Today is the birthday of Fritz Scholder, one of most highly regarded artists of the 20th century. Although he’s categorized as a Native American painter, Scholder never saw it that way. “Who still thinks about how much Indian blood someone has?” he once stated. “Well, I never thought about it, because I grew up in public schools, and I'm not an Indian. I'm very proud of being one-quarter Luiseño, which is California Mission, but you can't be anything if you're only a quarter. Plus, I just never had that background.”
Scholder grew up in Wahpeton, the son of a gifted athlete. As he put it, “My father was a super sportsman. He was a champion golfer of North Dakota, champion tennis player, bowler. He'd go out and get his limit on any game during the season. And all his only son wanted to do was be an artist.”
“My mother was very creative... in the Midwest you kind of have to entertain yourself. There were a lot of horizon lines. It's a place where you have to use your imagination.”
When Scholder was 16, his father was transferred to Pierre, South Dakota. There, the budding artist was able to study art with Oscar Howe, an important Sioux artist and one of the first Indians that Scholder got to know on a one-to-one basis.
Later, after earning a Master of Fine Arts in Tucson, Scholder took a teaching job at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. “I found out what Indians think in Santa Fe,” he said. “For the first time I met real Indians, and they have a whole different mind-set. I've always painted in a biographical context, and Indians were now fully a part of my life. I was going out and visiting the pueblos, attending dances, collecting stuff... I realized I wanted to say some things... After three years or so of (working abstractly), I turned my attention to Indians.”
The year was 1967, and Scholder wasn’t content to paint the romanticized version of Indian life depicted by past artists. He wanted to blow apart clichés, and forsaking the safe imagery of stoic Indians on horses, Scholder created bold, colorful paintings such as "Indian With Beer Can." Other pieces, like an arrow-ridden white settler and another of a buffalo dancer holding an ice cream cone, started to shake up the art world.
He recalled, “News of the work spread like wildfire. I had to have armed guards at the shows! I had challenged and intimidated the non-Native, so-called Indian experts in Santa Fe, and I had also angered Indian elders and traditionalists who didn't know what to do with me. The subject matter was loaded -- images that had never been seen. But these weren't things I imagined; I saw them.”
When the governor of North Dakota later invited him to the capital for a dinner in his honor, Scholder told the crowd, “I'm so pleased that I grew up in North Dakota, because it made me tough.”
Ironically, Scholder’s wide-ranging experience in the white world had collided with his Native heritage in a way that allowed him a distinct advantage. “An Anglo artist couldn't touch these subjects,” he said, “nor could an Indian artist.”
The resulting uproar over Scholder’s work launched the New Indian Art Movement, and Scholder was soon heralded as one of America’s most compelling artists.
During a graduation speech last year, Scholder said, “You must be yourself on purpose. First, find out who you are and fully accept it. Fall in love with your life and live your life with finesse and manners... We are all in this together.”
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm
This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.