RAPID CITY, South Dakota—The colorful herd of buffalo roaming down the roads of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota this fall brought both tears and cheers to a group of artists, supporters and federal partners gathered together for a cultural assets and creative economy learning tour hosted, in part, by First Peoples Fund, a national nonprofit based in Rapid City, South Dakota, dedicated to the preservation, advancement and well-being of American Indian arts and culture.
The buffalo herd was really Rolling Rez Arts, a new state-of-the-art mobile arts space, business training center, and mobile bank. In the coming months, Rolling Rez Arts will be seen all across the reservation as it delivers art, business, retail and banking services that up until this point have been inaccessible to many of the artists and culture bearers who live and work on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The arts space on wheels has been years in the making, and is the result of a group of people—from First Peoples Fund, Artspace and Lakota Funds staff to nonprofit partners to foundations supporters—coming together to infuse new energy into the creative economy.
“This is a remarkable milestone for First Peoples Fund, yes, but even more so, for the artists we have an opportunity to work alongside here in our home community and all across the country,” said Lori Pourier (Oglala Lakota), president of First Peoples Fund. “Rolling Rez Arts will give access to the tools and support artists both need and deserve to overcome barriers that they may face. And, it will also represent what happens when good people come together to creatively find solutions to decades-long challenges.
“Rolling Rez Arts,” she continued, “stands as a living embodiment of what we call ‘Collective Spirit’—that which manifests self-awareness and a sense of responsibility to sustain the cultural fabric of a community. As artists and business experts come together on Rolling Rez Arts, we will strengthen our local and regional economy, and most importantly, the economic wellbeing of the Lakota families who share their immense cultural gifts with our world.”
The first-time seeing Rolling Rez Arts was especially poignant for Donald Montileaux (Oglala Lakota), a renowned ledger artist and an artist success coach for First Peoples Fund. The buffalo imagery that appears on both sides of the bus was drawn by Montileaux, and the graphics that accompany it were designed by Walt Pourier (Oglala Lakota) of Nakota Designs.
As Montileaux sat on the bus for the first time, it was a full-circle moment.
“Back in the early seventies, I was just a semester away from getting my college degree and we traveled North and South Dakota for three years in an art van, but ours was a bread truck—like a UPS truck. We had room to sleep, but we also had art supplies in it, and we’d go to schools, use their cafeterias, and create art with the kids,” Montileaux said.
More than 40 years later, Rolling Rez Arts was now poised to extend his work in new, meaningful ways.
The concept of Rolling Rez Arts comes, in part, in response to a market study conducted by First Peoples Fund, Artspace, Colorado State University, Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC) and Northwest Area Foundation. The study explored the challenges and successes experienced by Lakota artists on Pine Ridge. It found that more than half of Native households on Pine Ridge are engaged in home-based businesses, and 79 percent of those businesses are in the arts. It also found that 61 percent of emerging artists have incomes of less than $10,000, but through participation in workshops and trainings—like what will be offered through the mobile art unit—that number plummets.
First Peoples Fund’s approach to working with—and supporting—artists has made a difference before, Pourier pointed out. “Through one-year fellowship programs like First Peoples Fund’s Artist in Business Leadership and Cultural Capital Programs, artists have reported that their incomes from their artwork have increased considerably. After participating in one of our fellowship and training programs, only 7.5 percent of First Peoples Fund artists reported household incomes of less than $10,000.”
With the availability of mobile outreach to a large cross section of the reservation population, Rolling Rez Arts will engage artists to create a significant opportunity for building assets. The success of artists is the heart of this project, explained Pourier.
Lakota Funds, the first Native-led Community Development Financial Institution on a reservation, has been a critical partner in the creation of Rolling Rez Arts. Since their founding more than 30 years ago, they have helped to create more than 1,400 permanent jobs on the reservation, many of them led by artists. They led the initiative to obtain the charter for the first federally insured financial institution on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Lakota Federal Credit Union. The credit union will be on the bus helping artists to open savings accounts, and building relationships that can help tribal members reach their financial goals, and their dreams.
“This collaboration with First Peoples Fund helps us to move our mission forward in bigger and greater ways,” explained Tawney Brunsch (Oglala), executive director at Lakota Funds. “Now, we’ll be able to reach every corner of the Pine Ridge Reservation to work with our community, and play a supportive role in their financial success, and our creative economy.”
Rolling Rez Arts was funded through grants from ArtPlace America, The Bush Foundation, Northwest Area Foundation, and USDA Rural Development, all of whom have partnered with First Peoples Fund in the planning, community outreach, and research that makes this innovative mobile unit a reality. Additional funding was provided to Artspace by The Ford Foundation.
“These foundations and government agencies have contributed more than financial dollars to making Rolling Rez Arts a reality,” Pourier noted. “They poured in their passion and expertise in finding innovative, artistic solutions to difficulties artists face. It was their creativity that fueled this project, and now, will continue to fuel this mobile unit.”