Native American artist paints history of his people

Native American artist paints history of his people

By Susan Johnson

By Susan Johnson

Copy Editor

The paintings evoke images of another time, another place. They seem realistic, yet have a mystical quality about them. Native American artist Paha Ska paints from his heart, using natural dyes on animal hides, in the old, traditional way. His work is on exhibit at Cherokee Nation & Indian Art, 8750 N. Second St., in Machesney Park Mall.

An Oglala Sioux, or in the people’s language, Lakota, Paha Ska was born in 1923 in Pine Ridge, S.D. His name in English means “White Hills” after the rugged, barren, white sandstone hills in the Badlands in his home state.

A self-taught artist, Paha Ska has developed his own style and feels strongly that this has kept his art true to traditional American Indian philosophy. Sherman MacVenn, owner of Cherokee Nation & Indian Art, agrees: “Paha Ska has a unique art done on hide… his art is the pictograph telling the story. Much of his art has spiritual meanings as shown by the shadows of the ghost figures.” MacVenn added that prints of some of the work, not on hides, are available in sizes 18″ x 24″ up to 26″ x 38″. Some are limited editions, signed and numbered.

Paha Ska’s highly detailed, expressive paintings are the result of many years of work, and he has worked in various media. “I’ve painted on everything under the sun—canvas, black velvet and more canvas.” Eventually, customers requested “the hides—what my people painted on a long time ago,” he explained. “They go the best, and they dry the fastest, so the buyer can pick them up in a shorter time. I don’t have any problems selling them.”

He’s been at it for 40 years. “I was a little boy when I first learned to sketch,” he recalled, “and I started doing cartoons—big noses, pug noses—and then I became serious. Older Indians told me the stories and what to use.” As for his technique, he said, “You can only paint the way you feel. So I keep myself in such a way that I feel only the good and not the sorrow of my people.”

The honor of a shirt wearer

His wife, Susan Salway, explained, “The Native Americans were pantheists—they believed in spirit in everything, but basically in one God. God, to them, was named Wakan Tanka, which means ‘great and holy.’ Or also Tunkasila, which means ‘grandfather,’ as an elder in the tribe, which Paha Ska is officially called. They are ‘shirt wearers’—an honored elder who gives advice to young people. They still have tribal chiefs, but they elect a tribal president who serves two-year terms. He (Paha Ska) became a shirt wearer in 1987. He was selected by elders of the tribe. The person who made him a shirt wearer was named Arthur Zimaga, who, at the time, was president at the Oglala Lakota College.”

Some of the tribes were nomadic, and in that way, the couple’s lifestyle reflects that of the Lakota. “We travel around the country, lecturing on Lakota myth and legend. We talk about the spiritualism of the Lakota people, and we’ve gone as far as Scotland, England and Hawaii to lecture,” said Salway. “There was a council in Honolulu last year about Native American concerns. Hawaii has only been a state since 1959, so they have a lot of issues concerning their land rights as native peoples.”

They both teach classes for public schools in their part of the country. They live in Keystone, S.D., between Pine Ridge and Mt. Rushmore. They live about three miles from Mt. Rushmore and about 25 miles from the Crazy Horse monument, which is under construction. In fact, one of Paha Ska’s paintings is based on a sketch of Crazy Horse.

Susan Salway also has some recipes available on herbal medicine from the Herbal Healer Academy, Inc. You can subscribe to their newsletter at $20 a year. Check out their website at

Upcoming exhibit

On Nov. 23-25, Cherokee artist John Guthrie from Tahlequah, Okla., will be at Cherokee Nation & Indian Art. He works in several media—watercolor, oils and handmade cotton fiber castings.

For more information, call the store at (815) 282-3877.

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