The Red Cloud Indian Art Show held every summer on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota is usually an intimate gathering – a chance for local Lakota artists to rub elbows with big-name artists in the Indigenous art world. Not this year.
But organizers have found a way to carry out the show for a 52nd year, bringing vital income to Native American artists who work all winter in anticipation of selling their pieces at summer art shows. The Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School, a Jesuit school on Pine Ridge, held a virtual opening and is displaying the art online through August.
Some of the art has a different theme this year: Paintings feature masked subjects and beadwork now adorns cloth face coverings.
“Art is an essential part of Lakota culture,” said Mary Maxon, the director of the Heritage Center at Red Cloud. “It's a part of life. The act of creating things of beauty and meaning is often a shared experience and the way that the culture is carried forward from generation to generation.”
Since the pandemic arrived in the United States, a shared experience has often been one of isolation, especially on Pine Ridge, where tribal leadership enacted a series of strict lockdowns. Native American tribes across the nation have been especially vigilant to the pandemic, amid fears it could cripple small health care systems that treat high numbers of people with ongoing health conditions.
Molina Parker, a beadwork artist who lives in the town of Red Shirt on Pine Ridge, usually spends her summers traveling between Indigenous art shows, selling the work she completes during the winter. She's stuck at home this year, but said the virtual show offered some encouragement to local artists.
"You have the freedom to be creative and express yourself,” she said.
The virtual show has also seen some commercial success, offering local artists a way to support themselves, Maxon said.
But Parker said it has still been difficult to focus on her work between the news of the pandemic and having her husband and child at home all day. She has tried to heed advice her grandmother once gave her: “You need to keep busy. You always need to keep working.”