A “Horse Nation” on the Rise: Major Grants from the Andy Warhol Foundation Support Innovative Exhibition

posted February 29, 2016 

For the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota people who make up the Seven Councils Fire, the horse is more than just an animal. Rather than a tool used for work or travel, the horse has been cherished as kin since its reintroduction to North America more than three centuries ago. Today, The Heritage Center is in the process of creating “Horse Nation of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ,” a groundbreaking exhibition exploring the cultural and spiritual significance of the horse, seen through the eyes of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people of the Seven Council Fires—the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ. 

Across the country, national arts organizations are taking notice. They are recognizing not only the powerful subject matter of the show, but also the way The Heritage Center is creating it—incorporating authentic voices, stories, and perspectives of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ. Recently, the Andy Warhol Foundation, one of the county’s leading arts philanthropies, provided The Heritage Center with two grants totaling $75,000 to support the Horse Nation exhibition and accompanying catalog. With this support, The Heritage Center team is facilitating an innovative, artist-led and community-influenced process, gathering and building on insights and input directly from the people of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ to inspire the show’s direction and message. 

According to Mary Maxon, The Heritage Center’s director, this process will ensure that the final exhibit, set to open in September, will tell an authentic, community-driven story.  

“From the very beginning, our objective in creating Horse Nation was to make it much more than a visual arts exhibit. We needed to hear directly from the people of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, asking them to guide us with their ideas, perspectives, and voices. Their insights will serve as the foundation for a multi-faceted vision of the Horse Nation that explores not only the people's deep connection to the horse but also to each other as relatives,” said Maxon. “We are so honored that organizations like the Warhol Foundation see the value of engaging artists and communities in this way. Enough stories have been told about them from the outside. With this exhibit, we believe the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ will be able to tell their own story.”

Founded in 1987, the Warhol Foundation works for the advancement of the visual arts, with a focus on supporting exhibits that foster inclusive cultural dialogue. After learning about Horse Nation, the foundation was compelled by The Heritage Center’s community-based approach and it’s goal “to engage more deeply with the artists whose work it promotes,” as noted on its website. 

Through the Warhol Foundation’s gift, The Heritage Center is spurring exactly that kind community engagement. Lakota artist Keith BraveHeart, co-director of We Are a Horse Nation, the documentary film that inspired the exhibit, is helping to lead the collaborative effort by gathering with communities of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ living in areas as far as Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and into Canada to encourage participation and involvement that truly represents each oyáte, or nation. Together BraveHeart and The Heritage Center staff have organized a series of community gatherings to promote healthy and sincere dialogue between elders, artists and other culture bearers, tribal leaders, community members, and more. BraveHeart and his team are documenting every moment of these meetings and creating an extensive archive that will help guide the development of the exhibition and catalog. The exhibition’s catalog will be produced under the direction of Lakota scholar Dr. Craig Howe and notable Lakota artist Arthur Amiotte.

The community response to this process has been overwhelmingly powerful and positive; more than one hundred community members attended the six gatherings held so far. Participants have shared deeply personal reflections—speaking about the kinship of the horse, as well as the need to rebuild a shared community across the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, which was fragmented by the U.S. reservation system. 

Maxon and BraveHeart plan to travel to more Očhéthi Šakówiŋ communities to gather additional insights and stories. For BraveHeart, capturing that community insight is the most important part of the curatorial process. 

“I believe in the reality that art can create social change. By acknowledging all the creative Relatives of our Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, I believe that the strength of a combined effort of artists and community can elevate the culture of the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota or ‘Seven Council Fires,’” said BraveHeart. “As a Lakota person I want to see our identities be presented with respect for the reality that we still exist among the world…we exist as more than the stereotypical negative statistics and over-romanticized clichés that most of the world envisions of us.”  

Maxon and BraveHeart have asked a core group of Očhéthi Šakówiŋ artists to serve their relatives and communities by using their creative gifts to carry the voices of the Horse Nation. These artists, including Donald Montileaux, Nelda Schrupp, James Star Comes Out, and others, will create new works inspired directly by community voices and perspectives. Maxon and BraveHeart have also issued a call for submissions, open through April 8th, to encourage all peoples of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ to create work in honor of the Horse Nation. In addition, they will work with established and emerging filmmakers to document the show’s creation, the voices of community members, and cultural activities that include the Horse Nation. The full exhibition of contemporary art, songs, and stories, including pieces from The Heritage Center and other collections, will open this fall at The Heritage Center and will be available to travel to other venues after its initial showing. 

For Maxon, creating this show represents an important turning point for The Heritage Center. 

“Our mission has always been to support Native artists and to serve as a gathering place for Native communities—but with this exhibit, we are shifting the paradigm and providing opportunity for  the people of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ to lead the conversation about art, history, and identity,” said Maxon. “I think their voices and shared stories will be reflected in the exhibit.”


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Photos © 2016 Red Cloud Indian School, Inc.