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Elizabeth Cook-Lynn: Telling the indigenous story with public art

The following is the opinion of Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. All content © Native Sun News.

Artist's rendering of The First Nations Sculpture Garden in Rapid City, South Dakota. Image from FNSG

What is the function of Public Art?
By Elizabeth Cook-Lynn

Public Art, in general terms, is often said to be the catalyst for education and contemplation. It shapes history and reflects the lives and values of a community in a specific geography.

This proposed art/history project (called The First Nations Sculpture Garden) remembers the past of the indigenous peoples of this area, the Dakotapi, and draws attention to the modern accomplishments of a People who have lived here for thousands of years and still do. It may be considered a puny project by mere human beings when compared to some of the works familiar to all of us, but it is an enormous undertaking for those who ordinarily know monuments simply in the powerful shapes of the prairies, in the land, in the rocks and rivers and a vast western landscape.

The FNSG developers have asked for the support of the City as well as the community because we believe that Art, public art in particular, must do something more than just give pleasure or honor individual memory or make heroes or depict an ideal such as a flag, law and order, justice or flower garden to attract tourists and visitors.

If that is all Art does, we as a People become afflicted with amnesia. We forget who we are and where we come from; our ancestors and progenitors mere fantasy.

As far as Indians in this settler community are concerned, and as far as what Rapid City has done with its 6000 claimed acres of park space, it places indigenous peoples only in a forgotten past, warriors of a vanished era with no future and no present. In taking a look at the public art presented here, Rapid City has become a city afflicted with Amnesia, a city filled with mainstream people deliberately failing to remember the remarkable history of this place, the people who claim indigenousness, and the reasons why the Black Hills has always has been a remarkable place to live.

It is true, one supposes, that Public Art is often self-serving, even political and narrow minded and biased, functioning to entertain and please, and attract the attention of passers-by. That is true everywhere. Galleries in London, for example (though I've never been there) are filled with photographs and paintings of British Monarchs dressed in royal finery, jewels, tiaras and furs.

They are beautiful and handsome replicas of a revered past and they are beautiful and they are entertaining to those who love beauty. But, isn’t there something missing? Shouldn't it also say something about why those English monarchs forged a nation, England that became the most powerful colonizer of several centuries?

On the other hand, art (being the serving strategy that it is) often does NOT describe a beautiful world. One is reminded of the art of Diego Rivera and his dreadful wife Frieda. The reason it so remarkable is that it is not entertainment. It is not for tourists. It is not fantasy. Nor is it beautiful. It is, instead, the examination of the horrors of being poor and Indian in a wealthy nation called Mexico run by the conquistadors; it portrays governmental oppression of its citizens, of the tragedy of the industrialization of an entire country, of how wealthy industrialists raped the land and the citizens.

An aerial view of The First Nations Sculpture Garden in Rapid City, South Dakota. Image from FNSG

Now, I am not suggesting that the First Nations Sculpture Garden should go there. What I am saying is that Public Art has the responsibility to draw attention to History and it does have a connection to Public Policy, and it is often up to the viewer to draw conclusions about its meanings. It is a fact of history that we all live here with the knowledge that this is stolen land and that The Black Hills Were Never for Sale.

Historical crimes have taken place throughout history and in all time, and are often unappeased; yet, the loss of the memory of these crimes is often a willing loss. In our case, here, in this community, we must try to remember who we are and who we can become through an art project such as this garden. Hundreds of families, children, visitors and officials can benefit from remembering the past through an artful garden that does more than give pleasure.

The attempt of this art-history project is to do justice to the past by drawing attention to the accomplishments of four notable 20th century Sioux persons who excelled in art, medicine, scholarship, philosophy and religion, in law, writing and federal policy and they did it under the most difficult circumstances of a time of invasion, enforced assimilation, displacement, and restrictive laws. This monument does not lay claim to all historical knowledge, only to its own. It is not meant to have the last word. It is meant to reflect a small portion of a significant INDIGENOUS STORY through the lives of our honored scholars who lived in the past century.

It is the hope of the FNSG that this modern art garden will help us all understand that the loss of the significant memory of a remarkable history in a community like Rapid City which often turns its face away from the struggle of an unsatisfactory century of dishonor (which is what Helen Hunt Jackson has called it), is to suppress the real meaning of what our future can hold.

Professor Cook-Lynn is the President of the First Nations Sculpture Garden, Inc., an art/history project which will honor Lakota/Dakota/Nakota history through the planned installation of four 20th century notables of the Sioux Nation of South Dakota at Halley Park, 1515 West Boulevard, Rapid City, SD. Honorees are Charles Eastman (Santee), Nickolas Black Elk (Oglala), Oscar Howe (Ihanktowan), Vine Deloria, Jr., (Hunkpapa)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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