Legacy of the Plains art exhibit recalls Native American life

Earlier this year, Herb Bailey completed work on a the picture book "Understanding Our Indian Neighbors." It's a companion piece to the gallery of original paintings by Lakota artist Levi Black Bear. Herb has taken the display to shows around the country.

GERING — “Understanding Our Indian Neighbor,” a series of paintings depicting the life and culture of the Lakota Nation, are on display this weekend at Legacy of Plains Museum in Gering.

The paintings by self-taught artist Levi Black Bear were completed in 1961. Using flat paint on Masonite canvas, he depicted the history of his people from early times to the present day in a set of 56 paintings and a large mural.

The paintings were commissioned by the Rev. Earl Bailey, who spent 25 years in Indian mission work among the Sioux in Alliance, Scottsbluff and Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

Herb Bailey, Earl Bailey’s son, said the paintings were done between 1955 and 1961 in the basement of his father’s church, now the Inter-Cultural Chapel in east Scottsbluff.

“My father had planned to put these paintings and some other artifacts in a museum in the Black Hills,” Herb Bailey said. “He also planned to reproduce the paintings in a book with descriptions of Indian life at the time.”

Earl Bailey invited elementary school groups to stop by and view the paintings. He would personally narrate the scripts to them and answer any questions. The main purpose of the educational exhibit was to give people a better understanding of the Lakota culture and life.

The text accompanying the paintings was transcribed from descriptions by three full-blooded Native Americans with knowledge of the stories of the Plains Indians.

Robert Bennett with Wisconsin’s Oneida tribe was the Aberdeen area director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the time.

Harold Shunk, an Oglala Sioux from South Dakota, was superintendent of the Rosebud Reservation.

Barney Old Coyote Jr., a member of Montana’s Crow tribe, was awarded 32 medals, making him the highest decorated Native American in World War II. He also wrote and taught the curriculum for his cultural history at what would later become Montana State University.

The project went on hiatus after Earl Bailey suffered a stroke in 1973 and retired to Florida. In February 2019, Herb Bailey picked up his father’s dream with the publication of the book “Understanding Our Indian Neighbor.”

The paintings themselves were taken out of storage about two years ago when Herb Bailey put together a mobile exhibit. It includes 56 paintings, the large mural and all the text describing each scene.

“The exhibit has been displayed in Michigan and Florida, but this is the first time it’s come to this area since 1973,” Herb Bailey said. “My father originally had the paintings set up for exhibit at the mission while he was in Scottsbluff.”

It took three years for Black Bear to paint the 6-by-24-foot mural, called "Drastic Change."

“It shows the Indians leaving their traditional culture and adopting the white man’s culture,” Herb Bailey said. “The two cultures were as different as you can find.”

One example he gave was there’s no word in the Lakota language for the word “time.” They measured their lives by moons and seasons.

“The Indian lived for today, one day at a time,” he said. “It was difficult for them to adjust to a culture where time drives everything. Through these paintings, my father wanted to give us a better understanding of our Indian neighbors and their culture.”

More information on the book is available online at understandingourindianneighbor.com.

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Jerry Purvis is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9046 or emailed at jpurvis@starherald.com.

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