Indigenous ‘Dignity’ Towers Over the Missouri River

David Rooks. “Dignity” – the young Lakota girl sculpture towers 50 feet just off I-90 in South Dakota.

Indigenous ‘Dignity’ Towers Over the Missouri River

“He who works with his hands is a laborer; he who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman; he who works with his hands, his head, and his heart is an artist.”

—St. Francis of Assisi

Out on I-90, just after crossing the Missouri River and through Chamberlain, South Dakota, the serene panorama is interrupted by a sudden figure on your right. At roughly 50 feet tall, all stainless steel and colored diamonds, a young Lakota girl, her shawl open to the wind, dances upon a bluff.

Varied shades of blue within her shawl’s star shape flutter and sparkle softly, like leaves on a cottonwood tree. You have to stop. You just have to. At the rest area off Exit 264, the parking lot was filled with license plates from several states. Those gathered, when they were not taking pictures, slowly walked around the figure – or just stared. On that sunny day the statue named “Dignity” was an embodiment of hope.

My reaction was the same as that of many others: awe and gratitude. The dignity of indigenous people, their inherent strength expressed in a spontaneous moment of exuberant dance was in harmony with all that I knew of the best of my Lakota heritage. I have never looked out into the Pow Wow circles of my life and not seen that deep joy written on the faces and hearts of the dancers.

David Rooks. Clay “Dignity” model in Lamphere’s Sturgis studio.

Whoever created “Dignity” is intimate with that secret.

The sculptor, Dale Lamphere, Artist Laureate of South Dakota, resides and has his studio near Sturgis, South Dakota. He’s soft-spoken, humble and generous. His works grace atriums, facades and courtyards across the country, from the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., to the entrance of a seminary in Iowa. And his works are, in scale, nearly always at least somewhat monumental.

“When I’m doing something, I’m very committed to it, absolutely absorbed by it,” said Lamphere. About “Dignity,” he said: “There’s also a process of giving deeply enough to bring it to life. I have to fall in love with that person I am trying to draw out. It’s a birthing … you’re bringing something to life … it’s coming out of you … and it’s painful.”

David Rooks

The steel structural undergirding of “Dignity”.

There can be no art without an artist, but Lamphere is quick to give enormous credit to Norm McKie, a former Rapid City businessman and the project’s main patron. McKie first conceived of “Dignity” as a gift to all the people of South Dakota in 2012. “My great grandpa first came to South Dakota in 1898, and I thought we owed something to the state and people of South Dakota,” said the retired auto dealer.

Giving back in this instance meant he and his wife, Eunabel, would underwrite the full costs of “Dignity’s” journey from inspiration to dedication, a trip that covered three years and over $1 million. “I get asked all the time now if I’d do it again and I say: Absolutely. I’ve known Dale (Lamphere) since the early 60s, so things kind of just came together. Dale’s a regular genius.”

McKie was also grateful to the efforts of South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who helped clear the way by making the site’s land available for the statue. McKie said the Governor thought having the statue overlook the Missouri, where it could be seen for miles around made the location ideal. “Seeing it now, I couldn’t agree with him more.”

Asked why he chose a young Lakota girl for the project’s inspiration, McKie said: “Well, you know, McKies came up the hard way, we were just dirt farmers, and we wanted to inspire anybody who wants to make that climb. ‘Dignity’ is doing what we hoped she’d do: be an inspiration. We did the right thing, and we’re very happy about it,” said the statue’s patron.

David Rooks

Dale Lamphere, at his studio.

The level of craftsmanship and hours of labor required for the statue are impressive. “Dignity” required more than 1,000 individual pieces, each painstakingly measured manually from the original scale model up to fabrication of each full-sized part. “They were all hand cut with a plasma cutter, and the edges were ground precisely,” said Lamphere. “I numbered each part and we welded them together by hand. It’s built by human labor, not by computer,” emphasized the sculptor.

“We have an old 1968 link belt crane, it’s all gears and cables – and no hydraulics – and we use that. We’ve got an old power roller we can bend the pieces with – all of our equipment is very primitive – so we use what we like to call ‘Egyptian methods.’ You know, the block and tackle and the lever.” He laughs. “It’s amazing what we can get done with that.”

Lamphere prefers the old methods and the rigorous skills required by his team to handcraft “objects de art.” “Without your heart totally in it, you can only achieve so much. The success of an action has more to do with a motive than anything else. My motive all along has been to do something that will honor, inspire, and recognize the Indigenous Peoples we have in our state. They were the first citizens of this place.

“This project has no commercial point to it at all. It is simply there to honor Native cultures as they existed before settlement came about. My motive was to be as innovative as possible with the LED lighting and the kinetic aspect with the radial bearings and the colors of the shawl. I wanted so much for it to be an integration into the environment, so that the sun and the wind can move through the figure and through the quilt, and the colors are of the water and the sky. It speaks to how the people used to live and how we should live,” said Lamphere.

During fabrication of the finished work, four to five men assisted Lamphere as welders, crane operators, and whatever other skills were necessary for completion. The actual site of “Dignity’s” birth was along the Cheyenne River, three miles north of Scenic, South Dakota, a town just north of the Pine Ridge Reservation. The property is owned by Kim Selene. The trip from there to “Dignity’s” present home overlooking the Missouri River was approximately 170 miles.

David Rooks. “Dignity” being delivered to the bluff by flatbed.

Because of the scale of the project, Albertson Engineering, a construction design firm in Rapid City, South Dakota, handled the detailed physical calculations necessary, which included a meticulously designed skeletal structure that enables “Dignity,” at its home atop the bluff, to sustain 115 mph winds from any direction. Three caissons of steel reinforced concrete, two feet in diameter and buried at a depth of 90 feet, were needed to anchor the statue, said Mike Albertson, the firm’s owner.

Lamphere’s next project will, upon completion, span the Big Sioux River near downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Titled “Arc of Dreams,” a small scale model suggests` two fingers reaching over the river toward each other. Again in stainless steel, two 150 foot cantilevered arcs will rise 70 feet from each bank, only to stop 15 feet from touching. The tension created by their gracefully symmetrical rise toward each other in the model portends wonder and promise in the completed project. In that regard, Dale Lamphere, Artist Laureate of South Dakota, has become a Dreamcatcher.

David Rooks. Workers place “Dignity” in her final place atop the bluff. She is able to withstand winds up to 115 mph.
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