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How Oscar Howe's 'Wounded Knee' painting found its way to the Eisenhower Presidential Library

A new major retrospective of the artist's works has gone up in New York City. One of his most provocative pieces remains in Kansas -- due, in part, to a surprise trip to Hollywood in 1960.

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A copy of Oscar Howe's "Wounded Knee" painting — and an original sketch he prepared for the work — on the wall of The National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian in New York City on Monday, March 14, 2022.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service
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VERMILLION, S.D. — A retrospective of Yanktonai Dakota painter Oscar Howe's work has debuted at the National Museum of the American Indian-Smithsonian, bringing Howe's most celebrated paintings to New York City.

But his most provocative work, the 1959-60 painting of the Wounded Knee massacre, sits at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Kansas. 

"It's perplexing to me," said Kathleen Ash-Milby, c urator of the exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian. "The library is really holding onto it very tightly."

In an interview on Friday, March 25, however, the Eisenhower library's curator, William Snyder, said the museum never received a request to show the painting and would've been happy to do so.

"It's a fantastic piece," said Snyder. "Oscar keeps coming up [on requests]. There's something about this painting."

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Both agree how the painting came to Abilene is a winding road.

In 1960, actor Vincent Price wrote to Howe, a University of South Dakota professor, to come to Hollywood to talk about Indigenous art on a television show. Howe and his family would be flown in and put up in a hotel. All Howe needed to bring was a few paintings.

Of course, Howe would soon find out Price's request was pretext for the painter's appearance on NBC's "This Is Your Life."

The April 13, 1960, show opened with Lakota elders seated stereotypically in a semi-circle on stage. Then, host Ralph Edwards welcomed Howe and his paintings onstage.

A first-of-its-kind collection of paintings spanning decades of the Yanktonai Dakota artist's career is on exhibit in New York City, and will arrive in Brookings, South Dakota, in 2023. Howe, a longtime professor in Vermillion who designed murals on the Corn Palace, was a seminal Indigenous artist.

As a camera zoomed in on "Wounded Knee," Edwards said, "You've captured the final, desperate clash between red man and white in this brilliant painting."

Howe's painting of the killing of Lakota men, women, and children in December, 1890 resembles a cemetery headstone. The 7th Cavalry fires down upon Lakota, some with lost limbs and bleeding. Howe, known for abstraction, wrote that his goal was to simply "record an historical event."

According to a 2014 essay , Edwards arranged with Howe's wife, Heidi, to purchase the painting for $900 and later gifted it to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

While Snyder acknowledged the former military general wasn't "effusive" in his praise of the painting, he did publicly display it for the last months of his White House in 1960.

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A group of USD alum went public in January about their campaign to bring the painting back to South Dakota.

While the painting now sits in Kansas, the traveling exhibition — set to arrive in South Dakota in 2023 — does post a copy adjacent to an original trace paper onto which Howe sketched a draft of "Wounded Knee Massacre."

And its appearance on coast-to-coast TV remains an act of boldness, Ash-Milby says.

"He knew he was going to be on national television," she said. "And [he] wanted to make sure the American public knew that painting."

Christopher Vondracek is the South Dakota correspondent for Forum News Service. Contact Vondracek at cvondracek@forumcomm.com , or follow him on Twitter: @ChrisVondracek .

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Related Topics: ART
Christopher Vondracek covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at cvondracek@forumcomm.com or follow him on Twitter at @ChrisVondracek.
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