Oscar Howe, a Yanktonai Dakota artist, was one of the most innovative Native American painters of the 20th century. Together, his modernist approach and life’s work promoting artistic innovation changed how the dominant art world defined contemporary Indigenous art. Yet he has been relatively unknown in the broader American art canon.
A new exhibition, “Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe,” opening at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York in March and its companion catalog aim to establish Howe’s legacy as a modernist. They explore not only his art but also his life as an educator and advocate for artistic independence.
Western definitions of fine art have historically precluded artists from non-Western or colonized origins, categorizing their work as “primitivism.” Instead of accepting that the innovation, experimentation and abstraction of modernism could emerge globally as a response to industrialization and exchanges of ideas, the Western art establishment of the 19th and 20th centuries situated non-Western art—including progressive Indigenous art such as Howe’s—outside the boundaries of fine art. Art institutions and critics expected that Native art (and Native people) be almost antimodern—static, unchanging, outside of time—and so it was required to adhere to non-Native terms in order to be “authentic.” Experimentation was frowned upon and considered derivative of Western influences.
Oscar Howe, however, rejected such premises. Howe’s work does not go against tradition but expands the way those traditions can be expressed. Though grounded in culture, his experimentation and rejection of realism places him squarely as a modernist.
Born in 1915 on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation in central South Dakota, Howe sourced his cultural subject matter from his grandmother’s Dakota teachings and, later, his own research. His artistic process was rooted in Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (or Sioux, which includes Lakota and Dakota dialects) language, aesthetics and philosophy.
While in high school in the mid-1930s at the Santa Fe Indian School, he learned the styles and subjects considered “traditional” to American Indian painting, which, ironically, were delineated by non-Native instructors. While studying for his bachelor’s degree at Dakota Wesleyan University from 1948 to 1952 and master’s degree at the University of Oklahoma from 1952 to 1953, he gained exposure to mainstream Western artistic methods. From that point on, he began to develop his own unique style, which evolved over his decades of work. He experimented with geometric abstraction and incorporated processes that were singularly Dakota in origin. Though often mistaken as a cubist, Howe described his point-and-line composition technique as “tahokmu,” or “thˇahóhˇmuŋ,” the “spiderweb,” a term with both visual and spiritual significance for Dakota people. The resulting effect is one of electricity, energy and movement.
In 1958, he submitted “Umine Wacipi” (“War and Peace Dance”), in which abstract shapes represent drumbeats, to Philbrook Art Center (now Philbrook Museum of Art) for its “Indian Annual” painting exhibition—one of the foremost juried shows of Native American art during the 20th century. When his work was rejected because the competition’s judges deemed it “not Indian,” Howe responded with an impassioned letter that asserted a bold defense of individual artistic freedom. He wrote, “Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting, that is the most common way? We are to be herded like a bunch of sheep, with no right for individualism, dictated [to] as the Indian has always been . . . . Well, I am not going to stand for it.”
Howe was confident in the authenticity of his work. He saw no contradiction between the image-making of his ancestors and his own artistic expressions of Očhéthi Šakówiŋ life. Instead of adhering to outdated expectations, Howe insisted the mainstream art world should change how it examined and categorized American Indian art. His letter was a catalyst for a sea change that would provide greater artistic freedom to future generations of Native artists.
In addition to painting his own works, Howe taught art from the 1940s through the 1970s. First hired to teach at Dakota Wesleyan University while he earned his bachelor’s degree, Howe then instructed students at Pierre’s public high school in the 1950s. In 1957, he joined the art faculty at the University of South Dakota (USD) in Vermillion, where he taught until 1979. While at USD, Howe established a summer art program that continues today as the Oscar Howe Summer Art Institute (OHSAI). He influenced generations of young Native artists who previously had no Indigenous role model in their field. Contemporary artist Keith BraveHeart (Lakota) reflects, “The OHSAI program is a significant element of Howe’s legacy, and his foresight and compassion for the next generation of tribal artists (especially amongst the Northern Plains region), provides a further example of greatness and heart.”
According to Kathleen Ash-Milby, curator of the “Dakota Modern” exhibition and Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, this is the moment to put Howe’s legacy in perspective. Radical changes in the recognition of contemporary Native American art during the past 25 years have created an environment in which scholars can now examine artists who were active in the 20th century and appreciate their innovations without the historical baggage and tired stereotypes about Native art that plagued previous generations. “Oscar Howe was truly an artist ahead of his time,” asserted Ash-Milby. “It’s unfortunate that the art world was not ready or willing to understand that his work could be both Dakota and modern. His innovation was instead dismissed as derivative. We are finally ready to look at his work with new eyes and appreciation.”
Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe
The “Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe” exhibition and its companion catalog of the same name cover more than 40 years of the Yanktonai Dakota artist’s career. They trace his development from his early conventional work created in the 1930s through the emergence of his abstract approach to painting during the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps most significantly, they follow Howe’s journey from “traditional” painter to groundbreaking modernist.
Exhibition curator Kathleen Ash-Milby began developing “Dakota Modern” in 2016 while serving as an associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian. Working with scholars Christina Burke at Philbrook Museum of Art, John Lukavic at the Denver Art Museum and Bill Anthes at Pitzer College as well as NMAI staff, the exhibition took six years to create.
Co-edited by Ash-Milby and Anthes, the exhibition’s companion catalog is the most comprehensive collection of scholarship regarding this artist’s work to date. Ash-Milby reflected, “I don’t think any of us realized the depth of untapped resources and potential avenues for further research.” In addition to multiple scholars, contributors to the book include Howe’s daughter, Inge Dawn Howe Maresh, who offers a personal reflection on her father and his work. NMAI Curator Emil Her Many Horses, who is an Oglala Lakota artist and one of the catalog’s authors, said Howe’s artworks are “very complex” and full of symbolism. “His work embodies the stories that were passed down to him. A lot of our traditional stories are represented in his paintings,” he said.
The publication features photos of nearly 150 of Howe’s paintings and murals alongside 50 personal photographs of Howe at work and with family. Almost all of the artist’s works, which reside at universities, museums, churches and private homes, were photographed specifically for this catalog. Most of the artworks are archived at the University of South Dakota (USD) in Vermillion, where he taught for many years. In partnership with Amy Fill, University Art Galleries director, and her staff at USD, project team members photographed the works and gathered information about their materials, techniques and condition. These images have been shared with USD, adding to the documentation of Howe’s legacy.
Together, the exhibition and the catalog introduce new generations to the extraordinary work and life of Oscar Howe and expand their understanding of what defines Native art. For those who thought they knew Howe, they provide a more in-depth look at his biography, his works and the impact he made on generations of Native artists.
Following is a selection and adaptation of the engaging “Dakota Modern” exhibition featuring Howe’s innovative artworks at NMAI in New York.
Howe was raised with Dakota cultural and spiritual beliefs, but he was also an active Episcopalian. The blending of and interconnectedness between these two belief systems is apparent in his paintings of Native and Christian cultural figures.
Oscar Howe (Yanktonai Dakota, 1915–1983), “Origin of the Sioux,” 1960; casein on paper; 30” x 20.5”. Oscar Howe Family Collection, University Art Galleries, University of South Dakota, Vermillion, HF OH 28 (O.H.L.01). Courtesy of the NMAI and Oscar Howe Family
Oscar Howe was one of the earliest students in a studio arts program designed by art teacher Dorothy Dunn at the Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico.
Howe’s first entry for the “Indian Annual” exhibition at the Philbrook Art Centear (now Philbrook Museum of Art) won the Grand Purchase Prize, a remarkable achievement for a first-time participant in such a significant national competition.
Oscar Howe (Yanktonai Dakota, 1915–1983), “Dakota Duck Hunt,” circa 1945; watercolor on paper; 16” × 25.5”. Philbrook Museum of Art. Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma; museum purchase, 1947.28. Courtesy of the NMAI and Oscar Howe Family
Oscar Howe (Yanktonai Dakota, 1915–1983), “Umine Wacipi” (“War and Peace Dance”), 1958; watercolor on paper. Location unknown; private collection. Image Courtesy of University Art Galleries, University of South Dakota
“Umine Wacipi” (“War and Peace Dance”) may be Howe’s most influential work. Its rejection from Philbrook Art Center’s (now Philbrook Museum of Art) annual art competition in 1958 due to its divergence from what was considered “traditional” Native American painting caused the normally quiet Oscar Howe to respond forcefully in his own—and other contemporary artists’—defense. His letter to Philbrook ignited a movement that advocated for artists’ innovation and individuality that has resonated through the generations of Native artists that followed.
Howe believed his responsibility as an artist was to record and share Očhéthi Šakówiŋ knowledge.
Culture and Belief
While recovering from an illness as a child, Howe spent a great amount of time with his grandmother Shell Face, who taught him about Dakota culture and beliefs. This experience deeply influenced Howe and would later form the foundation of the sophisticated content that distinguishes his work. He researched his content rigorously and believed that Native artists had a profound responsibility to understand the cultural subjects they portrayed.
Here, in a dramatic moment, an evil spirit appears during a 30-day dance to honor the buffalo and strikes fear in the participants, who turn away. The turtle shell at the bottom was used as a drum during the Buffalo Dance. According to Howe, the yellow in this painting symbolizes life and can be interpreted as a hopeful sign that evil will be overcome.
Oscar Howe (Yanktonai Dakota, 1915–1983), “Evil Spirit of the Buffalo Dance,” 1961; casein on paper; 29.75” x 22.5”. Cutler Family Collection. Courtesy of the NMAI and Oscar Howe Family
Howe rarely created paintings that referenced a specific historical moment. He claimed that his painting of the Wounded Knee massacre “was not meant to be a shocker but merely a recorded true event.” In this depiction, Howe represents the U.S. Cavalry as a monolithic killing machine in contrast to the suffering and humanity of the Lakota men, women and children massacred on December 29, 1890, at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota.
Oscar Howe (Yanktonai Dakota, 1915–1983), “Wounded Knee Massacre,” 1959–1960. Gouache on paper, 22” x 28”. Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, National Archives and Records Administration, Abilene, Kansas, acc. no. 60.618. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, Kansas. Courtesy of the NMAI and Oscar Howe Family
Master of Color and Design
Oscar Howe emulated the practice of traditional Dakota artists in his designs, color choices and application.
Sun Dance Sequence
Throughout his career, Howe painted depictions of powerful Očhéthi Šakówiŋ traditions, including the Sun Dance. This ceremony—specifically the moment when dancers break free from the pole in a moment of transcendence—held particular fascination for him.
In his early work, his perspective was as a viewer. As his technique matured, so did the angle of view. In “Sacro-Wi-Dance,” the viewpoint is that of a participant, looking up from below. The dancers have completely lost their earthly connection as their bodies dissolve into swirls of ecstasy. The pole is viewed at an acute angle, and it, too, appears to sway and bend as the rules of physics slip away.
Oscar Howe (Yanktonai Dakota, 1915–1983), “Sacro-Wi-Dance” (“Sun Dance”), 1965; casein on paper; 28” x 22.5”. University Art Galleries, University of South Dakota, PC OH 29 (OH 99.1). Courtesy of the NMAI and Oscar Howe Family
Point and Line: Defining the Figure
“Composing through esthetic points has become part of my working process, though in my work it is not a formal ceremony.” —Oscar Howe, 1969
Howe’s mature compositional approach involved transforming subjects and backgrounds into a series of fractured planes using two-dimensional, flat surfaces to represent a three-dimensional space. Much to his frustration, a pervasive narrative emerged in the scholarship asserting that his artwork was influenced by cubism. While Howe was thoroughly educated in European and American art traditions of the 20th century, he insisted that his art in both form and execution was deeply rooted in Dakota compositional and philosophical traditions.
Oscar Howe (Yanktonai Dakota, 1915–1983), “War Dancer,” 1966; casein on board; 25.5” x 20”. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri; Gift of the Association on American Indian Affairs, New York City, New York, 78-16. Image courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Media Services
Howe regularly looked to animals for inspiration. Birds, horses, antelope, bison and other creatures appear in paintings with direct cultural references but also as stand-alone subjects. In these poetic vignettes, such as in “Fighting Bucks” above—purchased by the NMAI from private collectors in 2018—the artist revels in the beauty and design sourced from the distinctive characteristics of animals in motion.
This and the other innovative paintings in the “Dakota Modern” exhibition continue to inspire. Oscar Howe’s legacy endures, through not only his artworks but also his influence on present and future generations of Native artists.
“Fighting Bucks,” 1967; casein on paper; 20.25 x 27”. National Museum of the American Indian 27/0217. Courtesy of the NMAI and Oscar Howe Family