Back home in Dallas, I always collected local art.
It was important to me to collect as well as sell my own work. It was also very important to me to support local artists. What I’ve enjoyed seeing here on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the dedicated effort to the arts. In many cases it is more than just an occasional activity — it is an artist’s only livelihood.
Many of these craftsmen and women stop at local businesses to see if any of the workers would be interested in their art. It is often beadwork or other jewelry-making. And it is often priced so well you can hardly believe it given the work that is put forth, especially if you are unaware of what it takes to make any given piece. I asked a beader recently why he kept his prices so low. He said it just comes so easily and so many people here do it that you have to keep your prices competitive. I honestly believe more likely than not, much of the work can sell easily in larger cities for three times the going rate on the reservation. I say that with a caveat, however. I get pretty sickened to see those kinds of sells happening online by people who come out here to buy at those rates and then make a larger profit off the work.
There is a convenience store in Pine Ridge called Big Bat’s that local Lakota artists use as an outlet to sell their art. Even though I bought a couple of pieces from Kevin Poor Bear there, it wasn’t the first place I met him. He was across the street making small talk, cracking jokes with me and my co-worker with his dog in tow. Mr. Poor Bear is without his legs but gets around easily in his chair which matched his hands — covered in paint and pastels. I wanted to photograph him so badly…just his hands and the wheels of the chair but I was apprehensive to ask. I often fear cliché while being out here…like he hadn’t heard, “Hey! Can I take your picture?” before but for me it was the beauty of the colors. His hands soiled from the work. And his chair reflecting the same.
He teased me about my tobacco pipe I was smoking and asked jokingly, “What is in there? Bob Marley?” Then he laughed and said he was an artist. He didn’t have his work with him but I said next time I saw him I would buy from him. Well, next time came and even though I was pretty short in the pockets, I’m still all about supporting local art.
The top piece depicts the Nakota, Lakota and Dakota of the great Sioux Nation. The one above is an interpretation of the colors White Buffalo Calf Woman changed who brought the seven sacred rights to the Lakota. Mr. Poor Bear had these among four others rolled up at his side as he wheeled around in freezing temps. It was hard to choose and we were all pretty chilly as I was pumping gas while he chatted with my co-worker. We had just been out trying to track down a contact for a story but the weather hindered the effort. But my word is my word so when I saw Mr. Poor Bear, I purchased the art.
One thing that is often overlooked when people visit the reservation is the work that these artists are doing. I say that because most of the time media comes out to the land and reports back the “hopelessness.” But here is a guy who does his work in the midst of any hindrances and there are many others. And more likely than not, those are many of the kind of people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. There is bad anywhere and yes, the devastation can be overwhelming. But the talent isn’t missing. The heart and passion isn’t buried.