Saturday, May 17, 2014

S.D. Nelson, Artist & Author Returns To Standing Rock

Nelson painted this wonderful representation of warriors astride horses following the Little Bighorn conflict. 
Maȟpíya Kiŋy’Aŋ Glí Aké
Flying Cloud Returns Again

By Dakota Wind
FORT YATES, N.D. – Songbirds wake the world with a thousand songs echoing up and down the Missouri River valley. The night quietly passed leaving only the brightest stars to flicker and flash in the frosty air. The sun reclaimed the heavens and stepped into the sky on the rim of the world. The last stars flashed and surrendered heaven to the sun, and at that moment, the birds’ songs seemed to grow louder, not just in singing in the new day, but singing in warmth and joy.

I put my playlist on random on the drive to Fort Yates, and it seems like this morning everything comes together. U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name” fills my car with The Edge’s soaring guitar and my heart with ease. It isn’t possible, but I like to imagine that Bono wrote the lyrics after visiting Standing Rock.

Dirt and gravel roads flow over rolling hills and disappear straight into the sky. Lake Oahe, a man-made lake, dominates and defines the eastern border of reservation. The water is bright and blue in contrast to the days before the dams when the river was brown, swift, and dangerous.

I pull my little silver pony up to the high school and wait for the last song to fade before I go in. Teachers are herding their classes into the main entrance with last minute reminders to be respectful and actively listen to S.D. Nelson. They respond with muted acquiescence, some nudge others and make the universal sign for quiet by drawing extended index fingers up to pursed lips. They’re quiet for about a minute until they file into the auditorium, where in their excitement the somber silence is ended with the growing hum of anticipation.


Nelson signs autographs for some of the students. 

Nelson is there, greeting students with smiles. He hands out bookmarks, custom made for the occasion in admission, “I had them made for you,” for his visit to Standing Rock. Copies of his books have been liberally placed along the edge of the stage for all to see, but when he begins his program, he focuses on just a few illustrations from about three of the books.

An educator renders an introduction of Nelson, but many here already know him by his work, but also because they’ve heard he’s from Standing Rock and spent childhood summers there at his grandmother’s home. Nelson is more than just an artist who happens to be from Standing Rock. He really is a member of the tribe, his traditional name is Maȟpíya Kiŋy’Aŋ, which means “Flying Cloud,” after a grandfather who was a storyteller and a horse stealer.

For the next hour, Nelson shares stories of windswept summers at his Grandmother Josephine’s home on the reservation, traveling across the country and world (his father was an enlisted man), his lifelong interest in art, his gratitude to Standing Rock for supporting him in his academics at Minnesota State University (Moorhead, MN), his career as a high school art teacher, and fatherhood.


Nelson likens his paintings to "looking at the world with 'Indian eyes'." It was standing room only in the auditorium.

The hour’s most powerful moment, however, came when Nelson shared his paintings for a children’s book about Ira Hayes, a Navajo who served during World War II and was part of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. Nelson spoke highly of Hayes patriotism, then added that Haye’s greatest struggle was one he ultimately lost. Alcoholism.

Nelson is a recovering alcoholic, “I’m a sober alcoholic. I’ve been sober now for twenty-eight years,” and added, “alcohol is not the kind of water you want to put on the tree of life.”

His program took a motivational turn as he shared photos of his daughter’s track and field career. Nelson urged everyone to participate in sports, to live clean, and “to live for the future.” He encouraged all the youth to think about a career, that a career “is what you do…make a commitment…to yourself, your family, and your tribe.”

I walked out of that auditorium and into the light of high noon, Journey’s “City Of Hope” on my playlist as I drove through Fort Yates.