Mary Bordeaux has a fascination with the buffalo: how their hooves are made to travel across badlands and prairie, how they instinctively know not to overgraze an area and how they’re built to survive in extreme climates.
But as a Lakota, that fascination runs deeper.
“I was taught as a Lakota person that they’re our brothers, they’re our family. We come from them, we’re related and they sacrificed themselves for us,” Bordeaux said. “Our clothes came from them, our food, our utensils; they were vital to our survival on the prairie.”
Bordeaux, interim director and curator at the Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School, explores this sacred bond — and how it was almost destroyed — in “Pte Oyate (Buffalo Nation),” an exhibit on display at the Dahl Arts Center through Dec. 28.
“My goal was to help people understand the importance of the buffalo or the bison to the Lakota people,” said Bordeaux, who curated the exhibit.
In exchange for the buffalo’s sacrifice for food, shelter and just about everything the Lakota needed, the people offered the buffalo their respect.
“Based on our stories, an arrangement was made between Lakota people and the bison. We would always respect them and we wouldn’t kill so many of them that they wouldn’t be here,” she said.
In the exhibit, artists Roger Broer, Layli Long Soldier, Micheal Two Bulls and Keith Brave Heart use the buffalo to represent the struggles the Lakota have endured with the nearly complete annihilation of the buffalo in the late 1800s — along with their way of life — and the efforts being made to renew that bond and the ties to their culture.
The artists were able to create new work specifically for the exhibit, thanks to funding from the Heritage Center and the First People’s Fund.
One of the pieces by Long Soldier, primarily a poet, is a sculpture called “Buffalo Book” featuring buffalo figures made of wire mesh screen and chicken wire. Up close, her poems can be read, but from a distance, a viewer can appreciate the entire scene.
“There’s something with her ability to create poetry. Her words are really powerful, and then when you step away, you have that visual that goes along with it,” Bordeaux said.
Two Bulls created a series of pastel, acrylic, india ink and coffee pieces, as well as sculptures of paper bison.
“There’s something about the delicacy of his work, with the paper bison,” Bordeaux said. “It’s delicate but strong-looking.”
Brave Heart’s use of strong color attracts attention in the exhibit. His acrylic piece, “To Clean the Buffalo,” shows a woman vacuuming a buffalo hide, while the view out the window shows skinned buffalo dotting the prairie. Another piece shows a group of Lakota from today gathered around a buffalo in a pen while in the background, Iktomi the trickster— a key figure in Lakota stories — is taking their photo.
“He has a way of speaking to the world without saying a word that I find invigorating,” Bordeaux said of Brave Heart’s work. “He is able to communicate with his art the way some people aren’t always able to do.”
Broer’s work, while using more subtle, earth-toned colors, has a “recklessness” to it, Bordeaux said. His prints include “Birth of the Wind,” showing swirls of buffalo and leaves, and “Being Invisible Takes Practice,” inspired by a drive Broer and his wife took through Custer State Park.
“It’s a print, so you’re not always sure exactly how it’s going to turn out. There’s something raw and reckless about that," Bordeaux said. "It has some confidence in it that says, ‘Take me as I am.’ I think he brings his ability to say anything to the exhibition. Younger artists tend to stray away from it; I think Roger has a good way of always being himself no matter what.”
The artists were chosen based on their work and the variety they would bring to the exhibit, Bordeaux said.
“Most of the people in the show are young people. They’re learning new traditions and new ways of working and interpreting stories,” said Broer, of Hill City. “They’re using different forms and different ways of using color. I think that in itself is kind of important.”
Broer’s pieces are based on the folklore of the Lakota, he said.
“Our culture is based on language and folklore and tradition,” he said. “I think most of all, a show like this is important because it shows that we’re humans who are very steeply entrenched in tradition and in our stories.”
Even the title of the show, “Pte Oyate,” is based in tradition.
“Tatanka is the male buffalo, and pte is the female,” Broer said. “Our society is a matriarchal society. When you see a herd of buffalo, a female is in the lead. That’s the way it is in our culture, as well: A grandmother or an aunt is the one in the family who makes the decisions.”
In addition to the art, the exhibit has included a series of interpretive events. The next one is from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 18, at the Cyclorama at the Dahl and will feature a Q&A with Bordeaux and the artists.
Previous events included a talk by history instructor Ken Zontek, author of “Buffalo Nation: The American Indian Effort to Restore the Bison,” and the viewing of the documentaries “Return of the Native,” focusing on reintroducing the buffalo to Northern Plains tribes, and “Good Meat,” about a Lakota man’s journey to rediscover the diet of his ancestors.
“We are revitalizing that relationship, and people are realizing the importance of the bison and how good it is for us to eat,” Bordeaux said.
Broer said he hopes there will be more of these kinds of events to link cultures.
“It’s kind of a gentle way of talking about sameness. I think that’s kind of a good thing,” he said. “A show like this can kind of bridge a gap between Lakota and the rest of the people who live in the world.”