Art that spans two cultures. Contemporary artist Arthur Amiotte draws on his Sioux heritage to fuel a creative life
Custer, S.D. — ARTIST Arthur Amiotte lives a mosaic life style made from pieces and parts of two diverse cultures: the white and the Sioux. He's as at home in his multi-windowed living room with Victorian antiques as he is in a tepee during ceremonial days. He can take his fast food in the form of Big Macs and fries, or dried jerky and chokecherries. And, more often than not, his paintings and fiber arts combine contemporary universal styles with traditional tribal themes. Over the years, Mr. Amiotte has become a master at mixing and matching cultural threads to make a viable tapestry.
The artist, whose paintings reach beyond regional boundaries to galleries in New York and Washington, D.C., was well rooted in Sioux culture at an early age.
Born at Pine Ridge Reservation, S.D., during World War II, he was first raised by grandparents, because his father was in the service and his mother worked off the reservation in the war effort.
``I didn't lie in a crib alone. My grandparents wrapped me very tightly in a blanket, and I was carried about with them everywhere or was passed around from aunt to aunt,'' he says.
``That was the beginning of my collective consciousness - belonging to the group,'' a source of identity and strength that has stayed with him through the years. Even at a young age, he shared chores geared to the group - digging roots, drying berries, hauling wood, sorting colored beads for craftspeople.
But it wasn't long before Amiotte bumped into the individualism of the white world.
When he was ready for first grade, he moved with his parents to the small town of Custer, S.D., where he attended a white school. He only returned to the reservation and his grandparents during summer vacations.
``There were strong differences in Custer,'' he explains, citing ``whites' unrelatedness to the rest of their people. On the reservation, aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors - I'm talking about numerous people - they all shared the same value system and would come over to help. There was a communality.
``But in the white community, the individual nuclear family prevailed. You are here. They are there. You don't walk on other people's property, and you don't go to their house unannounced. And when it's time to eat, you leave.''
So Amiotte learned to shift gears, alert to the white way of viewing property and possessions. But it wasn't easy.
Competition was a new game, too.
``But I soon caught on - at least in the classroom. I became academically astute. You know, `hang the rest' sort of attitude,'' says Amiotte, whose reservation training had stressed cooperation. He never did take to competition in sports, though.
``It always seemed like such a useless activity,'' he says. ``Back home on the reservation, we'd have footraces and compete against our cousins in horse riding and tricks, but the emphasis was placed on being good, not on winning over someone else. There's a difference.''
Now, when the artist peers through the lens of time, he sees his reservation days as kindling for his creative thought.
``In the summer, my grandparents would pitch this huge tent in the yard. And all my cousins would come back, and we'd sleep there in our little beds. My grandparents would sleep out there with us.
``As soon as it was dark and the cows were in, my grandparents would lie in their beds and tell stories, changing voices with the different characters. We grew up with a strong sense of having `seen' a fantastic world,'' he says.
Amiotte didn't take art seriously until his college counselor convinced him that his biology drawings were far better than his biology grades - his chosen major. He then went on to study painting with Oscar Howe, an internationally known Sioux artist, and at various universities.
Amiotte now paints in a variety of styles ranging from the flat, two-dimensional realism that's often considered ``traditionally'' Indian, to abstracts with heavy paint application, to shamanic works inspired by petroglyphs. He's had 15 major one-man shows and has exhibited his paintings and fiber arts in more than two dozen large exhibitions.
A former member of the Presidential Advisory Council for the Performing Arts at the Kennedy Center, Amiotte now serves as one of five commissioners on the Department of Interior's Indian Arts and Crafts Board. He's taught at the university level, but is now free-lancing with current commissions, focusing on a church mural and the writing of an annotated bibliography of Sioux arts, 1750 to 1987.
While this creative merry-go-round spins, Amiotte derives his peace from his religious beliefs. Here, he's staunchly Sioux. From 1972 to 1981, he studied with a shaman on Pine Ridge Reservation, learning sacred rites and traditions, and is now qualified to assist at ceremonies.
Amiotte is a member of the Oglalas, one of seven bands that make up the Sioux's western Teton division. Renowned in days past for their buffalo hunting on the High Plains, these bands are often referred to as the ``Lakota Sioux,'' because they speak the Lakota dialect of the Siouan language.
The artist isn't the first in his family to score coups in cultural blending. His great-grandfather, Standing Bear, took giant steps in this direction back in the late 1800s. Having lost his family at the Wounded Knee Massacre (1890), Standing Bear ended up with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, performing in Vienna.
There, he met a Viennese nurse who became his bride. She brought to the reservation European skills in agriculture and raising livestock, plus some culinary savvy that put new treats on the Standing Bear supper table - sauerkraut, piccalilli, and whipped potatoes made fluffy with baking powder.
Like his great-grandfather, Amiotte married outside the Sioux. His wife, Jan Murray, is in charge of resource development at Oglala Lakota College on Pine Ridge Reservation.
Dr. Murray seems as adept at walking in two cultures as her husband. The name she earned over a five-year period from the Oglalas tells that: ``Oyate Wawokiye Win,'' meaning ``Woman Who Helps the People.''