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Native Sun News Today: Vic Runnels was an artist for all seasons

A celestial buffalo spirit mesmerizes in this 2012 piece, “Star Bull,” by celebrated Oglala Lakota artist Vic Runnels. Image courtesy Vic Runnels

Oglala Vic Runnels: An artist for all seasons
Childhood obsession sparks long, successful career
By David Arredono
Native Sun News Today

Note: Vic Runnels passed away on January 29 and in his honor we are running an article written by David Arredondo in 2012. Native Sun News Today believes the article defines the essence of Mr. Runnels and we are proud to re-publish the great article on this phenomenal Lakota artist.

ABERDEEN –– You never know where life’s journey will take you.

Such sentiment rings absolutely true for Vic Runnels, a multitalented artist and member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Humble beginnings are often juxtaposed with tribulations and fortunes in the later years of life; the 76-year-old Runnels is now able to reflect and reminisce on his quarter-century journey.

He was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1936 and said he started as an artist when he would doodle in the margins of his notebooks during school. Runnels lived south of Batesland and rode horse to school.

“There weren’t any art programs back then,” said Runnels, “so I messed around (with art) a lot on my own.”

However, while improving his art skills, he says he encountered racism while living in Gordon, Neb., in the 1940s. There were still “No Indians Allowed” signs on buildings across the town.

Runnels said his mother had a laundry business and his father was a respected ranch foreman so they were “somewhat accepted” in the small Nebraska Panhandle town.

He says he did experience racism firsthand when the white kids in his school would yell racist remarks at him, the earliest coming when he was in first grade. Such treatment resulted in quite a few altercations between him and the malicious kids.

The late Vic Runnels, left, is seen with Bryan Brewer, his cousin and former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Photo:South Dakota Department of Tribal Relations

At age 13, inspired by older local artists, Runnels said he “became obsessed” with drawing and practiced on his own with crayons, pencils, oil paints and watercolors.

He graduated high school in 1954 and aspired to continue to expand his artistic abilities – but he faced a few setbacks.

“There weren’t any scholarships and very few things (like that) at that time,” said Runnels. “And (white teachers) told us that we (Native Americans) weren’t smart enough to go to college.”

He said there was a reservation education superintendent at the time that was supposed to help high school graduates make the transition to higher education. He informed the superintendent that he wanted to go to art school, but was rejected on the grounds of previous individuals dropping out.

“(Educators) said we could be carpenters, plumbers and printers, but we couldn’t be artists, teachers, lawyers and doctors.”

So a Presbyterian minister helped him enroll in the now-defunct Huron College. He attended the college for a year then transferred to South Dakota State University in Brookings to study wildlife conservation at the behest of his father. Runnels said he took art-class electives to enhance his knowledge in art.

He cut his postsecondary career short upon deciding to enlist in the U.S. Air Force.

While stationed at the Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, he asked his commanding officer if he could work nights and take classes during the day. Impressed by Runnels’ determination to study, his commander granted the request and put him in a program that paid for the classes as long as he got A’s on his transcript – which he did do.

Runnels was then transferred to the tundra of Greenland at the Thule Air Base, and continued to practice art in his spare time.

Returning from the military, the then-25-year-old Runnels settled down with his wife in Bruce, located in easternmost portion of South Dakota, and had three kids.

Looking for another opportunity to continue his art, he says he went back home to Batesland to visit his mother, and she informed him of the Urban Indian Relocation Program – a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs undertaking started in 1952 for Native Americans, which encouraged them to move from their reservations and into major cities across the country for training and employment.

Read the rest of the story on the Native Sun News Today website: Oglala Vic Runnels: An artist for all seasons

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