Artist honors tatanka in Center for Western Studies

“Tatanka helped [Native Americans] survive,” said Yankton Sioux Oyate artist Jerry Fogg, whose work is currently on display in the Center for Western Studies (CWS). “I don’t know where we’d be if it wasn’t for the buffalo, if we’d even exist today.”

His collection 11 Degrees of Tatanka, which is on display until May 24, features eleven powerful bison sacrifices that dominate the walls.

Not sure what to expect, I entered the gallery, immediately surrounded by magnificent works made of buffalo skulls and hides, adorned with a variety of dimensional materials. The buffalo that were sacrificed for the 11 Degrees of Tatanka are symbolic of the history, both peaceful and tragic, of the Native American people.

I was stunned by the magnitude of the 11 bison, which stretched throughout three rooms. Inspired to investigate the artwork further, I sat down with both the artist, Jerry Fogg, and Kristi Thomas, education assistant for the CWS, who gave me insight on the gallery’s significance.

“[Viewers] have this very strange reaction to the gallery exhibit,” Thomas said. “They tell me that there really are no words for it. I even found it hard to write a description of it because it’s more than the words. It’s a feeling that the exhibit gives you, as if you’re hearing the stories of the bison.”

No image of a human is depicted in the 11, though the gallery is about the human-bison relationship.

Fogg explained his thinking.

“A story is not worth telling if it’s about Jim and Diane,” Fogg said. “You put mystical things into action, and it feels like we’re children. The car raced down the road? The dragon raced down the road. Almost every culture has that. The Greeks have their gods, and we have our Tatanka.”

Also mystical is the collection’s physical complexity. It’s been advertised as mixed media art, however, Fogg is not entirely satisfied with that title.

“A person could do a piece with acrylic and watercolor and call it mixed media,” Fogg said.

He calls it by his own title, ‘Foggma’. His invented word refers to all of the details—flowers, coins, beads, feathers—which articulate the skull. The materials, like the skulls, are gathered from odd places.

“I take these things and further their career, keep them active,” Fogg said. “Otherwise, it’d be a waste of good material. It’s transitioning old into new to look old.”

He wants to make everything look antique and derived from a historical place, even though, more often than not, the materials are found randomly.

Thomas described the process of setting up the display.

“It took a week, and when [Fogg] was done, he burned sage to bless each of the skulls and honor their sacrifice, which was a beautiful moment in our gallery,” Thomas said.

Fogg’s work is influenced by Native American lore and history. He advocates for those affected by the pipeline, the trafficking of young people and the victims of the Indian insane asylum that once existed in Canton.

Preserving all aspects of his people translates into his art, making his work authentic material to approach when studying and empathizing with history.

Although the Augustana student body is composed of a white majority, with a substantial number of international students, all walks of life have something to gain from viewing the exhibit. 

“Where we live, we are very lucky because we have an open door to the Native lifestyle,” Thomas said. “Unfortunately, we don’t walk through that door. The first people of our nation were the Native American people, and they’ve dealt with European contact. Artists are trying to preserve the understanding that they’re living in modern times and how that culture can still exist.”

Fogg hopes to reach anyone and everyone who will listen to the tatanka.

It’s his reminder to our community that, in his words, “We are still here, and we will never go away.” 


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