The Evolution of an Exhibition: Community Voices Help to Define the Horse Nation

posted August 15, 2016 

The Horse Nation

The Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota people of the Seven Councils Fire (Očhéthi Šakówiŋ) often refer to horses as the “Horse Nation.” In the Lakota language, the horse is called šúŋkawakȟaŋ or “holy dog”—a name that suggests its connection to the spiritual realm. After their arrival on the Great Plains in the 1800’s, horses revolutionized life for the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ. They served as allies in hunting and in battle, but they were revered for more than their utility. Horses were recognized as relatives and incorporated into ceremonies as a source of healing energy.

As tribal culture and spiritual practices came under attack with forced assimilation policies, horses helped the people of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ to defend their lands and to sustain some traditional ways of life. And while the people of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ no longer rely on horses for survival, they are still considered a powerful source of strength and healing. As Native artist and scholar Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Lakota) wrote:

As the Indian Wars came to end, American Indians struggled to settle and preserve the small territories that the U.S. government called reservations. Horses, which had become so central to our culture, were largely forbidden. The big herds were destroyed. The government tried to sever our bonds to each other, to the land, even to the horse. These policies cost us dearly, but they did not succeed. Our tribes survive. We hold on to our reservation lands. Among many of our people horses still hold a prominent place in our world. He means too much to us, our ‘holy dog;’ the spirit that binds us could not be fully broken. The Horse Nation is our ally, now and forever.

Today, across Očhéthi Šakówiŋ communities, horses are helping to renew and rebuild tribal and cultural identity. Each December in South Dakota, hundreds of individuals ride almost 200 miles on horseback to retrace the steps of Chief Big Foot and his band, ending at the site of their massacre at Wounded Knee. Horses are often used as healers in therapeutic programs in Očhéthi Šakówiŋ communities, helping people recover from painful challenges like addiction and depression. And Native artists continue to incorporate images of the horses into their work to honor their beauty, power, and resiliency.

“From the stories I've heard from the Dakota 38 Memorial riders, I realized the importance of the horse as the carrier of the people's prayers, history and memories,” shared Dakota artist Marlena Myles. “The horse is also a means of healing for many of the riders who had the horse enter their lives and create a meaningful spiritual change in them. My pieces use the horse to carry the traditional stories of our people, the messages from the stars and the weather, and the bonds we create with "non-human people"; I don't like to refer to animals as animals because they have their society, too, and should be thought of as a "people" or nation.”

The powerful and irrevocable bond between the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ and the Horse Nation is the subject of a groundbreaking exhibition set to open at The Heritage Center in the fall of 2016. More than a year ago, Heritage Center Director Mary Maxon started a series of conversations with artist and filmmaker Keith BraveHeart about a potential exhibition celebrating the Horse Nation as it is seen through the eyes of the people of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ. Since then, Maxon and BraveHeart have been in the process of creating Horse Nation of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, an exhibition of contemporary art, songs and stories honoring the horses as a spiritual kin.

Origins of the Exhibit

Keith BraveHeart has been exploring and documenting the powerful connection between horses and the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ for over four years. Raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation, BraveHeart studied art at the Institute for American Indian Arts in New Mexico. He emerged as a visionary painter who explores the complex collision of ancient Lakota culture and spirituality, and modern, Western society in his work.

Although BraveHeart’s work has captured the attention of collectors across the country, he always knew he would make his home on Pine Ridge, surrounded by his family and community. Upon returning to the reservation, BraveHeart began working with Tiwahe Glu Kini Pi (TGKP) or “Bringing the Family Back to Life,” an organization devoted to supporting children who are struggling with Serious Emotional Behavioral Disturbances (SEBD). The program applies a holistic, Lakota approach to mental health services. It uses equine assisted therapy to help young people rediscover the cultural and spiritual connection between horses and their people.

BraveHeart watched as children’s lives transformed through their work with horses. Reconnecting with the Horse Nation helped them heal from trauma, grief, addiction, depression, and more.

“Through that work, I saw that deepening our relationship with the Horse Nation is really about strengthening our way of life,” said BraveHeart. “Our people have been through so many struggles and life continues to be hard. But the Horse Nation provides us with a source of strength and a way to connect with our culture and identity as people of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ. I wanted to show others that honoring horses as our relatives again can empower our communities and help us move forward.”

To tell that story, BraveHeart began working on a documentary called We Are a Horse Nation. He completed the film in 2014 and it has been screened in museums and theaters across the region. The documentary shares a profoundly beautiful story about the interconnectedness of the Lakota people and horses across the centuries. Told by Native people in their own voices, it dispels the prevailing myth that poverty and its related challenges have overwhelmed reservation communities. Instead, it reveals that cultural and spiritual traditions are alive and well and providing healing energy for Očhéthi Šakówiŋ communities.  

As an artist, BraveHeart wanted to integrate images into the film illustrating how people of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ visualize the Horse Nation. He approached Maxon about using pieces from The Heritage Center’s collection. Over a series of months, they spoke at length about how Native artists have portrayed horses in their work and about ways they might carry on the message of BraveHeart’s film in another form. Together, they decided that an art show and exhibition—featuring work inspired by Očhéthi Šakówiŋ people—could help to spark powerful conversations about culture, identity and community.

Artwork by James Star Comes Out

A New Model for Curating

From the very beginning, Maxon knew that the Horse Nation exhibition would represent a turning point for The Heritage Center. Although The Center has always highlighted the work of Native artists, this shift would focus on connecting more with Native people to inform its programming. Maxon and BraveHeart immediately recognized that this exhibit would—and had to—be different.

“For many years, museum curators simply decided what went into art shows—but that has changed over the last few decades. More museums and galleries are exploring a community-influenced model by going into communities and talking directly with people about what interests them so that community members can stand in that museum or gallery and connect to art on a more personal level—to relate it to their own lives,” said Maxon.

“Using that community-influenced approach takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to Native art, which has so often been commodified and sold as trinkets or treated as anthropological or historical artifacts. Native art simply doesn’t fit into standard definitions and so the established art world hasn’t respected its meaning or aesthetic. We want to change the conversation. The exhibition will create opportunities for Native people to see and experience art on their own terms.”

Maxon has worked in museums for over 25 years, serving as a curator at a range of institutions, from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago to the Idaho Museum of Natural History to the Dahl Arts Center in Rapid City. She also understands what it means to be an artist; she has worked as a sculptor, mount-maker and a graphic designer. In that time, Maxon has worked closely with Native art and artists for over a decade, but she says she is well aware of her position as a non-Native.

“This is not my culture, so I see my role as moving the Horse Nation exhibit forward, keeping it on track, and setting up new ways for the community to get involved and share their perspectives. But it’s crucial that this project is directed by community members themselves,” said Maxon.

To create the exhibition, Maxon and BraveHeart are speaking with people from Očhéthi Šakówiŋ communities living in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and even into Canada to explore the significance of the Horse Nation. They organized a series of community gatherings to facilitate dialogue between elders, artists and other culture bearers, and BraveHeart is interviewing artists across the region to understand how the horse inspires and influences their work.

“This process is about giving everyone a voice. Inclusion isn’t about the elites that have made it in the art world. Our goal is to start a conversation in this community—to begin to understand the significance of the Horse Nation as a central part of this culture,” said Maxon. “Bringing community voices into the curatorial process is going to be a part of everything we do going forward. Asking the community to walk alongside us in this effort is the best way for us to honor Native artists and support the people of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ.”

Inspiring Art through Community Voices  

In December of 2014, a group of nearly 135 community members—including many from the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ—gathered at Rapid City’s Dahl Arts Center for the premier screening of We Are a Horse Nation. Immediately following the screening, Maxon and BraveHeart held an open discussion about the film. They asked people to reflect on its depiction of horses as relatives with the power to heal deep wounds. Community members in the audience stood and told piercingly emotional stories about their own relationships with horses. Many said that developing stronger bonds with the Horse Nation can empower Očhéthi Šakówiŋ communities, allowing them to reclaim cultural and spiritual traditions. It was the first of several community gatherings Maxon and BraveHeart organized to learn directly from the people of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ about their kinship with horses.

After that night, Maxon and BraveHeart traveled to many Očhéthi Šakówiŋ communities in two states to listen to people’s stories about the power of horses in their lives. Working together, they gathered insights from hundreds of artists, elders, culture bearers, and other community members as part of a carefully designed “community-influenced process.” By documenting their conversations, they captured the voices and perspectives of people from across the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ. That collective record continues to serve as their inspiration and guide for developing the exhibition. 

“The people who came and shared with us during our community gatherings are truly leading the evolution of this show,” said Maxon. “It is those stories that have helped us to understand what horses mean to the nations of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, today and through history. Our goal is to showcase a collection of artwork that reflects the people’s visions of horses.”

While they gathered reflections from community members, Maxon and BraveHeart reached out to a core group of Očhéthi Šakówiŋ artists, asking them to be a part of creating new and original works for the exhibit. One by one, some of the most prominent Native artists—including Donald Montileaux, Nelda Schrupp, and James Star Comes Out—signed on to be a part of the exhibition. In all, 12 artists from Očhéthi Šakówiŋ communities are already creating new pieces for the exhibit. Their work includes paintings, sculpture, bead and quillwork, and more—and each piece is inspired directly by the community.

“What’s so different about this exhibit is that we are giving artists the time and opportunity to hear people’s voices and then translate those voices into new works of art. We want to celebrate what artists can do, their creativity, their talent—but also to create a show that is about more than artists’ individual perspective,” said BraveHeart. “This exhibition has a deeper purpose: to tell the community’s story about the Horse Nation. Each piece of art will be directly tied to the people of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, and the show will serve as a reflection of our lives with horses.”

Artwork by Marlena Myles

Creating Visions of The Horse Nation

When BraveHeart first approached artist Marlena Myles about the exhibition, she knew immediately that she wanted to be a part of it.

“Keith was looking for Očhéthi Šakówiŋ artists to give their art to the Horse Nation projects he was working on. I felt my work belonged there—that it belonged to the people.

Myles, an enrolled member of the Spirit Lake Dakota Tribe, began her career as a portraitist, using traditional mediums like charcoal. But her work evolved when she discovered the possibilities of creating art in digital formats. Today, in addition to working as an accomplished graphic designer, she produces vibrant digital vector drawings, laying complex geometric shapes to create images rooted in Native themes.       

After learning more about the exhibition, Myles was able to attend a community gathering held near her home in Saint Paul, Minnesota. There, she found inspiration in what she heard from community members.

“Having been able to attend the Horse Nation meetings, I gained many stories and experiences from fellow members of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ,” she said. “Many of the stories spoke of our people overcoming the challenges of their lives through a bond with the Horse Nation; how some riders’ deep connection meant their horse died the same day they did so they could begin the journey in the afterlife together.”

After that night, Myles began working to capture her own vision of The Horse Nation. She will contribute two pieces to the exhibition. One of them, “Above the Stars Soldier”, was created as homage to the spirituality and perseverance of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ.

“As an artist, I think that's important for me to do: to translate emotions of the people into images that empower us, she said. “I didn't know where this journey would take me, and I don't know where it will continue to go, but it has been more than I ever expected already.”

Artwork by Dwayne Wilcox

The Horse Nation of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Exhibition will open at The Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School on September 22 and travel to The Dahl Arts Center in Rapid City in the winter of 2016 and on to the The South Dakota Art Museum in Brookings through August 2017. To schedule the exhibition at your museum, please contact The Heritage Center’s director Mary Maxon at


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