AMNA NAWAZ: On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, about half of all Native household depends on home-based enterprises for income. Many are some form of traditional arts. But many artists living on the reservation lack ways to meet buyers. Jeffrey Brown reports on a mobile effort that's tackling these challenges with a retrofitted bus, part of our series American Creators.
JEFFREY BROWN: It's called the Rolling Rez Arts bus, part art center, school, bank and business incubator rolling through their sprawling section of Southwestern South Dakota.
BRYAN PARKER, Rolling Rez Arts: The art is what brings people together. Filmmaker and painter Bryan Parker manages the Rolling Rez Arts program for the nonprofit First Peoples Fund, which launched the bus in 2016 with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and other foundations. It's a simple idea, using a converted airport shuttle bus as a means to reach and help indigenous artists in some of the poorest counties in the nation to sketch out new career paths.
BRYAN PARKER: Having the resources and those opportunities lets them know that I can take myself a little bit more seriously. And I can try to actually do this as a business. I can try to be a professional artist.
JEFFREY BROWN: Pine Ridge home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe is enormous, a 3,000-square-mile reservation of arid lands long plagued by high unemployment and few economic opportunities. So how hard is it to survive as an artist living here?
BRYAN PARKER: One of the biggest challenges is the distance and...
JEFFREY BROWN: Just how big this place is and how hard to get around.
BRYAN PARKER: Yes, how big, how rural it is. And so the opportunities become less because the distance is so great.
JEFFREY BROWN: A recent study showed that most Native artists live below the poverty line and more than 60 percent of artists starting out report incomes of less than 10,000 dollars a year.
GUS YELLOW HAIR, Artist, Rolling Rez Arts: We're living in extreme poverty conditions here, 60 to 70 percent unemployment.
JEFFREY BROWN: Gus Yellow Hair is a longtime artist living and working on Pine Ridge. He now teaches both traditional and contemporary art classes aboard the Rolling Rez bus.
GUS YELLOW HAIR: Our culture at one time was a very mobile culture. They called us warriors of the plains, being very mobile, lightweight. And so I think that's what Rolling Rez Arts is bringing, that technology, the computer, the supplies, the knowledge, into the communities and providing that to our community members. Very important.
JEFFREY BROWN: Classes on the bus are open to both children and adults of all skill levels. Lessons so far have included basic photography, alternative printmaking techniques, and traditional quill and beadwork. Recently, we watched Yellow Hair give a lesson to Donald Brave in the use of rawhide, animal skin, one of the earliest canvases used by Native artists, and on more practical matters from pricing to shipping.
GUS YELLOW HAIR: If you're going to send a delicate item, then you need to package it so that it's safe, it arrives safely.
JEFFREY BROWN: Rolling Rez puts the focus on making a living, as well as making art.
GUS YELLOW HAIR: You can create the bigger items, like the huge paintings or whatever it is that you're doing, but you want to make the small items as well, the 10, 20-dollar-lower-end items, because people might not be, they might be just passing through.
JEFFREY BROWN: But 10, 20, 30 bucks makes a difference.
GUS YELLOW HAIR: Yes, makes a difference. It does. That's gas money.
JEFFREY BROWN: That's gas money.
GUS YELLOW HAIR: That's gas money too. Every little bit helps here, here on the Pine Ridge.
JEFFREY BROWN: Brave is eager to work with older artists here. He's early in his career and, it turns out, just sold his first piece of artwork for $50.
DONALD BRAVE, Pine Ridge Artist: What I'm hoping to do is I'm hoping to tell a story with my art. I want to, I want to instill the values and the morals of Lakota culture into my artwork. It's not at that stage yet, but it will be.
JEFFREY BROWN: Beyond transportation and training, the project also offers banking services through a partnership with the Lakota Federal Credit Union. Shayna Ferguson is a manager and loan officer.
SHAYNA FERGUSON, Lakota Federal Credit Union: Most of our people on the reservation are unbanked or underbanked.
JEFFREY BROWN: Underbanked, you mean...
SHAYNA FERGUSON: Nothing, never had an account. We had, we did surveys when we first started in 2012, and 60 percent of everybody has never had an account before. They weren't familiar with the concept of banking and of saving money or just depositing or balancing a checkbook. We have to get our members out of the idea of hiding money in your, in your shoes in your closet.
JEFFREY BROWN: Lakota Federal Credit Union now has more than 2,500 members and is helping artists on Pine Ridge establish credit.
SHAYNA FERGUSON: They can definitely come here for a loan, especially artists starting out. Maybe they want to eventually move on to stuff like having a vehicle, transportation, to getting around, to delivering your artwork, or even just showcasing your artwork. That's an important step here, because I know it's not readily available.
JEFFREY BROWN: Back on the bus, I asked Gus Yellow Hair why art remains important on Pine Ridge.
GUS YELLOW HAIR: So, every culture has stories. They have art. They have ways of expressing themselves and telling about their history. And so that's why I think it's very important for artists here on Pine Ridge to be able to express themselves, to tell who we are as a nation of people, and that we have a history as well.
JEFFREY BROWN: The next step? The First Peoples Fund just broke ground on a new art center to expand its work in artistic and entrepreneurial education. For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.