Through defying stereotypes with nontraditional art, four Native Pop artists liberate Red Cloud Indian School youth to express themselves.
Native Pop is flipping stereotypes of Indian art on its head. On a recent visit to Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, four Native Pop artists liberated youth to do the same. The students embraced nontraditional art and unique methods of expression, while releasing any imposed cultural expectations or imagined limitations. “We emphasized that there were absolutely no restrictions on subject matter or style,” said Mallory Taylor, a self-taught artist of Osage, Cherokee, Blackfoot, Crow, Black Dutch and Irish descent. “We wanted to show them how they can use any and all materials available to create art.”
Native Pop, a traveling showcase of pop art by modern-day indigenous artists, is currently on display at Red Cloud Indian School. “A lot of the kids had never seen work like that before,” said Brent Learned (Cheyenne and Arapaho), an award-winning artist and the leading organizer of Native Pop. “They’re so used to traditional-style work. For them, they’re like, ‘Somebody gets us now.’”
Taylor and Learned were among four Native Pop road warriors who drove cross-country to interact with Native youth at Red Cloud Indian School. Steven Paul Judd (Kiowa/Choctaw), a celebrated filmmaker and artist, and Joe Hopkins (Muscogee Creek and Seminole), a multi-media artist, joined them for the journey. “They see us on social media; they see us in images in books and magazines. But to sit there and talk to the artists is incredible. I know what it was like for me when I got to meet an artist, and to realize that they’re Native, too,” said Learned.
While the growing Native Pop collective features a cast of about nine artists from different tribal nations, Learned, Taylor, Hopkins and Judd represented the crew at Red Cloud from Thursday, May 4, through Saturday, May 6. They engaged Red Cloud sophomores and visiting students in various workshops: painting a mural, art on canvas, animation, and filmmaking. Judd’s favorite activity was creating a stop-motion short film with the students. “They were self-motivated and participated. They all had unique and enthusiastic ideas,” Judd said.
Pop art — not to be confused with contemporary art — employs pop culture imagery or icons. Many of Native Pop artists’ works are forms of “artivism,” or art as activism, raising the profile of indigenous issues, re-appropriating and reclaiming indigenous imagery, or simply taking a playful stab at how much mainstream commercialism pervades all cultures, including Native American.
Hopkins mentioned that Pine Ridge youth aren’t often exposed to art from outside their region. “It was significant to me to inspire the imagination of the youth in the community, bringing the community together for a positive experience with creativity,” he said.
While the youth were initially “shy and timid,” Learned encouraged them to communicate by asking questions about how they represent their tribal cultures in mainstream society. “People are so surprised Native Americans exist,” Learned said. “Asking questions, the students opened up — now we have common ground. Some kids raised their hands and shared their experiences.”
Students’ creativity began to flow freely. They were eager to learn new tools and express themselves through new styles, Taylor added. They let their humorous personalities shine, too. “Creating a safe place for them to express any and everything resulted in some beautiful art and some very fun back-and-forth trash talking between myself and some of the youth… including lots of jokes about the artists’ old age!” Taylor laughed.
Hopkins was blown away by the kids’ creative expression. “Each child had such exhilaration in their own elements with unique pieces of work,” Hopkins said.
Collaborating with Native Pop artists offered living proof to students that they can excel at a career in the arts, or use art to elevate Native culture, Judd said. “It is important for the youth to see that the skills, imagination and tools that are used by adults for a living, they can do as well. …The fruits of their labor gave them a sense of pride and accomplishment,” Judd said.
Another group of students traveled two hours by bus to visit Red Cloud Indian School to meet the members of Native Pop. Their art teacher, originally from Georgia, teaches impressionist art, cubism and other nontraditional art forms at an all-Native American school. She told Learned that she keeps telling her students that they can experiment with their artistic styles; that they don’t have to stick to one art genre. “When her kids saw the Native Pop art, she said, ‘This is the stuff my kids want to do. They didn’t think it actually existed. It opened their eyes,’” Learned said.
A common consensus among the four Native Pop artists who traveled to Red Cloud was that the learning experience was a two-way street. “As the youth worked, they really began to talk, and they taught me more than I could ever teach them. We discussed how daily life struggles and emotions can be expressed through art,” Taylor said. “It was unbelievable to watch them let loose with such unexplainable energy. The experience at Red Cloud was a humbling, life changing, exceptional experience that I will treasure. Being among the youth and creating art felt like a big giant hug, and there was a comfortability among peers that was inspirational.”
Hopkins emphasized that visiting the tribal school in Pine Ridge also opened the Native Pop artists’ eyes. “We were able to venture out as a group and explore a totally different world than Oklahoma,” he said.
The significance of being on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation resounded with Native Pop members. The reservation, the second-largest in the United States covering more than 2.8 million acres in southwestern South Dakota, was the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre and the famous 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 by about 250 Sioux Indians led by members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) to protest the United States government’s failure to meet its treaty obligations. “Pine Ridge is a place where all Native people are aware of Wounded Knee, and the activity and history of AIM, so I was honored to be in such a historical place,” Judd said.
Hopkins added: “[It was] an absolutely amazing experience, one of the best experiences of my life, to be in a community that has endured such tragedy throughout history.”
Among the approximately 28,787 residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, poverty is pervasive. An estimated 80 percent of residents are unemployed. While many Red Cloud students will become the first in their families to attend college, Red Cloud graduates’ matriculation rates into college are astoundingly high. They’ve increased exponentially in recent years—from 19 percent in 2001 to 91 percent in 2009. Learned was enthusiastic about the higher learning opportunities for Oglala Lakota youth and what that means for Native people.
By visiting Red Cloud, members of Native Pop contributed to the students’ empowerment and to the progress of Indian youth at large. Learned’s main message to Red Cloud students was to break out of their shells — “to think outside the box and explore. There’s a whole world out there, the world’s your oyster,” Learned said.
In the below video, Taylor encourages a student to share what she is painting on the mural, the Seven Council Fires, in her Lakota language. (Red Cloud launched its Lakota Language Program in 2008. Today Red Cloud offers the nation’s only comprehensive K-12 Lakota language curriculum.)
Learned also impressed upon the youth that the time for Native art is now. Colonization and forced assimilation deprived indigenous peoples of their art forms for a significant period of time. As a result, Learned thinks Natives were cut off from their art renaissance. “When the average Joe Blow off the street thinks of Native American art, they’re only thinking of the traditional type stuff. One of the things I stressed in the roundtable talk [at Red Cloud Indian School on Saturday] was that as Native American people, we never really had a renaissance when it came to art,” Learned said. “Each tribe had our own art form. Then we assimilated and couldn’t speak our own language or partake in our own customs. They tried to beat it out of us. Now people are discovering Native American art in a new way. We want to break the mold.”
At the end of the month, Native Pop members Learned, Hopkins and George Curtis Levi (Southern Cheyenne) will return to Red Cloud to transfer the Native Pop exhibit from the school to a week-long pop-up show at a casino in Minnesota. Next, Native Pop will move to the Minneapolis-based All My Relations Gallery, which aims to reflect the contemporary American Indian experience in all its diversity.
“Native Pop has really taken on a life of its own,” Learned said. “People I’ve spoken to thank us for raising awareness that there is something out there like this by Native artists. We share our stories and [show that] art has no boundaries. People appreciate it.”
Sharing their less-typical interpretation of Indian art and motivating Native students was incredibly rewarding for Learned. “I had so much fun; I didn’t really want to leave. To see young people taking all that knowledge in — that experience for me was a beautiful thing,” Learned said.