Symbolism in the Search for Tribal and Personal Identity: The Work of Charles Her Many Horses

Aug 12th, 2013 | By | Category: Arts & Language, Online features, Web Exclusive
By Margaret A. MacKichan

Charles Her Many Horses (Sicangu Lakota) is a prolific artist, currently attending the Great Plains Art Institute at Sinte Gleska University. The middle child of a large, multitalented family, he grew up on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in a family that valued both traditional roots and education.

Her Many Horses has produced a large body of work that includes paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings. He has developed his own distinct style, which often features a single Lakota male contemplating life or placed in scenarios with a humorous bite. The outwardly simple themes often echo more serious struggles between tribal values and 21st century expectations.

Symbolism is critical to his work, some of which is easily read by people familiar with Native issues and expressions. The man contemplating the apple on his fork, for example, refers to the “Apple Indian,” who is red on the outside, but white on the inside. Other pieces are best appreciated when one is familiar with Lakota history. In “Probably Bulletproof” the wearer of a ghost shirt rides through a barrage of bullets while his horse crumples beneath him. Others allude to Lakota Iktomi, or spider trickster stories, such as “Iktomi and the Ducks,” in which the ducks are little rubber ducks—with bright red eyes.

Recently, Her Many Horses began a series of paintings and drawings using genres from past periods and familiar masterworks, in an effort to rewrite history from the Lakota perspective. Often casting himself as a principal character, his art examines, expresses, and conveys biases towards Natives—whether held by non-Natives, or harbored by the Lakota people themselves. In his work, “Recreation of Adam,” which recalls Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Adam is Native and God is Abe Lincoln making a rude gesture. The work references the Mankato hanging of 38 Santee Sioux, which Lincoln ordered. Adept at caricature, he plays with easily identifiable historical figures.

Portraiture is also an interest of his. In “Dr. Lucy Reifel,” he depicts his mother (a pediatrician) in a starkly frontal pose, holding the tools of her work and wrapped in a star quilt. The portraiture is not unlike colonial portraits depicting professionals and their instruments, while also echoing Grant Wood’s classic painting “American Gothic.” “Dr. Lucy Reifel” builds on the humor of his previous works, resulting in a powerful statement of the individual.

Such symbolism is critical to Her Many Horses’ work. “Every image, every line, and color has a specific meaning,” he says. Regarding the ducks with red eyes, he writes, “I want to keep our traditional stories alive. If I can spark a curiosity in viewers that makes someone sort out the reasoning behind the red eyes, then maybe these stories and my culture will be around a little longer.”

“Dr. Lucy Reifel” was given the Powers Award at the Red Cloud Indian Art Show in June 2013. Other pieces of Her Many Horse’s work have received high honors at Red Cloud and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium art shows. For more on his work, visit Charles Lee Her Many Horses on Facebook.

Margaret A. MacKichan, MFA, is the founding director of the Great Plains Art Institute at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation. MacKichan developed the art institute’s four-year/three-degree program to combine high quality, mainstream university–level art education with Native American aesthetics, art history, and traditional Lakota sensibilities. The institute is now in its 26th year.

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