Of The Ancient Painting Tradition
White Shield, N.D. White Shield, ND rests on the Fort
Berthold Indian Reservation, about a two hour drive north and west
from the North Dakota state capital. The drive may have been a few
hours, but it allowed me to take in the majesty of the vast open
plains and the great open sky and the quiet drive north on HWY 83
took me through Lake Sakakawea and Lake Audubon.
I had been in contact with S.D. Nelson since the South Dakota
Book Festival of 2012. I happened to pass him by one afternoon there.
He had just finished a conversation with another festival attendant
and it was obvious that he had other business to attend to, and
I had wanted to meet him so I called out to Nelson. He gave me a
nod and wave, and intended to continue on, but when I said, Im
from Standing Rock. Nelson immediately stopped in his tracks,
turned around and made time to visit with me.
A late winter storm the previous week dropped about eighteen
inches of snow on the prairie steppe. Piles of snow were pushed
or dumped in efforts to open the roads and drives, but the daytime
warmth of spring had melted much and puddles of water had collected
in potholes and ditches, slush lined the sidewalks and steamed as
White Shield public school, an unassuming weary-looking older
building dominates the townscape. A pale beige brick exterior masked
an updated interior. A tiled floor carried the echoes of children
at play or lessons down the halls and out the main door when I entered
and made my way to the library.
Nelson's program was received
with great enthusiasm and many students had questions.
It was a tidy library but bigger than the school
library of my youth back on Standing Rock. The chairs and tables
were arranged in a horseshoe to accommodate Nelsons presentation.
A select cadre youth had made the drive up from the Cannonball Elementary
School on Standing Rock just to see Nelsons program and to
get him to sign their books. They arrived about forty minutes early
and Nelson graciously gave them his complete attention before the
Nelson is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. His traditional
name in the Lakota language is Mahpíya Kinyan, or Flying
Cloud, which is also the name of one of his ancestral grandfathers
who was a storyteller and horse thief. He may not have grown up
on the reservation, but he spent his summers there with his maternal
grandparents and frequently returns. The land of sky and wind reached
settled deep into Nelsons mind and heart, and while he traveled
with his enlisted father across the nation, and even as he now lives
in Arizona, Standing Rock and the Great Plains are still home.
Nelson is a retired teacher. He earned a BS in Art Education
from Minnesota State University in Moorehead, MN and taught art
at Wahpeton, ND before making a move to Arizona and teaching there.
The winters got to be too much for me, said Nelson with
a smile. He is now retired from teaching, but he still engages learners
in scheduled workshops and makes time, like today, to be with native
youth back on the plains. Nelson may be self-employed, but hes
still an educator at heart.
Images like this of an old
pickup truck out in the field and horses speak to the native
youth who for them is a common occurrence.
Nelson actively engaged the students. His use of
the lecture style presentation tells how he was taught and how he
learned, but Nelson includes a media presentation, a showcase of
selected past works, sketches of works and brilliant finished paintings
which keeps the students in rapt attention. One painting depicts
children on a prairie in the morning waiting to get on a bus, and
putting it that way makes it sound unexciting, but the painting
reaches out to the children because the landscape is alive with
plains symbols of strength, medicine and life. The imagery and symbolism
meant more, meant something cultural as well as personal to those
Whether the children are aware of it or not, Nelson had shown
them the importance of going to school and getting an education.
Later in the hour, he reinforces that message by encouraging them
to pursue an education and in a field they love.
is evidence in many of Nelsons paintings of a deep love and
respect for horses, or as he would say, The Horse Nation.
Horses are also associated with thunder too, and much of his work
ties the horses with thunder. Once a traditionalist questioned Nelsons
authority to depict lightning and the workings of thunderstorms,
which stemmed from a deep-seated tradition that only certain people
could depict, to which Nelson replied, Lightning came to my
house twice. I have a direct connection to lightning, thunder and
Along with a presentation of stories and select images of his
paintings, Nelson shared painting techniques with the children.
I brush the paint on, but I also take a little sponge. I get
them wet and squeeze them until their soft and pliable and then
dip them in paint, and I sponge paint on.
From Nelson's "Quiet
Hero: The Ira Hayes Story."
The presentation moved into illustrations of Ira Hayes, the
Pima Indian from Sacaton, Arizona who helped raise the American
flag on top of Mt. Suribachi in WWII. After the war, Hayes descended
into alcoholism and died. Nelson then delicately shared his own
experience as a recovering alcoholic.
The air grew a little heavy and the children settled into a
solemn silence as Nelson spoke of the native struggle with alcohol
and alcoholism, but he brought hope in his message that life is
so much better without alcohol or substances. Im an
alcoholic. I havent had a drink in twenty-seven years.
He credits God, the Great Spirit, with giving him the strength to
stay sober. Thank you God, for giving me a good life, so that
I could write these books and tell these stories, Nelson said.
a hangover one morning long ago, Nelson was watching his two little
girls play in the backyard when he realized that he needed help.
He picked up the phone and called the local A.A. chapter who immediately
sent over two people to give him reassurances and encouragement
to live clean.
Nelson concluded his warning of the perils of alcohol, My
hope for you is that you wont drink and youll receive
I promise you.
Art has been in Nelsons life since he was little boy.
His earliest memory of art in the home is of his mothers project
in which she applied tempera paint to the living room window. I
remember marveling at her. It was big and it was colorful, and the
sun shone through the paint like a stained glass window. Art
was encouraged in the home and when he was three or four years old,
Nelson recalled sitting at the kitchen table and finger painting.
Art runs in Nelsons blood. His mother was a landscape
artist who had studied academic and classical painting under the
tutelage of Herr Von Schmidt, a German artist. His maternal great-grandmother,
Khízá Wi? (Fighting Woman) was a traditional artista
fine beader. Unfortunately, one of her creations, a fully beaded
buckskin dress had to be sold to help support the family. Nelsons
mother, had little time to devote to painting due to the demands
of motherhood, but her creativity manifested in quilting.
It wasnt until a rainy day at school when his class stayed
indoors that Nelson decided to consider art seriously. He was working
on a wildlife scene at his desk when an older alpha male
fellow whom the class all admired stopped by Nelsons desk
and peered over his shoulder, and said, Wow, thats really
good. Nelsons confidence was boosted further when his
classmate declared, Guys, come over here and look at this.
Nelsons mother spoke fluent Lakota and English, and she
handed down cultural stories with life lessons like the old Iktomi,
or Trickster, stories. Nelson fondly recalls a summer night in his
childhood in Fort Yates. His father had heard that the satellite
ECHO was going to pass above so Nelsons mother took him and
his brothers and sister outside to watch for it. While watching
the heavens Nelsons mother told them that the Lakota are people
of the stars, and up above was their grandfather, Nelsons
Lakota namesake Flying Cloud, riding his horse. I looked and
I couldnt see a horse, all I saw were stars, but I knew what
she was talking about. I got it. I didnt have to ask her or
say that grandpas not there. She was talking about infinity.
She was talking about forever. I felt the stars were alive.
When he was a little boy, when the Missouri River was still
free flowing on the bottomlands below Fort Yates, his mother and
grandmother repeatedly warned Nelson and his siblings not to go
swimming in the river. Historically the river was dangerous. In
fact, the Lakota called the river Mni hohé, which
means The Water-Astir. Before the dam, the river was
brown with sediment that was stirred up by the swirling churning
river and for the Lakota who had become coffee drinkers the river
reminded them of the motion of stirring their coffee with sugar
or cream. The river was indeed dangerous and only in the mid to
late summer was swimming in the river advised for even strong swimmers
were pulled under by the undercurrent and never seen from again.
Today, the river and the lake are blue.
remembers the river as a river. As a boy, he longingly desired to
swim in the forbidden waters and that longing is echoed in his voice
today. Its a beautiful lake, said Nelson in an
accepting tone. I like to see kids swimming there.
After the dams were built in the 1950s, the US Army Corps of
Engineers approached the people of Standing Rock and asked them
what they would like to call the new lake. Their cryptic response,
for they werent happy with the Corps, Oahé,
which means Something To Stand On in reference to the buildings
that were taken under the rising waters and drifted apart and away
leaving only the foundations.
Childhood memories came swift to Nelson. His grandmother, Josephine
Gipp Pleets, was born in a tipi, and lived in a cabin in Fort Yates
when he knew her. In her back yard grew a modest grove of Chinese
Elm trees. Nelson would climb them as high as he could. The birds
were used to him and continued to land in their nests or flit away
unconcerned in their business. He would gaze out over the tree tops
for hours at a time watching the river, the valley and the sky.
SD Nelson may live in the southwest. His house is there in eternal
summer, but his heart is in the never ending horizon of the Great
Plains, his soul is with the Lakota and Dakota people in the land
of sky and wind. He is a son of Standing Rock and his lifes
work recalls it in each sketch and painting, and his paintings touch
the souls of children.
For more information about SD Nelson visit him online at SDNelson.net.
S.D. Nelson is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the
Dakotas. My people are known as the Sioux or Lakota. During
the 19th century they were renowned as the Horse People of the Great
Plains. My ancestors were also the people of the Buffalo, for the
Buffalo gave them most of their food, their warm robes, and the
lodge skins of their tipis.