Native artist Oscar Howe didn’t conform to ‘Indian art’
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The American government tried to force American Indians to abandon their culture and assimilate to western culture. The forced changes didn’t fully take hold.
Roughly 60 years ago, art collectors tried to convince South Dakota American Indian artist Oscar Howe to paint what they said were more realistic paintings of American Indians.
“You need to make art in this style, then we will buy it,” collectors told Howe, said Cory Knedler, an art professor at the University of South Dakota.
Howe resisted. Instead he said, “‘I will make art in the style I want. I am Native; whatever I make is Native art,’” Knedler said.
After a career as an artist and professor, Howe died of Parkinson’s disease in Vermillion in 1983.
Howe’s resistance to paint flat, straightforward and very, very traditional imagery that illustrated things such as traditional dress changed the art world for many American Indian artists.
A defining point in Howe’s career was in 1958 when the Philbrook Indian Art competition jury rejected one of his paintings because it was not a traditional Indian painting. Howe responded that the jury had a poor knowledge of Indian art.
“We are to be herded like a bunch of sheep, with no right for individualism, dictated as the Indian has always been, put on reservations and treated like a child, and only the White Man knows what is best for him,” Howe wrote in a letter to Philbrook.
“He opened the market for Native artists to be able to do (more modern art),” Knedler said. “The market had to change. The market had to accept other styles beyond the traditional market.”
Although Howe opened the market, he wasn’t fully appreciated by collectors and the art world as a whole, said Knedler and Amy Fill, the university’s director of galleries including the Oscar Howe Gallery at USD. The university has the largest collection of Howe’s work and archives in the nation.
Today, there is resurgence of interest and appreciation for Howe’s work. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Indians in New York City is featuring an exhibit of Howe’s work until Sept. 11.
The exhibit is named the same title as a book on Howe called “Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe.”
“I’m very happy for his family, to see this exhibit happen,” Fill said.
“We’ve been trying to get some national recognition for Oscar Howe and his work. Not just my generation but the previous generation,” Knedler sad.
A review in the July 11-18 New Yorker magazine said the exhibit is an “overdue retrospective of a remarkable Yanktonia Dakota painter…”
Howe also has ties to Dakota Wesleyan University (DWU) and the Corn Palace in Mitchell. DWU archivist Laurie Langland said she first heard of the Smithsonian exhibit a few years ago, early in the planning stages.
“I think it’s exciting. It’s the Smithsonian,” Langland said.
“I think this does solidify his position in the Native Modern Movement, as a really key player in that time frame,” Fill said of the exhibit, which will travel to a gallery in Portland, Oregon, before stopping at the South Dakota Art Museum on the campus of South Dakota State University in Brookings in 2023. The museum has several artworks by Howe.
Many of the paintings in the exhibit are from the USD collection, which include several still held by Howe’s family.
Howe did study in Santa Fe and Oklahoma and traveled abroad, but he spent much of his time near the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota where he was born in 1915.
He was sent to an Indian boarding school in Pierre in 1922. in 1938, he graduated from Santa Fe Indian School but was able to study art while there. He graduated from Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell in 1952. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1954.
He taught at Pierre and in 1957 became a professor and artist-in-residence at USD where he stayed until he retired 1980.
“He had a strong connection to oral history,” Fill said. The strong connection to his culture and heritage inspired Howe to stay in South Dakota.
New York City was known as the art center of the world during much of Howe’s career, Knedler said.
“Collectors were missing out on Oscar Howe’s work,” Knedler said. But that wasn’t Howe’s fault; collectors did not do their homework, he said.
Fill said Howe was not focused on mass recognition. “What was important for him was to stay here and be the mentor for other artists,” Fill said.
Howe was teaching early in his life including teaching classes while an artist-in-residence at Dakota Wesleyan.
“He taught while he was a student here,” Langland said.
Art history lectures or books seem to miss the story of Howe. Knedler said even when American Indian artists are included in art history books, sometimes that section is skipped.
But recently, just like with the book and exhibit on Howe, there are movements to re-examine art history and artists who may not have gotten the attention or recognition they deserved, Knedler said.
“Oscar wanted Northern Plains tribal art to be its own canon. Just like we think of Southwest Native American Art,” Knedler said.
The native artists of the Northern Plains have their own styles, their own stories to tell, Knedler said.
USD tries to ensure that the next generation of American Indian artists tell their stories through art.
The university hosts a summer art institute named for Oscar Howe for American Indian high school artists.
“Their heritage is more important now than it ever has been,” Knedler said. “The next generation needs to keep pushing on like Oscar did to get their stories told, to get their story out there.”
Like Howe, they will choose their own style.
A May 22 review of the exhibit published by Forbes said, “The triumphant retrospective at the Museum of the American Indian presents an opportunity for a new generation to engage with a true master, freed from the prejudices his art encountered in his own time. At the same time, Dakota Modern calls on all of us to look at art of the present – Indigenous and other – with equivalent open-mindedness.”
Where can you find Oscar Howe’s work?
Find the largest collection of Oscar Howe’s artwork at the Oscar Howe Gallery on the campus of the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.
The Oscar Howe Collection at South Dakota Art Museum on the SDSU campus consists of 27 paintings.
Howe completed 10 murals for a Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1941 and 1942 in the city of Mobridge. According to the city’s website, Howe did the murals on a 12-day furlough from active military duty.
The murals are visible to the public and an audio tour is available from the city.
The Howe Gallery is in the Dakota Discovery Museum on the campus of DWU in Mitchell. The website description says “explore the life and creative genius of one of South Dakota’s greatest artists’, Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna (Yanktonai) Dakota, Oscar Howe.”
“The Oscar Howe (work) is pretty amazing,” DWU student and museum worker Carter Jahnig said. Jahnig said he didn’t know much about Howe’s art before he started working in the museum.
“We take a lot of pride in Oscar Howe at DWU,” said Jan Larson of the university’s marketing and communications office.
Not only does DWU have strong ties to Howe, so does the Corn Palace in Mitchell.
Howe designed several murals for the Corn Palace, Larson and Langland said.