C.M. Russell Museum – The Sun Dance Series: Heart of the Blackfeet People by Gary Schildt

Museum Hours: Wednesday–Sunday, 10AM to 5PM

The Sun Dance Series: Heart of the Blackfeet People by Gary Schildt

This remarkable series of 42 paintings by the Blackfeet artist Gary Schildt (b. 1938) represents the most meaningful aspects of the annual Medicine Lodge ceremony, or Sun Dance, celebrated in July by the Blackfeet of Browning, Montana. Painted over a three-year period (1995–1997), the series was conceived by Schildt as a way to give back to his people and to reconfirm his own cultural roots.

The Sun Dance has, for centuries, provided the Blackfeet with a process of renewal and affirmation as a day of thanksgiving to the creator of the world and to the myriad of spirits that inhabit it. The Sun Dance teaches the people their own history, traditions, and place on the earth. It is a great annual religious festival and the highest expression of the Blackfeet religion. Reaching the height of its popularity among the Blackfeet in the mid-nineteenth century, the Sun Dance was also practiced in other forms by such Plains Indian tribes as the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Western Sioux.

In the cosmology of the Plains Indian cultures, the Sun is of central importance. For the Blackfeet, it is the original spirit or greatest manifestation of the god Manitou (who is All). The Sun lives in the sky with his wife, the Moon. Their son Morning Star married a human woman who left earth to come to live with her husband in the sky. The woman became homesick and disobeyed the Sun by stealing a glace down at her family on earth. The Sun told the woman she would have to make a sacrifice for her error by fasting and providing a feast for her people. The woman thus taught her people the Sun Dance, which evolved into the most sacred of offerings or prayers that are given to the spirit of fertility.

Also known as the Okan, the Sun Dance is initiated through the vow of a woman, who promises to sponsor the ceremony for her people. Unfolding over nine days, the Sun Dance involves the participation of many people at different levels to both prepare for and carry out the ritual events. At the beginning of the twentieth century, in response to efforts by the U.S. government to discourage this celebration, the Blackfeet moved it to July 4th to coincide with Independence Day. It is still celebrated on the Blackfeet Reservation.

Portion of Artist Statement:

Much of the creative process of an artist comes from dreaming. All of us at some time or another have wished for something and day dreamed about it. Many of these dreams, however, just lay until they fade into the passage of time. When I look at all the old photos, books and scraps of things I have collected over the years, they are reminders of a beautifully free life when I was a child on my grandfather’s ranch at the edge of the Rocky Mountains on the Blackfeet Reservation. My grandfather unofficially named me, “Lone Bull” because I was the only little male child on our ranch. These memories take me back to the roots of my past, and even though I know it is not possible, I long for its return.

What began as a creative inspiration, ended as a labor of love. I laid aside any artistic license to recreate the Sundance, and followed faithfully the work and materials the masters left as records of life. I claim no authorship of the words that describe my work. Total and absolute credit belongs to the works of the people who laid the groundwork before, to the Blackfeet people and to the Sun. My artistic vision has been to fuse all the written works, old photos, ceremonies, and the Blackfeet people into one big collection of new light, color, and dimension. To bring life to the fading dream I had so long ago, I have tried to present the Sundance in its entirety.

Collection generously donated by Dr. Daniel and Mary Ann Fiehrer