Lakota Artists Boost Economy, Community & Cultural Traditions on Pine Ridge

pine ridge chamber logo

For the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce (PRACC), the goal is to bolster the local economy and improve the quality of life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This summer, with the help of funding from First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), PRACC discovered the powerful role art can play in this economic development, while bringing people together and keeping Lakota traditions alive.

An Opportunity to Market

The Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce opened its doors in 2000 to support local businesses and increase tourism to South Dakota and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In support of this work, in 2009, PRACC also opened a Visitors Center and set out to decorate the space with displays and pieces by local artists.

PRACC Executive Director Ivan Sorbel says the Visitors Center now looks like an art gallery, but it doesn’t function as a storefront – a distinction that is key to PRACC’s commitment to driving the Pine Ridge economy.

“We don’t want to be in competition with the artists,” Ivan says, explaining that the job of the chamber is to promote local businesses, and not the chamber itself. “We purchased the local artwork so artists would get the sale. Then, when interested visitors come in, we connect them with the artists who handle the purchase on their end.”

Throughout the years, Ivan says PRACC has continued to think of channels like this that would attract visitors and boost economic development. In 2017, it conceived the idea of an artists-in-residence program.

NAI-Logo_Final-500pxWith funding from First Nations’ Native Arts Initiative, PRACC implemented the program that would bring 12 Native artists onsite to work and display their art at the Visitors Center. Providing each artist with a week-long session throughout the summer of 2018, the program provided the opportunity to not only market and sell their work, but also talk about their art, background, and perspectives on the creative process. It was a quality experience for the artists and for the visitors.

“It’s one thing to see art hanging on the wall,” explains Ivan. “But it’s another thing to actually speak to the artist who created the piece. It enlightened a lot of people.”

An Economy Builder

Showcased art included buffalo-horn sculpting, stone work, beadwork, leatherwork, sewing and art and hide painting, and artists were able to sell and commission pieces on the spot. With the help of the grant, PRACC covered artists’ travel costs as well as expenses surrounding venue space, marketing and promotion.

This created huge visibility for artists who would normally sell only from home studios or online. And because many local artists depend on their art to support their families in an area of high unemployment, the opportunity to sell at the Visitor Center was that much more important.

Artist Warren “Guss” Yellow Hair, who specializes in rawhide and drum work, says the ability to make extra money through the program was valuable. “On the plains, we’re just developing an art market for artists,” he says. “This program provided a way to not only share our art, but to meet everyday costs. That was huge.”

In addition, by having artists interact with visitors and tell their stories the artists-in-residence program provided a tourist attraction, which is critical to the Pine Ridge economy.

“Today’s tourist is looking for a meaningful experience,” explains Ivan. “Giving them the ability to hear about what’s going on in our area has real potential. They like to learn, and that’s good for sharing our Lakota culture and keeping it alive and relevant.”

Impact Beyond Art

In implementing the project, PRACC soon learned how the benefits of art transcended the actual artistic work. It indeed promoted artists’ businesses and the economic development of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It also served as a means of collaboration and camaraderie.

“Art is a strong portion of the Lakota culture,” says Ivan. “Beyond the art itself is the process involved in teaching it, passing it down, and sharing tradition. We only had 12 artists, but it made a big impact.”

The project also had a nurturing component in that it partnered each exhibiting artist with a young “emerging artist.” These were new artists who were just starting their craft or who needed more experience in pricing, displaying, public relations and selling.

One of the emerging artists was Guss’ daughter Tianna, a full-time student pursuing a career in Lakota arts who specializes in the women’s art form, parflesh.

Black Hills Art MarketTianna says she is grateful to PRACC and the opportunity to show her work with other artists. Tianna not only worked alongside her father during the project, she also won the 13th spot in the artists-in-residence program, awarding her a one-week session to work and display on her own at the Visitors Center. In addition, she was given the opportunity to present at the Rural America Initiative’s Black Hills Winter American Indian Art Market (see linked video) in Rapid City, South Dakota, on Nov. 24, 2018.

This teaching aspect of the program was beneficial to all the young artists like Tianna. It also fulfilled a key component of the grant objective in that it helped facilitate the “steady intergenerational transference of traditional artistic knowledge in their communities.”

Next Steps

The Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce was established to boost the Pine Ridge economy and improve the livelihoods of the people who live there. It did not define itself as a proponent of artists and Native arts. However, Ivan says, the grant from First Nations let them see the power of art in their community.

“Our job is to foster economic development, and tourism is the number two industry in South Dakota,” says Ivan. “Now the program has laid the groundwork to pursue new opportunities for art as an economic driver.”

He says First Nations helped PRACC understand how to dig deeper with the artist community and engage tourism. “It helped us open our eyes to what is possible. What can we build on? And what can expand and increase?

“The structure of the grant is focused on art,” he says. “But economics was a byproduct. The grant helped us marry those two together.”

With the artists-in-residence program wrapping up for the summer of 2018, Ivan, Guss and Tianna are hopeful that the program can continue. They consider it a success, and PRACC envisions new possibilities as the program gains momentum. Initial thoughts for the future include opportunities in performing arts, as there are many Native singers, dancers and storytellers in the community, as well as visitor workshops where tourists can have that hands-on experience of creating art themselves.

In the meantime, art continues to be showcased at PRACC, and every visitor who comes through the doors sees this rich asset of the Lakota culture. As it improves families’ livelihoods and contributes to the economy of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Lakota art lives on, connecting people and keeping Lakota traditions alive.

To learn more about the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce and the Artist in Residence Program, visit

By Amy Jakober

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