Keeping Ho-Chunk tradition alive through the arts

2016-07-09 | The Wisconsin State Journal

July 09--When it comes to keeping history alive, one could say it runs in Melanie Tallmadge Sainz's blood.

She practically grew up at the Winnebago Indian Museum in the Wisconsin Dells since her parents ran it from 1953 until it closed in 2000. Sainz's mother Bernadine Tallmadge donated the vacant museum and its art collection to Little Eagle Arts Foundation (LEAF) -- which was founded by Sainz and named for her father Roger Little Eagle Tallmadge.

Now the family's tradition of preservation continues.

But Sainz's endeavor with LEAF -- which recently celebrated its third anniversary -- follows a broader line than just displaying artifacts for the public to view.

One of the goals of LEAF is to "maintain a gallery, gift shop, cafe, and public programs that maintain a reputation for exceptional American Indian art and American Indian cultural art education."

"'Authentic' -- that's the term we're trying to bring back," said Sainz, LEAF foundation director. "The authentic culture of the Dells area."

Before the popular tourist city became known for its waterparks, the area drew a mixture of tourists coming from all over to take in the natural beauty of the Wisconsin River, its landmarks, and the traditions of the native people, according to Sainz.

The aptly named Native Presence Art Gallery and Learning Center -- which officially opened the second weekend of June -- introduces a major step for LEAF toward their ultimate goals.

Native Presence is meant to serve as an art "incubator" for new and emerging Native American artists to help them grow and thrive, Sainz said.

While several shops in the Dells area sell souvenirs or decor that resemble native objects or art, many of them aren't authentic.

"There's such a juxtaposition between the made in China dream catchers downstairs and the authenticity we're trying to bring here," Sainz said.

An art educator by trade, Sainz wants to instill opportunity in unknown or lesser known artists to help further their careers. After spending 30 years teaching art, it seems like a natural next step.

"I want my fellow Ho-Chunk people to experience that same success in terms of their art careers," she said. "That's why LEAF was created."

Despite occasional homesickness while living in Pheonix, Arizona, Sainz said the time away was good because she was exposed to a community of native artists who were thriving in their craft.

"Down there, the native arts are so everywhere and people are making a good living off of their art," she said. "Because there are gatekeepers like the gallery here...Being that we're revitalizing the downtown Wisconsin Dells, part of the revitalization movement is infusing it with the arts. Whether it's culinary arts or performing arts or visual arts, you'll start seeing more of that here."

In the Dells, artists used to have a lot more opportunity for selling art before stores turned to the cost reducing alternative of purchasing items wholesale from Japan or China.

"We want to help in terms of the overall economic security for artists," she said. "Our competition is about imported work that is native inspired. We like to work with inspired natives -- the direct source."

The gallery serves as a sort of time machine that allows visitors to go back to a time when the handmade goods or artwork created by Ho-Chunk members were easily accessible in shops or roadside stands.

One particularly common item that tourists could purchase were hand woven baskets.

"In almost all homes the mothers made baskets -- it was an income," said Ho-Chunk elder Lenore Sweet.

"It was our bread and butter," according to Ho-Chunk elder Connie Lonetree. "There were little basket stands all around Ho-Chunk country and there were cottage industries to sell baskets or bead work and the tourists loved it."

When Sainz's mother donated the Winnebago Indian Museum's art collection to LEAF, 40 different baskets came with the collection. Those baskets are going to be used in basket workshops to provide students with examples that they can carefully handle.

We want to make them available and not just put them behind glass, said Sainz.

A basket workshop is already scheduled for August along with a finger weaving workshop in September and a raised beadwork workshop in October.

Although the gallery is a new addition to LEAF programming, the foundation has been hosting educational programs since its inception with partners like the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo.

In July the gallery will be the home base for two different youth art programs for children 9 to 11 and then children 12 to 14.

"We'll still have art on the wall, but the kids will be here at the tables," Sainz said. "One day we'll do soapstone carving and we'll walk down to the river to collect sandstone, because that's what we used for carving materials. So then they can see the natural world and the creative things they want to do."

When August rolls in, LEAF will be busy creating a mural with guest artists Christopher Sweet -- whose art is currently at the Native Presence Gallery -- and Wesley May after receiving a grant from the First Peoples Fund out of Rapid City, South Dakota.

The mural will depict what happened to Chief Blue Wing and his family in Reedsburg in 1871.

According to Sainz, military forces came to the area in 1871 to round up all of the Ho-Chunk, put them on stock trains, and send them out west.

But at the time, the Blue Wing family was so well regarded by the community that the non-native people came and protested the move.

The mural will be created in the first week of August in the Harvest Park area in Reedsburg and it will be dedicated on Oct. 8 and 9 during Fermentation Fest.

"We'll have native youth, community youth, non-Indian youth, coming together to paint this mural," Sainz said. "We'll probably have over 10,000 people as a part of this festival. That just shows the enthusiasm for it."