Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Maĥpíya Kiŋy’Aŋ (Flying Cloud) Glí: SD Nelson Returns

Nelson's cover painting to "Greet The Dawn: The Lakota Way."
The Ancient Painting Tradition
Maĥpíya Kiŋy’Aŋ (Flying Cloud) Glí
SD Nelson Returns
By Dakota Wind
White Shield, N.D. – White Shield rests on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, about a two hour drive north and west from the North Dakota state capital. The drive may have been a few hours, but it allowed me to take in the majesty of the vast open plains and the great open sky and the quiet drive north on HWY 83 took me through Lake Sakakawea and Lake Audubon.

I had been in contact with S.D. Nelson since the South Dakota Book Festival of 2012. I happened to pass him by one afternoon there. He had just finished a conversation with another festival attendant and it was obvious that he had other business to attend to, and I had wanted to meet him so I called out to Nelson. He gave me a nod and wave, and intended to continue on, but when I said, “I’m from Standing Rock.” Nelson immediately stopped in his tracks, turned around and made time to visit with me.

A late winter storm the previous week dropped about eighteen inches of snow on the prairie steppe. Piles of snow were pushed or dumped in efforts to open the roads and drives, but the daytime warmth of spring had melted much and puddles of water had collected in potholes and ditches, slush lined the sidewalks and steamed as it evaporated.

White Shield public school, an unassuming weary-looking older building dominates the townscape. A pale beige brick exterior masked an updated interior. A tiled floor carried the echoes of children at play or lessons down the halls and out the main door when I entered and made my way to the library.

Nelson's program was received with great enthusiasm and many students had questions.

It was a tidy library but bigger than the school library of my youth back on Standing Rock. The chairs and tables were arranged in a horseshoe to accommodate Nelson’s presentation. A select cadre youth had made the drive up from the Cannonball Elementary School on Standing Rock just to see Nelson’s program and to get him to sign their books. They arrived about forty minutes early and Nelson graciously gave them his complete attention before the program began.

Nelson is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. His traditional name in the Lakota language is Maĥpíya Kiŋy’Aŋ, or Flying Cloud, which is also the name of one of his ancestral grandfathers who was a storyteller and horse thief. He may not have grown up on the reservation, but he spent his summers there with his maternal grandparents and frequently returns. The land of sky and wind reached settled deep into Nelson’s mind and heart, and while he traveled with his enlisted father across the nation, and even as he now lives in Arizona, Standing Rock and the Great Plains are still home.

Nelson is a retired teacher. He earned a BS in Art Education from Minnesota State University in Moorehead, MN and taught art at Wahpeton, ND before making a move to Arizona and teaching there. “The winters got to be too much for me,” said Nelson with a smile. He is now retired from teaching, but he still engages learners in scheduled workshops and makes time, like today, to be with native youth back on the plains. Nelson may be self-employed, but he’s still an educator at heart.

Images like this of an old pickup truck out in the field and horses speak to the native youth who for them is a common occurrence.

Nelson actively engaged the students. His use of the lecture style presentation tells how he was taught and how he learned, but Nelson includes a media presentation, a showcase of selected past works, sketches of works and brilliant finished paintings which keeps the students in rapt attention. One painting depicts children on a prairie in the morning waiting to get on a bus, and putting it that way makes it sound unexciting, but the painting reaches out to the children because the landscape is alive with plains symbols of strength, medicine and life. The imagery and symbolism meant more, meant something cultural as well as personal to those children.

Whether the children are aware of it or not, Nelson had shown them the importance of going to school and getting an education. Later in the hour, he reinforces that message by encouraging them to pursue an education and in a field they love. 


There is evidence in many of Nelson’s paintings of a deep love and respect for horses, or as he would say, “The Horse Nation.” Horses are also associated with thunder too, and much of his work ties the horses with thunder. Once a traditionalist questioned Nelson’s authority to depict lightning and the workings of thunderstorms, which stemmed from a deep-seated tradition that only certain people could depict, to which Nelson replied, “Lightning came to my house twice. I have a direct connection to lightning, thunder and hail.”

Along with a presentation of stories and select images of his paintings, Nelson shared painting techniques with the children. “I brush the paint on, but I also take a little sponge. I get them wet and squeeze them until their soft and pliable and then dip them in paint, and I sponge paint on.”

From Nelson's "Quiet Hero: The Ira Hayes Story."

The presentation moved into illustrations of Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian from Sacaton, Arizona who helped raise the American flag on top of Mt. Suribachi in WWII. After the war, Hayes descended into alcoholism and died. Nelson then delicately shared his own experience as a recovering alcoholic.

The air grew a little heavy and the children settled into a solemn silence as Nelson spoke of the native struggle with alcohol and alcoholism, but he brought hope in his message that life is so much better without alcohol or substances. “I’m an alcoholic. I haven’t had a drink in twenty-seven years.” He credits God, the Great Spirit, with giving him the strength to stay sober. “Thank you God, for giving me a good life, so that I could write these books and tell these stories,” Nelson said.

Recalling a hangover one morning long ago, Nelson was watching his two little girls play in the backyard when he realized that he needed help. He picked up the phone and called the local A.A. chapter who immediately sent over two people to give him reassurances and encouragement to live clean.


Nelson concluded his warning of the perils of alcohol, “My hope for you is that you won’t drink and you’ll receive a blessing…I promise you.”

Art has been in Nelson’s life since he was little boy. His earliest memory of art in the home is of his mother’s project in which she applied tempera paint to the living room window. “I remember marveling at her. It was big and it was colorful, and the sun shone through the paint like a stained glass window.” Art was encouraged in the home and when he was three or four years old, Nelson recalled sitting at the kitchen table and finger painting.

Art runs in Nelson’s blood. His mother was a landscape artist who had studied academic and classical painting under the tutelage of Herr Von Schmidt, a German artist. His maternal great-grandmother, Khízá Wiŋ (Fighting Woman) was a traditional artist—a fine beader. Unfortunately, one of her creations, a fully beaded buckskin dress had to be sold to help support the family. Nelson’s mother, had little time to devote to painting due to the demands of motherhood, but her creativity manifested in quilting.

It wasn’t until a rainy day at school when his class stayed indoors that Nelson decided to consider art seriously. He was working on a wildlife scene at his desk when an older “alpha male” fellow whom the class all admired stopped by Nelson’s desk and peered over his shoulder, and said, “Wow, that’s really good.” Nelson’s confidence was boosted further when his classmate declared, “Guys, come over here and look at this.”


Nelson’s mother spoke fluent Lakota and English, and she handed down cultural stories with life lessons like the old Iktomi, or Trickster, stories. Nelson fondly recalls a summer night in his childhood in Fort Yates. His father had heard that the satellite ECHO was going to pass above so Nelson’s mother took him and his brothers and sister outside to watch for it. While watching the heavens Nelson’s mother told them that the Lakota are people of the stars, and up above was their grandfather, Nelson’s Lakota namesake Flying Cloud, riding his horse. “I looked and I couldn’t see a horse, all I saw were stars, but I knew what she was talking about. I got it. I didn’t have to ask her or say that grandpa’s not there. She was talking about infinity. She was talking about forever. I felt the stars were alive.”

When he was a little boy, when the Missouri River was still free flowing on the bottomlands below Fort Yates, his mother and grandmother repeatedly warned Nelson and his siblings not to go swimming in the river. Historically the river was dangerous. In fact, the Lakota called the river Mni Šhošhé, which means “The Water-Astir.” Before the dam, the river was brown with sediment that was stirred up by the swirling churning river and for the Lakota who had become coffee drinkers the river reminded them of the motion of stirring their coffee with sugar or cream. The river was indeed dangerous and only in the mid to late summer was swimming in the river advised for even strong swimmers were pulled under by the undercurrent and never seen from again. Today, the river and the lake are blue.

Nelson’s remembers the river as a river. As a boy, he longingly desired to swim in the forbidden waters and that longing is echoed in his voice today. “It’s a beautiful lake,” said Nelson in an accepting tone. “I like to see kids swimming there.”


After the dams were built in the 1950s, the US Army Corps of Engineers approached the people of Standing Rock and asked them what they would like to call the new lake. Their cryptic response, for they weren’t happy with the Corps, “O’ahé,” which means Something To Stand On in reference to the buildings that were taken under the rising waters and drifted apart and away leaving only the foundations.

Childhood memories came swift to Nelson. His grandmother, Josephine Gipp Pleets, was born in a tipi, and lived in a cabin in Fort Yates when he knew her. In her back yard grew a modest grove of Chinese Elm trees. Nelson would climb them as high as he could. The birds were used to him and continued to land in their nests or flit away unconcerned in their business. He would gaze out over the tree tops for hours at a time watching the river, the valley and the sky.

SD Nelson may live in the southwest. His house is there in eternal summer, but his heart is in the never ending horizon of the Great Plains, his soul is with the Lakota and Dakota people in the land of sky and wind. He is a son of Standing Rock and his life’s work recalls it in each sketch and painting, and his paintings touch the souls of children.

For more information about SD Nelson visit him online at SDNelson.net