The Art of Indigenous ResilienceNov 01, 2022 09:55AM ● By Andrea Kszystyniak
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
For nearly a decade, Nathaniel Ruleaux built an acting career and dedicated his spare time to drawing and painting. He shared stories with audiences on stage and quietly made visual art at home. When he decided to become a full-time father, though, his commitments shifted.
“I was so used to working at a theater until all hours of the night. I found pretty fast that being a stay-at-home dad, I was artistically starved to do something,” Ruleaux said.
So he began to make things. Works that were bold, bright, and varied. Some in acrylic, clay, spray paint—whatever method moved him at the moment. Ruleaux’s artistic approach is first and foremost rooted in a passion for storytelling. He formulates his vibrant pieces as part of a rich tradition that uplifts his own identity as a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation.
It was an identity he deeply missed while away from Nebraska, first in graduate school in Texas, then acting in Washington, D.C. The farther he got from the Oglala Lakota people, the more others seemed to treat his Indigenous identity like it wasn’t real. Fortunately the stars aligned, and Ruleaux and his family moved to Omaha in 2019.
Ruleaux described himself at this time as bouncing around his studio apartment just making things alongside his baby, Luca, in a carrier. Everyone he knew was at work, so he started chatting with one of the only other people home during the day: his grandfather, Donald D. Ruleaux. Donald, who lived in Nebraska and died in 2020, was an artist and arts educator whose work featured in the permanent collections of institutions like the Museum of Nebraska Art and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. As the pair discussed their shared passion for art, Donald began to talk to his grandson about Lakota culture, heritage, and history.
Growing up, Ruleaux said his grandfather’s artwork always hung in his family’s home. One of his favorites was a watercolor featuring a bison herd with a single white one hidden in the middle. “It was something I could go back to, to remember who I am,” the artist shared.
During regular calls with his grandfather, Ruleaux started painting more bison himself. Partly because they’re easy shapes, he joked; he just makes three circles and fills the bison in around them. But the artist is drawn to bison primarily for their symbolic resonance. During the 1800s, the United States government deliberately exterminated tens of millions of bison to eliminate an essential resource for the Lakota and many other Indigenous people. This is part of a long history of erasure and murder of Indigenous communities by colonizers, governments, and white America.
Ruleaux created some bison in watercolor, some in ink, yet others in spray paint. He titled them “Bison One,” then, “Bison Two,” and the herd continued growing. As Ruleaux learned his Indigenous language, he began to call them by the Lakota word for bison, “ptéȟčaka.”
The title of one of these, “Facing the Storm,” references the fact that when bad weather roars in, bison head toward the oncoming storm—not away. As much as Ruleaux’s works are portrayals of the majestic animal, they also examine issues facing Indigenous people today. Works feature bison running across a pipeline that leaks oil or the large bovine crashing through cityscapes.
“I eventually started to feel like I wanted to bring a bison into the world for every one that was shot from a train passing through the Great Plains and bring back a bison for every skull piled up on a giant hill,” Ruleaux said. “They represent a pushback against colonialist values and white supremacist systems.”
Ruleaux’s work extends outside physical media. In 2021 he helped form Unceded Artist Collective, a community and directory of Indigenous artists who live and create on the unceded land of the Umónhon and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ. The project received a generator grant from Amplify Arts.
Peter Fankhauser, the nonprofit’s co-director, said, “I feel like creative practice in general has a lot of potential to distill big concepts into a format that resonates on an emotional level, and I think that's what Nate does in the context of his community-building work, particularly with Unceded Artist Collective.”
Ultimately, Ruleaux’s work is a product of immense optimism and devotion to community that pushes against centuries of ancestral trauma. Like a bison facing the storm, the artist confronts the pain and isolation of a people nearly destroyed by colonial incursion.
Although his pieces may not always be obviously joyful, they demonstrate beauty in resilience, in the unusual, and in the collective.
“I hope to try to educate folks and help us all move to a better future, which can be hard to picture sometimes,” Ruleaux said.