By Dottie Indyke
Since the early 1960s, Arthur Amiotte’s life work has been to relate the story of his people—the Lakota Sioux—through his artwork as well as his extensive research, writing, teaching, and lecturing at prestigious universities in North America and Europe. The recipient of a 2002 Bush Leadership Fellowship and the subject of a retrospective that year at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, WY, Amiotte practices the Lakota custom of using art to convey personal and familial narrative, aspects of ceremony and tribal iconography, and cultural and social observations.
For almost 20 years, his chief medium has been collage, which he assembles from old drawings, family photographs, ledger books, receipts, magazine clippings, and advertising circulars from an era of history that has been largely overlooked in the art world. Amiotte’s focus is the period roughly between 1870 and 1940, when Indian people were making the transition to contemporary life—moving from teepees to log cabins and from warriors to farmers and ranchers.
His collages express humor and irony with a consciously naive vocabulary. Automobiles and women’s fashions are used to represent the emergence of modern culture. Photos of European architecture—pictures he has shot while retracing the footsteps of his great-grandfather, Standing Bear, on his sojourns with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show—serve as backdrops, combined with flat, ledger-style drawings of Lakota people and the artist’s own written commentary.
In his Custer, SD, studio, located in the sacred Black Hills, Amiotte is flanked by drawers overflowing with pictures of flowers, clouds, Paris, and Dresden. He has amassed entire portfolios of cows and cars by scouring flea markets, antique shops, and estate sales with the intellectual fervor of a scholar. The results are snapshots of history, as much educational as creative. More than 50 of his collage works are on display through April in a retrospective at Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum, the first show to exclusively spotlight this work.
Amiotte, who is 64 and descends from a long line of distinguished Lakota storytellers, land owners, community leaders, and artists, was born in Manderson, SD, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and lived there with his grandparents in his early years. In addition to Standing Bear, who painted epic murals on rolls of muslin on the dining room table, his artistic lineage includes many relatives who beaded, quilled, quilted, and carved.
As a boy he was put to work gardening and canning, watering and feeding the animals, tanning hides and drying meat. He helped prepare ceremonial feasts and today is an accomplished cook of both traditional Lakota and fine French cuisine, a skill he gained from his training as a young man with fine chefs at restaurants in the Black Hills. He jokingly refers to himself as “the original Sioux chef.”
At 6 he moved 90 miles away with his mother but returned to Pine Ridge every summer until he was 15. The first in his family to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees, he has, over the years, lived on the Standing Rock Reservation straddling North and South Dakota and in Manitoba, where he taught Native art history at Brandon University and assisted the Sioux people in the revival of their traditional Sun Dance. In 1985, when his mother was diagnosed with a terminal disease, he and his wife returned to Custer for good.
Amiotte’s artistic forays have included painting, fiber art, and a mix of the two. He has collaborated with relatives on quilts, clothing, and other textile pieces and crafted abstract work that borrows color and design from traditional Lakota imagery. He claims to have three more major collages in him—including a piece featuring Lakota people riding in Venetian gondolas—before his deteriorating eyesight forces him to abandon the genre.
His lifelong mission embodies the advice of Sioux author and anthropologist Ella Deloria, whose words he heard 45 years ago: “Know and appreciate your relatives,” she said. “In knowing them, you will come to know your culture. In knowing your culture, you will begin to know yourself in relation to all that is.”
Arthur Amiotte’s work is in collections at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, WY, and the Akta Lakota Museum at St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, SD. A retrospective of his collages is on view through April 29 at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, NM.
Featured in “Native Arts” February 2007