(Editor’s note: Oscar Howe’s painting ‘Wounded Knee Massacre’ – seen above, slightly cropped to fit this space – is at a museum in Kansas. A group is seeking its return to South Dakota, and sent this letter to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home in Abilene, Kan., last summer. Their request was rejected, but they still hope it can be brought back to its home state. Here is the letter they sent.)
John Day, biographer of Oscar Howe, said “Oscar Howe’s stature is tied to his American Indian heritage. He is seen as a model of cultural vitality, one who bridged the Indian and non-Indian worlds and achieved a continuation between ancient tradition and the 20th century.”
Nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century, Oscar Howe’s stature and reputation have grown even stronger and more appreciated in the Native and wider worlds.
Howe’s career path passed through several South Dakota cities, through Santa Fe, where he matured as an artist, and through Europe, where he met his wife. None of these outposts, however, lasted as long, nor were as productive as his 25 years on the art faculty at the University of South Dakota. While at the university, Howe painted some of his most compelling works and mentored several students who became distinguished artists: Arthur Amiotte, Colleen Cutshall, Donald Montileaux, Herman Red Elk and Robert Penn.
One of the paintings Howe completed during this time period at USD was “Wounded Knee Massacre.” In Howe’s own words, “The idea here was to record an historical event, namely the massacring of Chief Big Foot and his starving Sioux Indians by the 7th Cavalry troops in 1890.” This painting, again in Howe’s description, is “semi-objective rather than abstract.” Indeed, it is the least abstract and the most emotionally charged of his entire artistic output.
Due to an unusual set of circumstances, “Wounded Knee Massacre” is owned by the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home in Abilene, Kan. The Howe masterpiece is exhibited on rotation in the Presidential Gifts display area. Further inquiries need to be made, but Howe’s painting does not appear to be integral to the museum’s mission.
The horrific slaughter at Wounded Knee in 1890 continues to stand as a seminal event in the history of this country, Native Americans, and this state. Howe’s painting received a negative reaction when it was initially exhibited in South Dakota, but opinions and attitudes have changed in the 60 years since it was presented to the public. Scholars and historians write eloquently and frequently about the massacre at Wounded Knee. Dee Brown in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” David Treuer in “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee,” and Heather Cox Richardson in “Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre” are just a few examples of contemporary scholarship exploring the event’s importance.
It is time to bring Howe’s masterpiece back to South Dakota, where it will enrich Native American education and inform the state’s history and the relationship with its Indian people. We propose to raise the funds necessary to purchase the painting and place it in the permanent collection of the University of South Dakota.
The university already owns the majority of the Howe paintings. Adding this historically and stylistically significant painting would broaden the range of Howe’s work in the university’s collection.
The fundraising potential for this project is considerable. A national advisory committee consisting of people such as David Treuer and Heather Cox Richardson along with prominent USD graduates with an interest in Native American art such as Judge Larry Piersol, Dennis McFarland, Steve Manolis, and several others, would be created. Contributors would not be limited to USD graduates given the widespread, international recognition of Howe’s art.
We are a team of USD graduates with varying experience in fundraising. We are prepared to dedicate as much time and resources as we are individually able. However, we are not fundraising experts. We need the affiliation, expertise, and credibility of the USD Foundation and the College of Fine Arts to raise the necessary funds.
We need the foundation’s 501 (c) (3) tax status, a fund established within the foundation for deposit of donations, and the foundation’s advice and staff support. We fully understand that this campaign will take a dedicated effort over several months and possibly years to raise the funds. Furthermore, approaching the Eisenhower Museum regarding the value and purchase of the painting will require the foundation’s expertise.
Tim Schreiner, retired journalist, editor; Mark Butterbrodt, retired Indian Health Service medical doctor; Harry Christianson, retired attorney and investor; Dan Novak, retired banker and loan officer; Peter Lieberman, retired circuit court judge; Rich Boyd, community member, wasewakpa; Greg Redlin, retired USD vice president
The above signers are friends of Oscar Howe’s work and seek the return of Howe’s masterpiece “Wounded Knee Massacre” to South Dakota.