The Brinton Museum in Big Horn, Wyoming, is home to a collection of artifacts and objects from many Plains Indian tribes. As it open for the season, the Brinton along with the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies put together an exhibit centered around the Lakota creation story. Wyoming Public Radio's Catherine Wheeler sat down with Craig Howe, the director of the Center for American Indian Research, to talk about how the story has an impact today.
Catherine Wheeler: So Craig, can you tell me a little bit about this exhibit?
Craig Howe: This is the first exhibit the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies developed, and it's called Lakota Emergence. And it's based on a traditional narrative that was written down-we don't know when- but sometime between 1898 and 1917, because it was published in 1917. The person who wrote it down was James Walker, and he was a physician in the Pine Ridge Reservation for that time period. That's basically the most full and complete emergence narrative that we have.
CW: What is the Lakota emergence story about, like who are the central characters, what is going on?
CH: It tells how the Lakota ancestors came to move from the underworld where they were living to this world. There's a series of Lakota narratives that make this long, long, long story, and so this is a small slice of that story. But some of those Lakota people from the underworld had been banished to this world. And so the narrative is really about two of those key persons. One is a woman who was one of the most beautiful of the Lakota women in the world. Her name is Ite, it means face. When she was banished up here the spirits gave her an ugly face, so Two-Face Woman, Anog-Ite. And the other is a main character, this guy, is a trickster named Iktomi. And so those two both have reasons for getting some more Lakota people up here. She wants to have relatives, he wants people to play tricks on. So these two have to work together, even though she doesn't trust him, in order to trick her relatives to come up here.
CW: And so how does that story come alive in these illustrations and works for art?
CH: What we asked 16 Lakota artists to do was to illustrate passages of that narrative. We took the narrative, it was 1251 words, we divided it into 16 passages. And then for each passage we asked an artist to focus on just their passage and illustrate it in someway- anyway they wanted. So some of these artist made really conscious decisions to link that passage to contemporary conditions in Lakota reservations or among Lakotas today. So this is one way that it resonates with people. Then, and then also we have all the genres of art or almost all of them are represented in this exhibit.
CW: Why do you think this story is important to tell now?
CH: One reason is to show that Lakotas have narratives that link them to this land before there were non-Indians here. So this is not a contestation. This is our narrative. This is the Lakota narrative. It can withstand highly critical inquiry into it. It's not something just put together as a fairytale. It's the philosophy of the people. It's the stories that were passed down for generations, hundreds maybe thousands of years. And this is one of these examples that only American Indians can say they emerged here. No one else in the world can claim this is their land from the beginning of time. Only American Indians. And all American Indians can do that. So that's part of it. And another part of it is to illustrate that these lands, these landscapes and landmarks in our world today are sacred sites to Lakota people or to other tribal people. So it has these other layers intentionality and purpose to why we are developing these types of exhibits.
CW: Do you think the story in itself reveals anything about the Lakota worldview?
CH: Yes, it does, and it also illustrates the incorrectness of that worldview. They were not ahead of their time. They thought the world was basically flat and round. And so that's wrong. We know that's not accurate. That's not how it is. But to them, that's how it was. It also though shows the way of making relatives. And we see, in order for them to come up there, in order for Lakotas to be on this earth, Tokahe, the leader of those seven families that came up there, had to basically disobey what his elders told him. We are taught to obey our elders. He didn't, and because he didn't, we are here today. So I think it's this idea, there's no one way to be Lakota. It's only because someone went against protocol that we are here.
CW: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
CH: One other thing about the exhibit is that it illustrates the diversity of Lakotas. In their artworks, there are all these different artworks. There are all Lakota artworks, so there's not one way to paint Lakota. And the last artwork is by Dwyane Wilcox and it's called "Here We Are," and it's a representation of a Lakota family and you have all the different types of people represented there. So it gives us all permission to be ourselves while still being Lakota.
"Lakota Emergence" is at the Brinton through April 21.