit that was first displayed in South Dakota in 2015.
“It is based on the Lakota Emergence narrative. The exhibit is part of The Brinton’s 14th Illustrator Show. It began March 20 and ends April 21.
Howe is on The Brinton’s American Indian Advisory Council. He chose 16 different sections from the 1,251-word emergence narrative and had Lakota artists create something related to their specific passage. He picked eight men and eight women ranging in age from their 20s to 70s at the time of the exhibit’s inception. There are several different types of art as well, including stained glass, painting and sculpture.
Howe said diversity is a vital aspect of the exhibit that will ideally give people a better understanding of what it means to be Lakota.
“They have these stereotypes of what a person should look like,” Howe said. “… We’re always trying to break that down. One way to do that is to do it with the actual person. Another way to do it is with the artwork.”
Another key aspect involved the exhibit’s modern day applicability. It comes from a traditional, historic narrative but has ties to today.
“We’re not trying to represent Indians just in the past or as mythological figures,” Howe said. “We’re dealing with really tough issues today.”
Howe said art can help illustrate and inform people about concepts that would otherwise be more difficult to grasp.
“It is an art exhibit, but it’s really educational as well, not just for the audiences, but for the artists,” Howe said.
Fittingly, Howe also gave guided tours of the exhibit to students from several local elementary schools. He said that was the most rewarding part of the process because students had profound insights and questions.
“Usually I deal with adults,” Howe said. “… These are the kids, and to see them interact with this information is just so — they’re not against it, there doesn’t seem to be any bias. They can see justice and injustice without pontificating.”
Ken Schuster, director and chief curator at The Brinton, said about 500 students visited last week. Schuster said this type of education matters because some people think Native Americans no longer exist. The exhibit served as a reminder that Indians are still alive and have a diverse array of offerings to share.
“As an institution that is here on the Plains that has a pretty significant American Indian artwork collection, I think it’s important to tell not only the story of the collection, but the story of the people who made the collection,” Schuster said.
Howe also presented to about 60 people for a little more than an hour Friday at Sheridan College. He discussed previous and current discrimination against and misrepresentations of Native Americans.
“It’s not just the past; these issues are ongoing,” Howe said.
Howe repeatedly stressed that the issue of Native Americans and their relationship with the United States is extremely complex. For relations to improve, it will entail difficult, thoughtful work.
“We can’t convey it in an hour or a week,” Howe said. “… Most people think if they go to one presentation or watch a movie or read a book, then they’re experts in American Indian history or culture, so that’s what we’re working against … If it was (easy), I really think people would have solved the issues.”
Sheridan College criminal justice instructor Jonni Joyce, who has known Howe for more than a decade dating back to her time living in South Dakota, invited Howe to speak at the college. Joyce brought students from one of her criminal law classes to the discussion because Howe talked about land and legal issues as well.
Joyce also serves as the faculty advisor to the Sheridan College Native American Club and felt it was important to have a presentation about issues that are often overlooked.
“There’s a lot of cultural information in here that white America does not think about in reference to Native Americans,” Joyce said. “Bringing this information to the college helps us grow as an institution.”
Sheridan College English instructor Jenni Reed attended the presentation with 14 of her students from a critical reading and writing course. She heard from her elementary school daughter about the exhibit at The Brinton and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity on campus.
Reed said events like Howe’s presentation are important because they can help form a baseline of discussion for people to attempt to make progress in the future.
“So much misunderstanding comes from a lack of knowing,” Reed said. “Misunderstanding almost always leads to issues … If you can understand, have the background and knowledge, you can communicate well with somebody. It doesn’t have to be an argument. It doesn’t have to be a stalemate. You can empathize and create a compassionate reaction … I think that really can drive a better society.”
Howe concurred and said if people are on the same page regarding basic facts, they can have more substantive discussions on complicated topics.
“That’s what we don’t have very often, is this baseline … that we can work off of,” Howe said. “Instead of me talking about you and you talking about me, we can talk about that paper or that document or that law.”
Whether through artwork or a presentation, Howe brought an informed, unique perspective to locals of all ages last week.