Marty Cuny '73

National award-winning artist, writer and actor.

From an early age the travel bug bit Marty Cuny, later pushing him across the country in a quest for knowledge, culture and stories. With awards from the Red Cloud Indian Art Show and pieces in collections coast-to-coast - including the Smithsonian - Marty continues to use his art to tell the story that might otherwise be lost.

Marty has traveled back and forth across the United States in true Kerouac-fashion, hitchhiking and working odd jobs in a quest for knowledge, culture and stories. Working as a police officer, marketing manager, writer, cook, art gallery docent, actor, screenwriter and Native artist, Marty has experienced a little bit of just about everything in his travels. But when we sat down with him recently, it was clear that the diverse and adventurous life of this now well-known artist started with encouragement to follow his passions and academic support from faculty and staff at Red Cloud Indian School.

Q&A with Marty Cuny, Class of 1973

What was the school like in the 1960’s and 1970’s when you attended Red Cloud Indian School (then Holy Rosary Mission)?

Red Cloud is a unique place. From an early age I noticed how the teachers took our Lakota culture seriously and incorporated it into their lessons. They were of course a Catholic school first and foremost, but I remember teachers going out of their way to show the similarities between Lakota and their Catholic way of life. There were Jesuits working on Lakota dictionaries, translating our stories and then of course there was Brother Simon. I met him in 1969 when he was just starting the Red Cloud Indian Art Show in order to showcase the local artistic talent. He really believed in the art and the value it had for our people.

Brother Simon was really was involved in the community too and got to know the history of my grandmother, who was something of an artist herself, and a lot of my extended family. A few years later I’d come to Brother Simon and he would say to me, “There’s my struggling artist! What do you have for me today.” He actually bought a lot of my early art and gave me that early confidence I needed to push me to continue refining my skills.

You grew up in the rural countryside outside of Oglala, SD, but became interested in travel and other cultures at an early age. What inspired you to see the world?

When I was a sophomore I was doing a lot of traditional Lakota dancing at the time and I was chosen by staff at Red Cloud to travel to Germany to perform during the summer with other students. Oh my, was that an experience! People were so friendly there and were so interested in our culture and our dancing.

I experienced a lot of prejudice with my family back home. We’d go to Nebraska to trade our furs and get dinner on the weekends and restaurants would regularly refuse to seat us. My grandfather would always just wait and confront it head on—it was really tough to experience that. I think it was the trip to Germany that reignited a sense of interest not only in my own culture and our arts, but also a curiosity that would eventually bring me all over North America and back to Europe as well.

Today your artistic endeavours include both screenwriting and acting as well as traditional craft. How did you come to writing and eventually to working with films?

People always used to ask me, ‘what do you want to be when you get older’ and I’d respond quickly. ‘I want to be a writer,’ I’d say. Reading was huge for me throughout school—I felt like I could learn anything if I could just find the book with the right information. I have to thank Red Cloud for providing me the attention and lessons in those formative years to learn the language and how to write it. A number of the teachers really encouraged me to write and my grandmother used to say, “Learn english so you know what they are saying. You’ll be able to do anything you want and you won’t be on the backend of a treaty.”

At home, I used to hear my grandmothers speaking in Lakota in the kitchen. At the other end of the room, the men would be talking about sports and hunting in english and I would sit in the wood box between the the living room and the kitchen and listen to both conversations and all those stories. And so, for me, writing has always been a way to try and make sense of the world, to tell stories that would otherwise be unknown or be lost.

Over the years this writing has taken the shape of screenplays and scripts—mostly about historic figures from my family like Standing Bear and Little Bat who had significant roles in the Battle of Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn) and the Wounded Knee Massacre, respectively. I continue to work on these and I’ve won a few awards and worked on a few films on the side like Lakota Woman, Thunderheart and All the Pretty Horses as an actor, stuntman and stand-in alongside folks like Billy Bob Thorton and Val Kilmer, which was pretty neat!

And what about for your more traditional arts?

In 1990 I suddenly had the urge to take off on an adventure. I was listening to that song with the lyric, ‘visit Boston in the springtime’ and my birthday, which is on the first day of spring, was just around the corner, so I thought to myself, ‘ok I will see Boston in the springtime!

I took off hitchhiking and grabbing rides with friends. I would work simple day labor jobs to pay for food and travel and bounced from Chicago to Boston, to D.C. and then out to Idaho, California—I saw all sorts of things.

One day I was in New York and I went into the laborers union to look for work. It was in the Bronx and I made a detour to the George Gustav Heye Center—part of the National Museum of the American Indian. I saw something I had never seen before. A horse doll.

Next time I was home I told my grandmother, who used to make traditional-styled human dolls out of cloth in between her winter work and trapping, ‘You should make a horse doll! I’ve seen them at the NMAI and people loved them.’ And she said to me, in a very direct way, ‘You’ve seen them, you make them.’ And so I did!

The first one looked like half cat, half dog, maybe some coyote in there, but either way, not a horse. Even still, after only a few attempts a gallery in Hot Springs, SD bought my horse doll. And that inspired me to get going and refine my craft. Today, I make buffalo, birds, elk and it’s really become my bread and butter so to speak. It allows me the financial stability to take time to write and work on my screenplays.

Last year at the 45th Red Cloud Indian Art Show I won “Best Depiction of an Indian on Horseback” and have pieces at The Heritage Center, St. Joseph’s, and even one in the Smithsonian, where I first saw that original piece. It if wasn’t for Brother Simon all those years back supporting and encouraging me when I was trying all sorts of things I don’t know if I’d be able to talk about accomplishments like these.

You’ve certainly made a name for yourself. Do you have any advice for the students that are walking in your footsteps and coming up behind you?

Yes! Learn to read and read everything you can get your hands on. This is what I always tell young people I meet. If you can read, you can create anything in the world. You can build a rocket or ship or a horse doll—whatever you’re interested in. So just read. Every chance you get.

And if you don’t know a word or what something means, find someone to ask—Ask a teacher like I did. Don’t be ashamed, you’re not stupid and you’ll be that much smarter when you find out what it means and how you can use it to better your understanding.

If I see something, and I want it bad enough, I look for information on it and read about. I love reading and the only downside to loving reading is staying up all night reading a book because you can’t put it down!

And finally, when you go off to create and learn, come back. You’ll want to come home. You’ll find out what you need to know and find yourself coming back to share it with others, with your people. And that’s a good thing.

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last updated: August 4, 2014