WHITECLAY, Neb. | Whether it’s friendship bracelets, fiber art, traditional paintings — on hide or canvas — works of Native American art bring the past into the 21st century, connecting both the artist and the consumer to a centuries-old culture.
In Whiteclay, long-ridden by alcoholism, homelessness and hopelessness, that Native American art is serving as a path forward to a brighter future. A partnership between Lakota Hope Ministries, UNL Extension and Grow Nebraska has created opportunities for Lakota artists from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to reach global markets.
Between 25 to 30 local artists are currently part of the program, receiving 30 to 60 percent more revenue for their art than they would have received at local markets, according to a report prepared by Jenny Nixon, a UNL Extension Educator. Residents of the reservation are often in crisis mode, without enough to even purchase necessities, and locally will sell their art for far less than it’s worth just to create revenue.
“We’re dealing with an awful lot,” Nixon said.
As four liquor stores battled to remain open in Whiteclay last year, the focus surrounding the small village in Sheridan County remained on the troubles created by alcohol addiction and the estimated four million cans of beer sold each year. But there have been positive things taking place, too, overshadowed by street fighting, public drunkenness and vandalism.
The partnership between Lakota Hope, Grow Nebraska and UNL Extension has provided opportunities to Native American artists for education, expanded markets and increased revenue.
Long time in the making
The effort has been a long time in the making, dating back to 1998, when Bruce and Marsha BonFleur first arrived on the Pine Ridge Reservation to work as a school principal and a teacher. They left three years later for other employment but returned a year later, called to continue their ministry work in the border town.
In spite of the fact that a home and a store front opened up for them to purchase, Bruce fought the idea of working in Whiteclay for the first year and a half after they relocated.
“I didn’t want my wife and kids in Whiteclay," Bruce said. "I kind of fought locating here or doing anything directly on the street here.”
By 2004, word was getting out about their ministry work, and they began receiving inquiries from churches and missions across the country with offers of free labor and materials. One shipment included 550 boxes of clothing, while another carried a truckload of furniture.
“So we started trying to meet the needs of the people on the street,” Bruce said. That ranged from tasks as simple as talking to them or praying with them to larger endeavors such as serving a lunch three times a week or providing jobs in their thrift store in the 555 Building.
“We saw early on that this was a community of people who were struggling with addiction, and it was well-developed,” Bruce said.
The struggles have been real, but Lakota Hope Ministry persevered over the years, making small in-roads here and there as they’ve worked to provide chances for the Oglala Sioux to provide for themselves in a meaningful way. The Grow Nebraska partnership — Grow Nebraska Native — began several years ago to meet that goal, albeit slowly.
“It takes years to build relationships here,” Bruce said.
Janelle Ehrke, director of Grow Nebraska, said working with Lakota Hope to market Native American art globally fits perfectly within her organization’s mission to provide education and financial incentives to an economically depressed region. The collaboration with the nonprofit ministry and UNL Extension makes it more likely the program can be sustained by Native Americans on their own eventually.
Grow Nebraska purchases the Native American art and resells it through one of four online outlets or in its Kearney retail store. As an example, one piece of art was purchased for $40 and sold to a buyer in Tokyo for $160. Grow Nebraska retains 25 percent of the final sale price, 5 percent is returned to the Lakota Hope Grow Exchange, a market where artists can acquire materials ranging from feathers and beads to leather and paints. The balance is forwarded to the artist, revenue above and beyond Grow Nebraska’s initial purchase.
The Native art has been popular across the U.S. and worldwide.
“This gives them a year-round market instead of waiting for the tourist season,” Ehrke said.
Telling their story
Grow Nebraska also received funding from the Small Business Administration and USDA Rural Development to establish a computer lab at Lakota Hope. While the lab is open to the public, its primary function is for education for the Grow Nebraska Native artists. Nixon meets with the artists a couple of times a month in workshops dubbed Grow2Gather, teaching them business basics: setting up email accounts, how to create business, social media tips, how to take credit card payments or handle a cash box.
“For folks who are fairly unfamiliar with electronics, it’s a big step for them.”
The workshops deal with more than computer work, however. Speakers, including fellow Native American artists, teach them about presentation — of the work and themselves, including how to tell their stories and the cultural significance of their pieces.
“They’ve got to be able to tell that story,” Ehrke said. Grow Nebraska recently hired Eric Long, a Pine Ridge native, for 20 hours a week to serve as the program’s resource assistance coordinator. His newly created job is to explain the program to prospective artists and continue to gather and update the program’s profiles and descriptions of the artists and their work.
“We’ve made some pretty good steps,” Ehrke said.
Generally 15 to 25 artists attend the Grow2Gather workshops, everyone from teens to elders in the tribe, Nixon said.
“It’s been fun to see the range of people at those sessions,” she said.
Attending the sessions or volunteering to teach at one, along with a variety of other activities, earn the artists points. Those points can be used at the Grow Exchange Store to “purchase” material so the artists can continue to produce their creations. No money is exchanged in the store.
“They’re investing their time to increase their own personal skills,” Bruce said.
Lakota Hope’s NOAH nights serve as another outlet for the Native American artists to sell their products. Every summer for the last five years, the Lakota Hope arbor is home of the NOAH night, which features a Christian message and is attended by missionaries and church groups working in the region. When Lakota Hope began the program, about 35 attended, but now every Tuesday from June through August a couple hundred people come to hear the message presented.
During the NOAH nights, Grow Nebraska Native artists are allowed to set up as vendors and sell their art. Nixon estimates that the 2017 events generated $12,000 in sales for the artists.
“All of it has led to the point where we have seen God transform Whiteclay,” Bruce said.
Bruce and Marsha are among the first to admit that stopping the liquor sales haven’t solved all of the problems related to alcoholism. But the street people have dispersed, and there seems to be some sense of hope again.
“People are actively starting to live what we would call a more normal life,” Marsha said.
The couple is leaving Whiteclay this spring to return to their home in Alabama, but said the village will remain in their hearts. They will continue to work on behalf of the community, as Bruce is on the board of Whiteclay Makerspace, an initiative to establish a spot for artists to work from on a more permanent basis. He will also remain involved with the Whiteclay Redevelopment group.
They are selling the Lakota Hope property, but the ministry will continue to operate under the direction of Abram Neumann.
Paul Bertelson of Serve Ventures is buying the property. His mission group came to Whiteclay after learning about the village through the BonFleurs. Serve Ventures also purchased the 555 Building from the couple and is beginning to ramp up its ministry work on the reservation. The Main Street building in Whiteclay will house the local Serve Ventures office, a thrift store and possibly an incubator space for another business or two.
While Neumann will continue to operate Lakota Hope Ministry from its current location, the property on the edge of town will also serve as a base for Bertelson’s other project: little homes. It’s estimated that there is a shortage of 3,000 to 4,000 homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation, leading to severe overcrowding. Last year, Bertelson’s group framed up seven 12x20 homes that include a full bath, a galley kitchen, dining area and a loft for sleeping.
“The idea is to move these small little houses next to the homes and tap into existing utilities to alleviate some of the effects of overcrowding,” he said.
Construction of the homes is taking place on the Lakota Hope property, and they are finished once in place at a home on the reservation. Bertelson is working with OST Partnership for Housing to identify families who could benefit from the homes. The goal is to create an easy payment plan for the families to purchase the addition, with that funding reinvested in building more of the homes.
“I think it’s kind of an exciting time in the life of Whiteclay. There is an optimism of change and potential,” Bertelson said.