This dissertation presents the creative life of the Yanktonai Dakota modernist painter and educator Oscar Howe (1915-1983). The biography on Oscar Howe documents a comprehensive timeline of life events and traces the improbable educational odyssey from a shy and isolated boarding school student to emeritus professor with several honorary doctorates.
“Distinctly Oscar Howe: Life, Art, Stories” revisits and reinforces existing stories, and presents and interprets new stories in the
biographical narrative of Howe’s life as an influential figure in South Dakota’s history as well as the history of American Indian art
in the twentieth century. A talented artist uniquely isolated in South Dakota for much of his career, Oscar Howe was a principal figure and innovative artist who had a tremendous impact on the American Indian art world and beyond. Through words and actions, Howe symbolized a revolutionary individual at a time of great change for American Indian artists.
Primary documents are the heart of this research. Letters, photographs, and artworks are reproduced to record the artist’s
relationship to the people, places, and ideas of central distinction to his life story in the twentieth century.
This study reveals that Oscar Howe captured the nation’s attention at a time in history when elements of his popularity stemmed from the nation’s interest in its Indigenous people and pride in the nation’s original American artists. Howe’s chief importance in the field of American Indian art rests in three significant areas: (1) his role as an outspoken advocate of American Indian modernity, (2) his validation of the role of individualism and self-expression in American Indian art, and (3) the role of the arts within the greater community of people to teach about other cultures.