The Prairies Howl in the Pine Ridge Reservation
A Visit to Rapid City and Pine Ridge in South Dakota
It’s not unexpected that South Dakota would seem so distant to someone used to living on the east coast of the U.S.
I’ve only been living in the U.S. for two years and was fortunate enough to visit South Dakota through my involvement with AS220, an unjuried and uncensored cultural center that houses three buildings in downtown Providence, Rhode Island, and has become a key model of creative-placemaking on an international level. AS220 is part of the Ford Foundation‘s NxtGenII initiative, which focuses on “promoting a new generation of 21st century arts spaces and arts leadership that reflect the cultural richness of diverse communities”. The program is hosted by the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center. Umberto Crenca (Artistic Director), Aaron Peterman (Managing Director), Samuel Seidel (Board Member), and myself represented AS220 in the second convening of the initiative.
Our group initially stayed in Rapid City, which allowed time to visit Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and the Dinosaur Park, before cruising the Badlands toward the Pine Ridge Reservation. We convened at the Red Cloud Indian School, which is also part of the cohort engaged through the DeVos Institute of Arts Management. Once there, we were greeted by Peter Strong, the Director of the Heritage Center, and Tina Merdanian.
We dined with some of the Lakota and Sioux people. Guest speakers recounted events in their tribes’ past, including the Wounded Knee Massacre, which was told to us by a local elder, who interspersed his narration with traditional songs accompanied by a drum. His voice resonated within the walls of the Heritage Center’s church and it seemed like a choir of voices sang along with him.
Where we ate, a glass mosaic of a woman and four buffalos stood encrusted in one of the windows, standing at about 6 feet tall. The piece was titled “White Buffalo Calf Woman” and was created by Angela Babby. A local was invited to recount the legend of the White Buffalo Calf Woman.
The cohort rode a bus through a beautiful yet secluded landscape of arid grasslands with rolling hills. We arrived at the Wounded Knee gravesite, still an active burial ground. Graves were decorated with offerings of plastic flowers, teddy bears, sparkling stones, and tobacco wrapped in pieces of cloth.
The group was also invited to a Powwow for the graduating senior class at the Red Cloud Indian School. The youth danced, some in modern clothes and others in traditional garments. They youth shook the hand of the chief and their parents presented them with a feather that they tied to their heads.
My experience in South Dakota opened my eyes to another aspect of U.S. history that is not frequently discussed in mainstream forums. It was only in 1978 that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed, which gave religious freedom to the native groups; an interesting fact, considering the founding principles of the nation are based on religious freedom. Of course, it was only a right given to the white settlers, while the native people and other ethnic groups were objectified and denied freedom of expression and ownership of land for many years. This only demonstrates the importance of connecting with our nation’s history and concerning ourselves with the proper representation of diverse groups in our respective fields, especially in the media, whether mainstream or underground.
The Ford Foundation is doing an incredible job of supporting nonprofit organizations and other initiatives dedicated to preserving, protecting, and promoting the cultural expressions of diverse communities. I’m proud of the work of our non-profit friends in the cohort: Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americano, Casita María Center for Arts and Education, the Alaska Heritage Center, Teatro Pregones, Asian Arts Initiative, Chen Dance Center, City of Asylum, Intersection for the Arts, International Sonoran Desert Alliance, La MaMa, The Columbia Film Society and Nickelodeon Theater, Evergreen State College Longhouse, the Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School, the Hip Hop Theater Festival, Philadelphia Mural Arts Advocated, Miami Light Project, Northwood Niijii Enterprise Community, PA’I Foundation, and the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience.
And, of course, I’m honored to be part of AS220 and pride myself in knowing that our work is an important piece of a community effort dedicated to creating an open, unjuried, and uncensored home for the arts and for artists from all backgrounds. This spirit certainly resonates on a national level and arts advocacy resonates louder throughout the world as the days pass.