The Arts
Views vary on inclusion of U.S. flag at Native cultural celebrations
Tuesday, November 03 2015
Written by Jon Lurie,
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Stephen Yellowhawk grew up on the powwow circuit, traveling across the United States and Canada with his family. As a young boy, this son the Lakota and Iroquois Nations was fascinated by the athletic, flashy style of the Fancy Dance (also known as Fancy War Dance), and the men who performed it wearing stunning, elaborate regalia: feather bustles, bells, roach rockers, beaded cuffs and moccasins. He would watch breathlessly as the dancers entered the arena following a color guard bearing eagle feather staffs and American flags. The Fancy Dance, young Stephen learned from his elders, was performed to honor the heroics and sacrifices of the warriors and veterans.

While other kids might have fantasized about hitting baseballs like Babe Ruth, Yellowhawk grew up emulating the legendary fancy dancers who invented the genre in the 1930s and 1940s. Men like Stephen Mopope (Kiowa), Dennis Rough Face (Ponca), Chester Lefthand (Arapaho), and George “Woogie” Watchetaker (Comanche); Elmer Sugar Brown, who added back flips to his fancy dancing; and Gus McDonald who added both cartwheels and splits.

Yellowhawk got his first opportunity to dance when he was barely old enough to ride a bike. That first powwow took place in Rapid City at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.  He still recalls the pride he felt dancing behind the flag-bearing veterans as they entered the arena during his initial grand entry.
“From the time I first became a fancy dancer I understood that I was honoring our warriors and our veterans, both past and present,” says Yellowhawk, who is now in his sixth year as president of the Black Hills Powwow Association. The Black Hills powwow, today one of the largest in the United States, takes place each October at the same Rapid City arena where Yellowhawk initially danced as a child.

“A lot of our people have put their lives on the line for this country,” Yellowhawk says. “We hold that in very high regard, which is why we always start our powwow by honoring the warriors. They are the ones who have fought to keep our culture alive, to give us the freedom to celebrate life, and to celebrate our culture.”

Yellowhawk and the other members of the powwow association stress that all are welcome to attend, a healing message for a city with a long history of racial strife. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Native, non–Native, what tribe you’re from, what part of this community, what part of this nation you’re from – everybody is welcome,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing regalia or not. If you just want to get out there and dance, you like the sound of the drum. You don’t have to be Native to come out and dance.”

The inclusive messaging draws many non-Indians the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. For some of these curious spectators, the powwow is their first exposure to authentic Native American culture. Inevitably, the impressive pageantry inspires questions. Among those most commonly asked is this: Why would Native Americans, people who have suffered hundreds of years of colonization and genocide, honor the U.S. military and the American flag at a cultural celebration?

Emmy Her Many Horses (Sicangu Lakota) has heard this question many times. Her Many Horses, who grew up on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, is renowned for performing the United States National Anthem in the Lakota language. Hundreds of Native American veterans have received copies of the translated Anthem on CD. In 2011 she was one of eleven Native American young people honored by President Obama as a “Champion of Change.”

Her Many Horses says the Anthem project has been motivated by a desire to honor those who have fought to “defend our people, and where we come from.” This includes, she says, Native people and other U.S. citizens.

She says there are a great many reasons why Native people choose to join the U.S. military, but that regardless of their motivation, they should be recognized for having served.

“For Native people there is a difficulty in trying to remain true to who we are from our tribal nations, and who we are in society today. For some, I think, they are seeking to be that warrior. For others, the military may be their best chance at getting away from their homes and finding opportunity. The military is also an opportunity that will help pay for school, allow travel, and teach new skills. Many are following a family tradition, a cultural tradition.”

The involvement of Native people in the military goes back hundreds of years. Considering Natives were involved in the American Revolution (and every subsequent U.S. war), indigenous people have been fighting for America since before it was a country.

According to the Department of Defense (in 2010) 22,569 enlisted service members, and 1,297 officers on active duty, were American Indian. Considering the population of the United States is approximately 1.4 percent Native, and the military is 1.7 percent Native, Indian people have the highest per-capita involvement of any population serving in the U.S. Military.

“I grew up in a community where I learned to respect those who made that choice to serve. We all were touched in some way by the military. We all have family who served. We all love someone who served,” Her Many Horses says.

Her Many Horses knows that the inclusion of patriotic expressions at Native cultural gatherings does not go over well with everyone. She says she has lost friends who objected to her Anthem project.
Joe Perez (Sicangu Lakota), a Minneapolis-based powwow MC, is among those Native people who would prefer not to see the U.S. flag flown over their traditional homelands. Perez compares his gut reaction to seeing the U.S. flag entering a powwow grounds to what he imagines a Jewish person might feel when viewing a swastika. “Our people have been so influenced by messages coming from the dominant culture that we fail to see the flag for what it is – a symbol of our own oppression,” he says.

Perez believes that Native people who embrace the U.S. flag suffer from a form of Stockholm syndrome, the psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with their captors.
“Of course, joining the military can be a legitimate way for Native people to become warriors,” he says. “If indigenous nations had our own militaries, however, joining the American military would be treasonous. You don’t have to join the military to be a warrior, you just have to contribute to the good of your people.”

Perez enjoys attending professional sporting events, such as the Minnesota Twins at Minneapolis’ Target Field. He refuses to stand when the National Anthem is played, which sounds, to his ears, incongruous in the land of his ancestors. He says it would be more appropriate to hear a prayer song honoring the sacred pipe.

“I remain seated because I’m a Lakota person being oppressed in my own homeland by foreign intruders,” he says. “They have no connection to this land, and yet they’re trying to make me sing their most patriotic song.”

The single father of 12 year-old Mariah teaches his daughter to stand at school during the Pledge of Allegiance “out of respect for her classmates,” but insists she must never recite the words as he believes the Pledge is a form of political indoctrination.

“People will think and say what they believe,” says Emmy Her Many Horses, who has heard every imaginable response to her National Anthem project. “We all have that right to do so. I made a choice to do something I cared about, for people I cared about,” she says.

As a child growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Von Gillette (Arikara/ Hidatsa/Lakota) remembers watching many powwows and swelling with pride as the flags were carried in. He associated the American flag and the uniformed veterans who brandished them with the military service of several close relatives, including his grandfather, father, and uncles.

“They would bring in the U.S. flag alongside the tribal flag and the POW/MIA flag. The three seemed to be working in conjunction. I didn’t really question it. I associated the flags with the veterans I knew. I thought of them as honorable, and so the U.S. flag was something I respected.”

As a ten-year-old, Gillette recalls the moment he began to question the actions of the U.S. military and the political leaders who wielded its massive power. “I watched on television as the U.S. military bombed the Iraqis, and something about it made me suspicious. I began to see a connection between what the military was doing in Iraq – seeking to take another nation’s oil resources – and what it had done to Native people.”

Gillette was further disillusioned by the stories elders told of the military invasion of his reservation during the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation. “U.S. law says the military cannot be deployed on U.S. soil against U.S. citizens. But that’s exactly what they did in 1973 when they surrounded Indian people – U.S. citizens – who were occupying their own land. I have never been able to make sense of that.”
As an adult Gillette settled in Saint Paul and established a successful business training athletes. He also began to take a more critical look at the actions of the U.S. military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world as the War on Terror intensified following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Towers.

Today, Gillette says, he is neither pro- nor anti-military, but has formed opinions based observation of the military’s actions. “What the U.S. military has done around the world in the past two decades has been disastrous. They have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people. I don’t have any respect for that. But I don’t blame veterans; I blame the politicians in the White House. I have a lot of relatives who have served and I respect them absolutely. It gets confusing. But that doesn’t mean I have to have an all or nothing attitude.”

If it were up to him, the indigenous nations of America would cease raising the U.S. flag until the government follows through on its treaty obligations. Gillette wants to see the restoration of the Great Sioux Nation (as described in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868), the return of the Black Hills (which were removed from the Great Sioux Nation following the 1877 treaty), and an honoring of every other treaty signed by the United States.

“I have a hard time using a flag which pays tribute to a country that doesn’t uphold its basic legal agreements,” he says, at the same time expressing sympathy for those Native people who originally wove the flag into cultural gatherings.

Gillette says it was a matter of basic survival. “At one time powwows were illegal, but one of the ways you could have a powwow was to fly the U.S. flag; it was like a white flag of surrender that said: ‘Please don’t kill us while we practice our cultural traditions.’

"So I can understand how the American flag became part of the powwow culture,” Gillette says. “But I think its usage should be seriously reexamined, and I know a lot of Native Americans feel exactly the same as I do.”

“Bring the Children Home” presents with authenticity
Thursday, September 03 2015
Written by Dwight hobbes/TC Daily Planet,
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As tough as it is to get a play produced, Marcie Rendon has turned down name venues for the sake of cultural integrity. “Believe it or not,” she told the Twin Cities Daily Planet several years ago, “some people consider ‘Dances With Wolves’ current events.” This mentality is why she founded Raving Native Productions back in 1996, showcasing uncompromising scripts by Native authors at the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

Rendon returned to the Fringe this season, premiering her drama, “Bring the Children Home,” described on the Kickstarter page as being about “people’s search for meaning and identity in a world gone crazy.” As faithfully committed as she is to integrity, when it comes to coping with social ills, she’s just as concerned about accountability, refusing to lay blame for the state of imperiled youth of color completely at the feet of racist cops and calls for communities to shoulder their share.

“Bring the Children Home,” Rendon said, “was written during the ‘murderapolis’ years in Minneapolis when so many young folks, Native and black were being shot down in the streets. There was heavy gang warfare going on, open market for drugs on the streets … This play spoke to the need for young people to have family, to have community that protected and cared about them. It also speaks to parents about their need to be parents, to take care of the young. It is a ‘spiritual/realism’ play … written in the style of Ojibwe storytelling, so the message crosses to all generations – it is as much a message to the parents, elders and community about the need for them to care for the young, as it is a story for the young about making choices.”
Raving Native Productions, best known for Rendon’s satirical sendup of the prison system “Free Frybread,” is a perfect chance to shed “Dances with Wolves” delusions and view Native American life through an authentic lens. Look forward to more of it, as she attests, “I am more committed these days to seeing my work on stage after ‘life’ kind of derailed by work for a bit. Raving Natives is back!”

Directed by Mankwe Ndosi, Marcie Rendon’s “Bring the Children Home” ran at the Minneapolis American Indian Center on Franklin Avenue Aug. 3 to 5 during the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

A Goldilocks show at Bockley Gallery: Not too big, not too small
Tuesday, August 04 2015
Written by Mason Riddle, TC Daily Planet,
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a goldilocks show at bockley gallery-denomie 1.jpgSince opening his first gallery in the Minneapolis warehouse district’s Wyman Building in September 1984, dealer Todd Bockley has carved out an idiosyncratic and activist vision for art in the Twin Cities, one that is recognized not only by the local cultural complex, but also far beyond. His unique and personal purview on what art needs to see the light of day includes that by a dozen Native American artists, both living and dead, whose work finds consort with that of an equal number of other artists, a broad-based cache of work that is largely defined by a distinctive narrative stance or tinged with an untrained artist sensibility.

Consequently, Bockley Gallery’s summer offering “Artists Singular: A Group Show” in his modest storefront space on the west side of Lake of the Isles, is more anticipated than unexpected. With eight works (really nine) by eight artists, “Singular” follows the art world tradition of summer shows being group shows that adhere to the Goldilocks principle — not too big, not too small, but just right. As such, “Singular” is a spirited mix of mostly untitled work both stylistically figurative and abstract, by Bruce Anderson, Frank Big Bear, Jim Denomie, George Morrison, Norval Morrisseau, Dietrich Sieling, Elizabeth Simonson and John Snyder.

Sieling’s work just keeps getting better in his provocative synthesis of figurative form and abstract space. Working with marker on board, the artist has concocted an oblique narrative that is rooted in a personal karaoke experience, one that is riveting to observe. Multicolored abstract shapes, suggesting a disco ball’s reflected patterns of light, hover above, on and through mysterious figures in a spatially flat composition that is remarkable in its complexity.

Jim Denomie’s untitled ink on paper drawing is a departure from his typically color-laden work. Combining Indian symbols and traditions with those of contemporary American culture as he typically does, Denomie’s bawdy narrative references the Wizard of Oz acted out by a rough-around-the-edges Kabala of creatures and characters. Unexpectedly there is a visual clarity to the work – which is not to suggest the narrative is easily understood – in its straightforward graphic presentation, a quality that not always defines his more vividly hued works.

REVIEW: "The Road Back to Sweetgrass"
Wednesday, March 11 2015
Written by Rachel Hill, Mille Lacs Ojibwe,
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the road back to sweetgrass review-web.jpgBy Linda LeGarde Grover

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

September 2014

194 pages




Anishinaabe author, Linda LeGarde Grover (Boise Forte Band of Ojibwe) contributes to the nation’s literary achievement in historic fiction. Her novel, “The Road Back to Sweetgrass,” published in the fall of 2014, explores the realm of Indigenous thought through historic, Anishinaabe circumstance from 1970 to 2014. This book begins in the fictional, Ojibwe reservation of Mozhay Point, located in north Minnesota.

From a chance encounter during a summer wild rice harvest in 1973, protagonist Margie Robineau of Mozhay Point finds herself falling head over heels for Michael Washington, described as a debonair, Jay Silverheels-meets-Marlon Brando figure of the Miskwaa River Band of Ojibwe.

Michael and his father, Zho Washigton, of the Wazhushkag (Muskrat) family, were erased from the BIA rolls by an Indian agent during the allotment period, who reassigned them a last name of Washington. Zho becomes a powerful analogy of inspiration and transformation in this novel.

The character of Dale Ann Dionne brings a new perspective to the Federal Indian Relocation Program, when she finds herself in the metropolis of Chicago in 1970 working as a telephone operator.

Remedy of craft in satire is found through Grover’s use of parody, which evokes humor from her presentation of characters like American Indian Studies Professor, Dr. Roger-Head, who teaches a course entitled, “Indians of America” (18-19). At other times, laughter is provoked by characters like Teresa Robineau, who sports a 70’s version of emo glasses, compliments of her local IHS clinic.

From Grover’s artistic organization of novel sections, to her use of Ojibwemowin and English, The Road Back to Sweetgrass is clearly the product of Indigenous thought and experience in the modern era. Readers of this novel are sure to find resilience in that moment when you know your “own story”

Celebrating George Morrison, the founder of Native modernism
Wednesday, March 11 2015
Written by Cathy Wurzer, MPR News,
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Artist George Morrison was born in a Native American fishing village near Lake Superior, but his art career took him all around the world.

He studied at the Minneapolis School of Art and the Art Students League in New York City. He befriended Willem de Koonig and Franz Kline. He worked in France and taught at the Rhode Island School of Design — and finally came back home to Minnesota to teach at the University of Minnesota.

Morrison, who passed away in 2000, is considered a founder of Native modernism. His work will be on exhibit at the Minnesota History Center from Feb. 14 to April 26, 2015.

celebrating george morrison 1-web.jpg

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Top left: Artist George Morrison. Photo by Dick Bancroft, Courtesy of the Minnesota History Center.

Top right: "Spirit Path, New Day, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape" by George Morrison was created in 1990. The acrylic and pastel on paper is among Morrison's works that will be featured at a Minnesota History Center exhibit. Courtesy of the Minnesota History Center

Bottom: "Cumulated Landscape" by George Morrison was created in 1976. The piece is among Morrison's works that will be featured at a Minnesota History Center exhibit. Courtesy of the Minnesota History Center.

Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard on MPR's statewide radio network or online at

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