With history and tradition in every stitch, Lower Sioux artist wants a dress to tell a story
Beth O'Keefe, an artist based in Morton and the Lower Sioux Indian Community, is one of four regional artists taking part in the inaugural Ignite Rural "At Home" artist residency program through the Department of Public Transformation. Her project, a traditionally made dress, will represent not only her family history, both Native American and European, but also all Native women.
MORTON — There are origin myths in the Dakota tradition that illustrate just how important art is to the people — so important that without it life would end.
As a member of the Lower Sioux Indian Community near Morton, Beth O'Keefe is just one of many artisans who are working to keep the traditional arts alive, not only in honor of their ancestors but for future generations.
"That is my job, to make sure it doesn't end," O'Keefe said.
Healing through art
This spring, O'Keefe has been participating in the 2022 Ignite Rural "At Home" Artist Residency program, a partnership between the Department of Public Transformation, Dakota Wicohan, Mni Sota Arts and Racing Magpie.
The artist cohort has connected four rural Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) artists together, while also providing additional resources to the artists to help them create their pieces. The other three artists taking part are Priscilla Gruendemann of the Lower Sioux Indian Community, Sureeporn Sompamitwong of Adrian and Andrea Duarte-Alonso of Worthington.
Each artist has been tasked with creating a project that addresses a need in their local community such as physical and mental health, strengthening connections or working against racism.
For O'Keefe, the program description spoke to her urge to begin healing after two years of the pandemic, both mentally and physically. This includes strengthening the bonds between family, neighbors and the community at large after months of isolation.
"Collectively, we have suffered a lot, all of us. I really do want to just be healthier, create more beauty and serenity for people," O'Keefe said.
O'Keefe plans to illustrate community healing through the creation of a traditional Dakota side-fold dress , made from elk and deer hide she tanned herself and to be decorated with porcupine quills and trade beads.
The dress will also represent all Native women, from those who kept the tribes clothed and fed in centuries past to the women of today working to keep the traditions alive while building successful lives in modernity.
An advocate for the Minnesota Indigenous Women's Society, providing assistance to Native victims of sexual and domestic assault, O'Keefe also plans for the dress to commemorate missing and killed Indigenous women. May 5 is the national Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls, and O'Keefe hopes to have the dress completed by that day.
"All of this is about healing," O'Keefe said.
Tradition, history and art
O'Keefe has a deep interest in her family and people's history, an interest that bleeds over into her artwork. A descendant of Dakota, Mexican and Irish heritage, O'Keefe has lived most of her life in Minnesota, both in the Twin Cities and in Morton. She currently lives within one mile of her closest family. Over the years she has gathered much about her family's past on both sides and, through it, has learned just how varied Minnesota's history really is.
"It is a much richer story. I don't think we ever do the state of Minnesota justice," O'Keefe said.
Art and Native American history are also tied very closely together. Skills such as tanning, quilling, beading and even cooking have been passed down from generation to generation, along with the stories that go with them. A simple meal of corn soup can have much more meaning than just a meal.
"That is how we transferred knowledge, so we still have that connection inside of us," O'Keefe said. "It has served us well."
It has taken some digging and many conversations with family to learn as much as she has about her past. While she has always loved museums, many times she felt much was missing from those exhibits, an issue she still faces today. And when she does come across a book or museum exhibit that does showcase her heritage, she finds it to be a very emotional moment.
"To know that these things exist, even now it is very overwhelming," O'Keefe said. "That was the seed to why I wanted to make this dress."
Art in the process
For the past seven years, O'Keefe has been learning and helping to tan hides in the traditional way from Dakota elder Walter LaBatte. It is a skill she always wanted to learn and she is beyond grateful for LaBatte's tutelage and friendship.
"We've worked into this comfortable relationship," O'Keefe said.
Brain-tanned hides are probably one of the most consistent pieces of shared material culture many tribes have, O'Keefe said, so it made sense to create her dress with such material. The process of tanning a hide the traditional way includes a lot of physical labor, and can take dozens of hours to complete just one hide, depending on the size. Even the tools used are handcrafted using the bones and antlers of the deer or elk.
"It really felt like it is the backbone" of traditional Dakota art, O'Keefe said.
The tanning steps include a first fleshing to remove any remaining meat from the hide, stretching it on a frame to dry and scraping it to remove remaining hair. Animal brain matter is used as an emulsifying agent to soften and preserve the hide, a step O'Keefe admits takes some getting used to. The final step is smoking the hide for color and waterproofing properties.
For her dress, O'Keefe is using an elk hide she tanned herself, with some help from LaBatte. Having her hands on every piece of the project, from beginning to end, has really opened her eyes to her past and especially how strong her female ancestors must have been.
"It made me feel so humble," O'Keefe said.
Experiencing and healing together
The Ignite Rural program runs until the end of May, and a showcase of the completed artwork is tentatively scheduled for sometime in June. O'Keefe sees the grant program, and other grant opportunities and projects of which she had been a part, as just one part of a larger move to restore not only Dakota art, but also its language and other traditions.
"I think it is a part of a collective consciousness that is being revitalized," O'Keefe said.
She said she hopes people learn from her dress, and also are able to feel the emotions she felt and experienced as she learned and created the garment. This would include the knowledge and skills LaBatte passed on to her, the conversations she had with her family members, the research she did and the impression of being part of a larger community and story.
"I want to pass along that same love and kindness and knowledge in that same good way," O'Keefe said.