Discovering a World of Native Art on Pine Ridge

posted on September 5, 2013

When Mary Bordeaux arrived at Red Cloud in 2004 to become The Heritage Center’s new curator, she knew the collection was one-of-a-kind. 

Made up of almost 10,000 pieces of historic and contemporary Native art, The Center’s permanent collection rivals those of the nation’s leading American Indian art museums. But Bordeaux explains it’s not just the quality of the collection that make it unique.

“What’s really extraordinary is that we hold an excellent Native art collection that is actually housed on a reservation. Right here on Pine Ridge, community members can come and experience a collection of this caliber,” she explains. “Providing that community access and sharing the arts is the real reason we’re here.” 

It is this commitment to the local community that has defined The Heritage Center from the very start. It began as an art show aimed at highlighting the talent of local artists. As founding director Brother C.M. Simon S.J. purchased contemporary pieces from each show, local families and private collectors donated thousands of pieces of historical Lakota art. Eventually, a strong permanent collection took shape—and The Heritage Center was born.      

From 1969 until Bordeaux’s arrival, the collection grew to nearly 10,000 pieces of art spanning more than two centuries. But without systems for cataloging and preservation, it was in complete disarray.

“Brother Simon had the wisdom and vision to know what this collection could become. But he was only one person and didn’t have the resources to care for such a large collection,” says Bordeaux. “We had wood shelving that attracts bugs and emits destructive fumes, as well as the constant threat of damage from moisture. It was heartbreaking to see some truly priceless pieces in disrepair. And when Brother Simon unexpectedly passed away, we lost a great deal of information that only he possessed.”     

Reconstructing that knowledge is an ongoing process, and Bordeaux knows it will take time. But she says its thrilling to have elders and community members visit and recognize a piece from the collection. She is amazed at how often they can share a personal story about the artist and their inspiration. 

Just the process of cataloging the collection took five years to complete. Bordeaux and then-Director Peter Strong began by establishing collections policies and new methods for preservation, with critical and generous funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services and the Bush Foundation.     

What they uncovered was a remarkable contribution to the Native art world. The collection holds a top hat owned by the famed Oglala Lakota Chief American Horse, as well as a series of priceless Lakota “leader shirts”—worn by recognized leaders of a tiospaye or extended family group. And in addition to Native history, the collection tells the story of contemporary Native art as few others can. 

“The Heritage Center holds one of only three or four collections in the world that can show the evolution of fine Native American art since the 1960’s. And it has played a major role in developing and encouraging Lakota and other Native artists,” says Tatiana Lomahaftewa-Singer, curator of collections at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

“It’s a nationally significant cultural institution that focuses on uplifting a local community. That’s a rare combination, and it deserves to be treasured.”     

Although the process of cataloging was painstaking, for Bordeaux, now The Heritage Center’s interim director, it was a labor of love.     

“We’ve made it possible for people here on Pine Ridge to see and appreciate the art that comes from their culture, without having to go to Washington, DC or Los Angeles,” she explains.   

Today the collection continues to grow, and with growth comes new challenges. Collections Manager Mary Maxon, who has worked in museums for 25 years, says caring for it is a tremendous responsibility.     

“We hold some really priceless pieces. Right now we’re cleaning a delicate full-length feather headdress. We’re doing our best on preservation, but it will take more resources,” says Maxon. “It’s critical these pieces be saved for future generations.”

And next, The Heritage Center will embark on its biggest challenge yet: developing a new physical space to house the collection and share it with more visitors.  

“We want The Heritage Center to belong to the people in this community—and to be a gathering place, alive with performances, workshops and exhibits. We’re launching new educational programming that will bring entire classrooms into the collection. And new space will allow us to do so much more,” says Bordeaux. “By sharing our artistic heritage, there’s no doubt we can build a stronger, healthier community.”

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2013 edition of Red Cloud Country,
a Red Cloud Indian School seasonal publication

All Content: All Rights Reserved ©Red Cloud Indian School