Yanktonai Dakota, named Mazuha Hokshina by his people, was born on May 13, 1915, at Joe Creek on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation in central South Dakota. He completed grade school at the Pierre Indian School and entered the Santa Fe Indian School in 1935 to work in the art program established by Dorothy Dunn, graduating as salutatorian in 1938.
Between 1940 and 1942, Howe worked as an artist with the South Dakota Works Progress Administration completing mural projects in Mitchell and Mobridge, South Dakota. Following three years of service in the U.S. Army in the European Theatre, Howe entered Dakota Wesleyan University, Mitchell, South Dakota, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1952. He received his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1954. Howe taught at Pierre High School until 1957, when he became artist-in-residence and professor of art at The University of South Dakota, Vermillion, where he served until retiring in 1980 as Emeritus Professor of Art.
Oscar Howe’s formal art education began in “The Studio” at the Santa Fe Indian School, and his early work reected the concepts promoted there. In the early 1950s, Howe began to abandon the Santa Fe style in favor of a more abstract and personal way of painting. Working largely in casein on heavy watercolor paper, Howe developed his mature style by 1960, which is marked by bright color, dynamic motion and pristine line. These qualities give Howe’s paintings a modernist character, but he based his style on the abstract tradition of Northern Plains Indian art, often citing the linearity of hide paintings as a principal source of inspiration. Howe was among a relatively small number of artists who led the Native American Fine Arts Movement towards broader personal expression. He was on the cutting edge of his generation in the exploration of ways to break out of the stereotypes imposed on Indian artists and to seek contemporary ways of communicating Native American values and ideas.
A measure of Howe’s influence on the course of Native American art is his often-cited challenge of the stylistic standards established by the Philbrook Art Center’s national competition. His 1958 letter eloquently refuted the prevalent, but decidedly limited, definition of traditional Native art and is credited with opening museums to a greater range of styles and expressions by Native artists. His aspiration to be accepted as a professional artist who bridged Indian tradition with the contemporary world made him an inspiration and model for many younger artists. Over a 40-year career, Howe earned many honors and awards, including numerous grand and first prizes in national competitions. As a student in Santa Fe, Howe exhibited works in New York, London and Paris, and subsequently was represented by over 50 solo shows. In 1954, Howe was named Artist Laureate of the Middle Border and in 1960, Artist Laureate of South Dakota. In 1966, he was awarded the Waite Phillips trophy for outstanding contributions to American Indian art from the Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Howe was the first recipient of the South Dakota Governor’s Award for Creative Achievement in 1973. He received the Golden Bear Award from the University of Oklahoma, Norman, in 1979.
Oscar Howe died of Parkinson’s disease on October 7, 1983, in Vermillion, South Dakota. Howe’s accomplishments are honored through the Oscar Howe Memorial Association, the Oscar Howe Archives, the Oscar Howe Summer Art Institute and the Oscar Howe Art Gallery at The University of South Dakota.