One of the tasks I had on our recent trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation was to buy some Lakota art and crafts. I realize that doesn’t sound like a difficult task and you might even question calling it a task at all.
But since I was not buying these things for myself, I did see it as a task. It was an assignment of sorts.
Before we left for South Dakota, the parish to which I belong took a collection and raised a hefty sum of money for outreach to the reservation. The idea for a project which I feel has potential began to blossom.
We decided to use the money to improve the economy on the rez in a very small but concrete way. We would buy art or crafts directly from the artists with the money we raised. This would give the individuals from whom we purchased the art some income, which is very difficult to find on the rez, where the unemployment rate ranges between 80% to 90%. The income would both provide for their needs as well as reward their initiative and creativity. The purchased items would come home with us and be resold in some way. (I personally am thinking we should invite other parishes, have a silent auction while we do a presentation about life on the rez and Lakota culture and thus raise awareness as well as funds.) The money raised will be used to repeat the process and perhaps become an annual event, providing a market for Lakota art in central Massachusetts. It’s exciting to think about the possibilities!
However, buying the items was interesting to say the least. I had to be quite aware of the need to purchase a variety of kinds of items (for example, not all earrings) as well as things that would appeal to tastes other than my own. That can be a challenge.
Finding items was easy. Many Lakota work year round doing crafts and beadwork items so that, when summer and the tourist season come along, they have an inventory ready to offer. Items may be offered in a shop, on the street or by word of mouth. Here are some of the places I found my art.
The Heritage Center at Red Cloud school. The Heritage Center houses a large collection of historical artifacts. At the time we visited, they were also hosting an art exhibition. There were so many beautiful pieces done by Native artists! We eventually bought a small piece directly from one of the artists with whom I was acquainted. The Heritage Center also has a gift shop that features art made by craftsmen on the reservation to help raise funds for the school. These items are of very high quality but we did manage to afford a few, including hand-painted Christmas ornaments and a wooden, painted horse.
Our second opportunity for purchasing art came in a visit to a couple to whom I had given a sponsor a couple of years ago. He does pen and ink drawings. She does beadwork – jewelery, leather items. These are good work and not too expensive.
Our third opportunity to purchase came at Big Bat’s. I don’t know what that name brings to your mind, but it has come to mean a kind of modern-day trading post to me. Big Bat’s has a convenience store, snack bar, rest rooms, and gas pumps. It is a kind of meeting place and rest area. You can stop as a tourist and find what you need. You can stop as a resident and grab lunch before returning to work.
If you are a resident trying to sell art or crafts, Big Bat’s offers you a wide variety of potential buyers. These are the people who are trying to sell their art to feed themselves or their family, perhaps. They may be selling art to feed their addiction. There is no way to know, of course. But if the art is worth what they are asking, the money is still going into the local economy. I’ll try to describe some of the folks we bought from here.
The first man was on the sidewalk in front of Big Bat’s. Both his legs had been amputated at the knees and he was in a wheelchair. If I had to guess, I would say he was probably diabetic. He was very assertive though never rude. He had charcoal drawings which he wanted $30 for. They were pretty good. We got one. We visited Big Bat’s a few more times over the course of our stay and each time he approached us. When I reminded him that I had already purchased a picture, he would laugh and banter with us.
I think our “wheelchair man” was also a lookout for other artists who would come down to Big Bat’s. I saw him pointing us out to another “salesman” who then came over to us.
The man he sent to us was a blind man who had a teenaged young man as his companion. They introduced themselves to us and asked if we would be interested in purchasing anything. I said I would look at it. I also looked at the man as he handled the items. He was indeed blind (another condition frequently seen as a complication of diabetes). I asked how he made certain items if he could not see. He explained that his aunt made some of the jewelry and he sold it in exchange for a place to live. The items they had were very nice and we purchased several items.
My final purchase at Big Bat’s occurred as a result of an encounter in the ladies rest room — I kid you not! I was washing my hands at the sink when an elderly Lakota woman came out of a stall and came over to the sink as well. She looked me over as she washed her hands then asked if I would be interested in seeing the jewelry she had made. I said okay, clearly understanding that she wanted to sell me what she had. But she indicated we should go out of the rest room first. Then she reached into her pocket and took out two pair of earrings and two suede, beaded friendship bracelets and held them out in her hand. I bought them all at very reasonable prices.
I said that was my final purchase at Big Bat’s but that is not technically true. However, this last purchase was pre-arranged, not due to a chance encounter. I had contacted the artist whose work had been exhibited in the show at the Heritage Center to see if he had anything to sell. Did I hit the jackpot!
I will give you his name, though I typically don’t give names in this blog, because his work is so beautiful and detailed and because as an artist, his name deserves to be known. Joel Pulliam was one of the award winners at that exhibition. He agreed to meet me at Big Bat’s and brought some of his paintings with him. I purchased two for the church and one for myself. It was “ledger art” done on antique ledger paper from a book dated 1885.
It’s one thing to tell you about the art and the buying experience. But I’d like to share it with you as well. So I’m attaching pictures I’ve taken of some of the items. Before the pictures, you’ll find a few links to websites for places I’ve mentioned.
Heritage Center: http://www.redcloudschool.org/museum/index.htm
Big Bat’s: http://www.bigbats.biz/