Kevin Pourier (Oglala Lakota), a 2014 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF) Regional Artist Fellow, has been carving Buffalo horn on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota for over 20 years. After 21 years of showing his work at the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) Santa Fe Indian Market, his belt titled Winyan Wánakiksin won Best of Show in this year’s competition. Pourier recently spoke to the NACF about his career as an artist and winning this prestigious award.
Winyan Wánakiksin, meaning Women Defenders of Others, is a fitting name for Pourier’s award winning work of art. It is more than just a pretty piece, the belt encompasses the current political climate, the power of women, contemporary Native issues, and a shift in the Native art world that combines beauty with advocacy. For many months prior to the event, Pourier spent hours researching, interviewing, and collaborating with eight influential Native women to create the design. Each individual portrait panel took about two-weeks to complete. It was a labor of love for Pourier who poured all of his research into creating decorative portraits with purpose. In addition to the portraits each woman selected a design with personal meaning to be used in the background.
The theme of the belt seemed to be particularly relevant this year, and not just to the Pouriers. During Pourier’s acceptance speech at the Santa Fe Indian Market, he said he “got choked up” as he spoke about the eight influential Native women who inspired his winning piece of art. After months of work on the project, he was able to speak about them as if they were his relations. The story of the belt impacted many of the women in the audience as well. Pourier said they “were so proud, and many were crying as I began to describe the pieces.”
As a younger artist, Pourier never could have imagined this moment. Before he turned thirty he was an alcoholic and a drug addict. “I didn’t have any social awareness at that point in my life because I was just too busy being messed up,” he said. When he finally sobered up he started carving designs into buffalo horns to sell as jewelry. But it wasn’t until he started participating in his own tribal ceremonies and reaching out to spiritual leaders that his designs took on purpose. While making and selling art across the country he met more like-minded people, artists and people on different paths in life, who opened his mind to socio-political issues. It was during this time that Pourier made his first controversial piece of art. He carved a buffalo horn design that depicted Mount Rushmore breaking in two with chunks of white mother pearl falling off the President’s faces, and a herd of buffalo running down the center of it. The design was inspired by the Lakota creation story. “We came out of the black hills as buffalo people and Mount Rushmore just happened to be in the way,” he said. This foray into political art became the first of many, but with some risk to his livelihood. “When you’re outspoken you risk not making a sale or being excluded from exhibitions. These decisions make an impact on us financially, but I like bringing awareness to Native people in the 21stcentury… our opinions and voices need to be heard as part of this nation.”
Pourier’s intricate designs are intentional, and an extension of his Lakota culture. While on a research fellowship he was thrilled to discover a buffalo horn vessel belonging to Crazy Horse in a museum. It featured holes drilled into the horn with inlaid blue stone to represent the horses he had stolen. Pourier is proud that his work retains this connection to the past and he draws on this energy to create inspired work connecting younger generations to current Native issues. His carvings reveal the beauty he sees in the world around us, while seizing opportunities to start conversations and educate.
Speaking to his winning belt design Pourier reflects on social activism and contemporary Native art. In reference to Susie Silook, one of the women featured in the piece he says: “she is concerned with climate change, the melting of ice can mean their whole way of life can be gone. That doesn’t just concern her, it concerns all of us so that’s a pretty important issue. How can we as Native artists just sit back and draw Indians chasing buffalo over and over when our relatives are struggling to survive on this Earth.”
Pourier is humbled by his career as an artist. He has received many awards over the years, including the 2014 NACF Regional Artist Fellowship, but Best of Show at Indian Market is one of his proudest moments. He contributes his success in part to the partnerships he has made through granting foundations, because the financial support has afforded him larger chunks of time to focus on bigger projects that have advanced his career. When asked what his advice is to younger artists he says, “apply for every grant including non-native grants. Grant writing will help you focus and describe your art in a more articulate way, and help you plan for the future.”
Pourier’s award winning belt, Winyan Wánakiksin, was purchased by the Smithonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
Hover on image then click on “X” to see full size photos.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do another piece that has this kind of energy. It has gone beyone me – my wife thought of it, these women and their work around the country – it was their design and I just made it.
~ Kevin Pourier
Kevin Pourier’s belt, Winyan Wánakiksin is a design inspired by his wife Valerie. The women depicted are:
Susie Silook (Yupik/Iñupiaq)
Susie is most known for her ivory carvings who advocates for the environment, cultural practices, and violence against Native women.
Tipiziwin Tolman (Wiciyena/Tizaptanna Isanti/Bdewakantonwan Dakota/Hunkpapha Lakota)
Tipiziwin is a champion for preserving the Lakota culture and language.
Mary Kathryn Nagle (Cherokee Nation)
Mary Kathryn is a playwright and lawyer who specializes in the sovereignty of Native nations.
Wanda Batchelor (WashoeTribe)
Wanda was the first woman selected to lead the Washoe Tribe.
Jodi Archambault-Gillette (Lakota)
Jodi served as Presiden Barack Obama’s special assistant for Native American affairs.
Roxanne Swentzell (Santa Clara Pueblo)
Roxanne is an artist and the co-founder and president of the nonprofit Flowering Tree Permaculture.
Suzan Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee Nation)
Suzan is a poet, writer and policy advocate for Native land and the president of the Morningstar Institute. She received the Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2014.
Bobbi Jean Three Legs (Hunkpapha)
Bobbi is largely credited for helping start the Standing Rock movement in addition to other protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.