The Gift

Articles of a Treaty


Tapun Sa Win

The Great Race

Lakota Emergence

. . . and innovative projects . . .

The Lakota Educational Arts Project (LEAP) is an extension of a series of annual art exhibitions based on traditional Lakotan narratives that CAIRNS has organized since 2015. Conceptually, the first one, Lakota Emergence, is about why Lakotan ancestors left their homes in the underworld and traveled through a cave into this world. It describes Lakotans emerging into this world at a place now known as Wind Cave. The second exhibit, The Great Race, focuses on an epic race of all the creatures of this world that resulted in the formation of the Black Hills. The third exhibition, Tapun Sa Win, picks up the vertical trajectory in Lakota Emergence and extends it from this earth to the stars, which are made relatives through the marriage of Red Cheek Woman (Tapun Sa Win) and a star man who later becomes the North Star. Their son, Fallen Star, embodies the kinship between Lakotans and the stars.

These are wonderful narratives, but what brings them to life today are the creative interpretation of them by contemporary Lakotan artists. The approach we use is to divide the narratives into passages (sixteen in Lakota Emergence, eight in The Great Race, and seven in Tapun Sa Win) and then invite Lakotan artists to create works tied to their assigned passages. In Lakota Emergence, before inviting artists we selected one or more artifacts, created by Lakotan ancestors, from the Sioux Indian Museum (SIM) that we felt were linked to each of the passages. Then we gave each artist a passage and images of the selected artifact(s) and asked them to create a new work tied to their passage and, if possible, to incorporate the artifact(s) in some manner. Because the SIM artifacts cannot travel with the exhibition, artifacts for each passage can be selected from the collections of a host museum, from a private collection with some connection to that institution, or can be excluded from the show.

In the other two exhibitions, we shifted from incorporating artifacts to expanding the type of artworks tied to the passages. In particular, we incorporated songs and poems. As with the visual artists, each musician composes a song for their assigned passage, and each poet writes a poem for their assigned passage. The poems are displayed as text panels in the exhibits and are also printed  in the catalogs; the songs are accessible at the exhibitons by scanning QR codes, and in the exhibit catalogs through either Dropcards that provide a URL and password for downloading them, or through QR codes printed on the pages.

After demonstrating that CAIRNS can produce high-quality educational art exhibitions featuring contemporary Lakotan artists and traditional Lakota narratives, we shifted the focus for our fourth exhibit, Takuwe, to a tragic historical event: the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. In this case, the “narrative” consists of first-person accounts by Lakotans organized into seven temporal sections, beginning with the tenets of the Ghost Dance religion, then the assassination of Sitting Bull, the trek of Lakotans from there to Wounded Knee, the massacre on December 29, 1890, the four-day period following the massacre, the two days of burial of Lakotan bodies in a mass unmarked grave, and finally the ongoing efforts by Lakotans to commemorate their relatives who were senselessly slaughtered that December day. “Takuwe” is a Lakota word that translates into English as “why.”

These seven sections are the core of the Takuwe exhibition. Thirty Lakota artists created new artworks for the sections. As with the Great Race and Tapun Sa Win exhibitions, Lakotan poets and musicians also created a poem and a song for each section.

Recognizing that many more people wished to participate in this exhibition, we invited Lakotans and non-Lakotans of all walks of life to create 5-inch square artworks to be included in the exhibition. These squares were powerful reminders that Lakotas remain here today and that the massacre still resonates with people. CAIRNS provided the artboards and paid each artist a $12.29 honorarium when they submited their artwork. CAIRNS also gave each artist a copy of the exhibition catalog and paid them if their artwork sold. There was no age requirement to participate. Children and adults were indiscriminately slain that December day in 1890, and this is reflected by the diversity of the square artists. Regardless of skill level, we expected participants to put forth their best effort.

In the end, nearly 250 pieces from K-12 and college students, prison inmates, and other persons in and beyond South Dakota were received. We hoped that the number of these contributors plus the exhibition creatives would surpass 300, which is the number of persons who were killed at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890.

Our fifth exhibit focused on the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty negotiated between the Oceti Sakowin Confederacy and the United States of America. The criteria for participating broadened from Lakotans to Lakotans, Nakotans and Dakotans, since representatives from those nations signed the treaty. The “narrative” was the text of the treaty, and the “passages” were the text of the 17 articles that comprise the treaty. For each passage, two visual artists, a poet and a musician created new works that interpreted the treaty’s articles. Over seventy artists created songs, poems, 2-D and 3-D pieces for the Articles of a Treaty exhibit.

Finally, our sixth exhibit, The Gift, returns to the origins of our exhibitions: a traditional Lakotan narrative interpreted by contemporary Lakotan creatives. The narrative recounts the gift of the Sacred Pipe from the Buffalo Nation to the Itazipcoan people, and the exhibit also includes artworks, songs and poems about the seven “gifts,” or ceremonies, that White Buffalo Woman foretold would be associated with the Pipe.

Navigating Narratives