Published on August 3, 2012 by Amy
Oscar Howe (Mazuha Hokshina or “Trader Boy”) (Yanktonai Dakota, 1915–1983) was an American artist from South Dakota, who became well known for his casein paintings.
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Oscar Howe (May 13, 1915 – October 7, 1983) was born in Joe Creek, South Dakota on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation. Descended from Sioux chiefs, he belonged to the Yanktonai band of Dakota. He attended the Pierre Indian School (a boarding school) in South Dakota in 1933. His artistic talent was recognized and he attended Dorothy Dunn’s art program at the Studio of Santa Fe Indian School from 1933 to 1938. In 1940 Howe was sent by South Dakota Artists Project (a division of the Works Progress Administration) to Fort Sill Indian Art Center in Lawton, Oklahoma, to study mural painting techniques with Olle Nordmark.
After working for several years and serving in World War II, Howe went to college, where he earned his B.A. degree at Dakota Wesleyan University in 1952. Having worked as an artist for more than a decade, he also taught as Artist-in-Residence. He received his M.F.A. at the University of Oklahoma in 1954.
Howe’s early paintings are similar to other work produced by the Santa Fe Indian School. Later he developed a distinctive style of his own. Howe began with traditional Sioux “straight line” painting, based on hide and later ledger paintings, “an artistic form which symbolizes truth or righteousness”, and infused it with Cubism. Through his art, he wanted to portray the contemporary realities of his tribal culture.
During the 1930s and the Great Depression, he was employed by the Works Progress Administration in South Dakota. He painted a set of murals for the municipal auditorium in Mobridge, South Dakota and a mural within the dome of the old Carnegie Library, now the Carnegie Resource Center, in Mitchell, South Dakota. Howe worked as an art instructor at Pierre High School in 1939. From 1948 to 1971, he designed panels for the Corn Palace in Mitchell.
Howe became Professor of Art at the University of South Dakota, in Vermillion, South Dakota in 1957. He taught there until 1983.
Survey texts and articles on Native American modern art often credit Howe with influencing the development of contemporary art in the Indian community. In 1958 he was rejected from a show of Native American art at the Philbrook Museum because his work did not meet the criteria of “traditional” Indian style. Howe wrote in protest,
“Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting that is the most common way? Are we to be herded like a bunch of sheep, with no right for individualism, dictated to as the Indian has always been, put on reservations and treated like a child and only the White Man know what is best for him… but one could easily turn to become a social protest painter. I only hope the Art World will not be one more contributor to holding us in chains.”
His protest led to the acceptance of abstraction within the community.