By Michael Duty
There is certainly no shortage of artists who work with Native American subjects. What is it that separates the work of Dave McGary from that of earlier artists or from the current flood of Native American imagery? And where does he fit into this continuum of artistic expression?
Like earlier artists and many of his contemporaries, McGary often depicts 19th- or early 20th-century figures. Much of his work is grounded in the cultures of the Northern Plains, subjects that were also depicted by 19th-century explorer-artists George Catlin and Karl Bodmer. Separating McGary’s work from theirs is the fact that, while his subjects are based on the past, his knowledge of it comes from an intimacy with the present culture. In many ways, McGary’s sculptures are direct links between past and present, representing stories that have been handed down through several generations.
McGary’s artistic interest in the native people of the Northern Plains began in the Southwest. The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM, attracts Indian artists from around the country, many of whom pursue sculpting and bronze casting. It was through McGary’s work at a local foundry that he first met a number of Native American students with whom he has formed lasting friendships.
One of those friendships eventually led to a rare invitation to attend a Sun Dance, one of the most sacred ceremonies in Indian culture. McGary was invited to attend as part of the support group for Kevin Yellow Mountain, a Sioux. That invitation alone was unusual—supporting a participant in one of these ceremonies is normally reserved for family members and friends within the tribe.
McGary readily admits that this trip during the summer of 1982 changed his life completely. Until that time, the 24-year-old sculptor had had an artistic interest in Indian life and culture but no deep or abiding connection to it. The friend he supported happened to be the nephew of tribal elder Gerald Red Elk, who saw in McGary a kindred spirit.
The trip that was to last a few days stretched into an entire summer. McGary lived with the Red Elk family and was eventually adopted into their culture and given the name Big Eagle. He was told by Red Elk to use his talents as an observer and artist to carry knowledge about the Sioux to the larger world. McGary was fascinated by the traditions that were a part of the every-
day life he saw around him. The ceremonies were particularly riveting, and he was struck by the grace and beauty of the participants. More importantly, he did not intrude. Without being told, he knew that to be welcomed into the culture he had to wait to be invited.
Once the in-vitation came, he also knew enough to be respectful, to listen and not talk. He was so intent on absorbing all of the stories that he heard that his Indian friends gave him another name, Big Red Ears, suggesting that his ears were burning from listening too hard. This name was an affectionate joke, but it also indi-cated how accepted he had become in his adopted world.
Connecting to that world has dir-ectly influenced Mc-Gary’s growth as a person and an artist. He does not shy away from the beauty or sorrow of Plains Indian life. Unlike many earlier artists, who showed only one dimension of Native Americans, McGary sees both the romantic and the real nature of modern Indian life on the reservation and beyond. He is grounded in the reality of that life through his friendships, one of which has been particularly important.
Early in his career, McGary staged a one-person exhibition at a small museum in Lincoln, NE. Before the exhibition opened, he noticed a tall, muscular Indian visitor looking at the sculptures. Involved in his preparations, McGary wasn’t able to talk with the visitor to hear his reactions. Later that evening, when the show opened, the man returned, but this time he was accompanied by about 20 friends. He found McGary’s sculptures so moving that he brought all the Native Americans he could find to see them.
The friendship between McGary and Daniel Long Soldier was cemented that night, especially when Daniel learned of Dave’s experience at the Sun Dance and his connection to the Red Elk family. Dave and Daniel have traveled many roads together since that time, roaming across Northern Plains reservations and attending many dances. Daniel has acted as Dave’s guide, friend, adviser and even interpreter on these travels.
Because of his friendship with Daniel Long Soldier, McGary has not only witnessed many rituals and ceremonies but also heard the family tales and stories of people who live on the reservation but whose hearts still roam the plains. McGary has transformed these stories into sculptures, including a series based on Daniel’s family. Daniel’s great- grandfather Red Horn was the first of his family to bear the name Long Soldier, having received it when he defeated a lieutenant colonel in battle and took his coat as an emblem of victory.
McGary has devoted three sculptures to the saga of Long Soldier. Birth of Long Soldier tells the story of how he came to acquire the coat and be re-named. Long Soldier shows the same man several years later, now in his prime as a warrior. The coat, once a battle trophy, has been altered to reflect the pers-onal history of the wearer. All the details are carefully crafted to portray this man’s life and character—details that reflect both the larger culture of which Long Soldier was a part and items that were particular to his life and history. The hummingbird in Long Soldier’s hair, for instance, symbolizes speed and courage.
The third in the series shows Long Soldier in his declining years. For a warrior to have survived to an advanced age at this time in Plains history was remarkable in itself. By the time Long Soldier had reached the stage in his life portrayed in Retired With Honors, he had fought in many campaigns against both the cavalry and other tribes. His face and demeanor tell the stories of those encounters. Again, McGary added subtle details that have special meaning, such as the feathers on the uniform’s epaulets. The two red feathers designate wounds that Long Soldier received in battle. The coat shows the wear of many years. The saber and beaded scabbard are still present but are now used literally as a source of support. At this point in his life, Long Soldier has passed from the warrior stage to the elders’ council campfire.
These three sculptures illustrate the underlying purpose of McGary’s work. On a literal level, they can be looked upon as simply the chronicle of a specific Indian’s life, recounting the epochal moments in his personal history, from his early battle, victory and christening as a newly named warrior to the details of other notable events, and finally, the entire life of a courageous warrior.
On another level, however, the series gives the viewer more to ponder. The details of this one
life tell the story of the Northern Plains Indians in general. Long Soldier can be seen as representative of the larger Indian society, his story underscoring the story of the transformation that all Plains Indians faced in the late 19th century. In progression, the series represents both personal and cultural change.
That, in effect, is the transformational power of art. It takes the specific, in this case the story of a real person, a man whose history and exploits can be traced and documented, and uses it to lead to the universal. The saga of Long Soldier has become the saga of all the Sioux.
The connection to Indian culture through the friendship McGary shares with Daniel Long Soldier is one way McGary’s art stands apart from other contemporary interpretations of Native American culture. Many artists explore their affinity for this culture through immersion in history books and other means of research. Such an approach is needed to achieve the realism and attention to detail that many collectors demand. But it will not deliver a work that, to use one of McGary’s words, “breathes.” That breath of life comes, in McGary’s case, from an actual, living connection to contemporary Indian culture.
Featured in April 1997