Arts & Entertainment | National

Native Sun News: Vic Runnels, Oglala Sioux artist for all seasons

The following story was written and reported by David Arredondo, Native Sun News Summer Journalism Intern. All content © Native Sun News.

“WINTER CAMP IN THE BLACK HILLS”: A small encampment scene mesmerizes in this 2012 piece by celebrated Oglala Lakota artist Vic Runnels. IMAGE COURTESY/VIC RUNNELS.

ABERDEEN, SOUTH DAKOTA –– You never know where life’s journey will take you.

Such sentiment rings absolutely true for Vic Runnels, a multitalented artist and member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Humble beginnings are often juxtaposed with tribulations and fortunes in the later years of life; the 76-year-old Runnels is now able to reflect and reminisce on his quarter-century journey.

He was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1936 and said he started as an artist when he would doodle in the margins of his notebooks during school.

Runnels lived south of Batesland and rode a horse to school.

“There weren’t any art programs back then,” said Runnels, “so I messed around (with art) a lot on my own.”

However, while improving his art skills, he says encountered racism while living in Gordon, Neb., in the 1940s. There were still “No Indians Allowed” signs on buildings across the town.

Runnels said his mother had a laundry business and his father was a respected ranch foreman so they were “somewhat accepted” in the small Nebraska Panhandle town.

He says he did experience racism firsthand when the white kids in his school would yell racist remarks at him, the earliest coming when he was in first grade. Such treatment resulted in quite a few altercations between him and the malicious kids.

At age 13, inspired by older local artists, Runnels said he “became obsessed” with drawing and practiced on his own with crayons, pencils, oil paints and watercolors.He graduated high school in 1954 and aspired to continue to expand his artistic abilities – but he faced a few setbacks.

“There weren’t any scholarships and very few things (like that) at that time,” said Runnels. “And (white teachers) told us that we (Native Americans) weren’t smart enough to go to college.”

He said there was a reservation education superintendent at the time that was supposed to help high school graduates make the transition to higher education. He informed the superintendent that he wanted to go to art school, but was rejected on the grounds of previous individuals dropping out.

“(Educators) said we could be carpenters, plumbers and printers, but we couldn’t be artists, teachers, lawyers and doctors.”

So a Presbyterian minister helped him enroll in the now-defunct Huron College. He attended the college for a year then transferred to South Dakota State University in Brookings to study wildlife conservation at the behest of his father.

Runnels said he took art-class electives to enhance his knowledge in art.

He cut his postsecondary career short upon deciding to enlist in the U.S. Air Force.

While stationed at the Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, he asked his commanding officer if he could work nights and take classes during the day. Impressed by Runnels’ determination to study, his commander granted the request and put him in a program that paid for the classes as long as he got A’s on his transcript – which he did do.

Runnels was then transferred to the tundra of Greenland at the Thule Air Base, and continued to practice art in his spare time.

Returning from the military, the then-25-year-old Runnels settled down with his wife in Bruce, located in easternmost portion of South Dakota, and had three kids.

Looking for another opportunity to continue his art, he says he went back home to Batesland to visit his mother, and she informed him of the Urban Indian Relocation Program – a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs undertaking started in 1952 for Native Americans, which encouraged them to move from their reservations and into major cities across the country for training and employment.

Runnels applied for the program in 1961, and took his family to Chicago where he studied commercial art for two years – after much deliberation and research – at the Ray-Vogue School of Design, one of the premier commercial art schools in the country at the time, at the expense of the relocation program.

Some Native Americans say the relocation program was a failure – it was abolished in the 1970s – but Runnels says he was one who took advantage of this movement. He finished at the top of his class, received his associate’s degree, and continued to work in Chicago in an art department. And it was during this time that his wife had twins.

He said he then worked several other jobs for the next few decades, including handing in his artist’s portfolio; as a commercial artist at Montgomery Ward; doing freelance work at various studios and ad agencies; and as the illustrator of Oglala Lakota artist-author Arthur Amiotte’s series of children’s books. Of his time spent living with his family in Streamwood, a Chicago suburb, Runnels said, “I was chasing the American Dream; I had my house in the suburbs and a station wagon.”

He then moved back to South Dakota in the early 1980s and got a job with the South Dakota Arts Council’s Artists in Schools & Communities program as a speaker on Lakota art in schools throughout the state with high Native populations. He also moved to Aberdeen during this time.

Runnels said he also tried his hand at fine arts but found it hard to get his foot in the door.

“I was handing out $1 resumes to people, and they were getting thrown away in the trash. I might as well have been handing out $20 bills,” he said.

Runnels says one of his most significant accomplishments is the founding and opening of Isnala Wica Lakota Art Gallery in Hill City in 1992. Meaning “Only Man” or “Lone Man” in English, Isnala Wica is Runnels’ Lakota name.

After much assistance from friends and friendly locals, he was able to renovate the entire art gallery building, sometimes trading his art for supplies and equipment.

“I really lucked out in getting it all together,” said Runnels of the major repairs to the building he and his associates did.

The former country music bar-turned-Native American art gallery was open until 1995. He said people were impressed by the gallery, and – though it enjoyed initial success – he found it difficult to operate during the down season.

Nowadays, he’s been working with architectural detailing and building design. Some of his designs have been used for the Pine Ridge Hospital, the Kyle Health Center, and a building for Sisseton Wahpeton College. He said the building for SWC features a giant, two-story drum with four story-singers surrounding it.

“It’s been described as the most beautiful, culturally relevant building in the whole northern Plains,” Runnels said of the SWC building.

He helped design the “Iron Eagle” piece that used to stand on Rapid City Central High School’s campus before the recent expansion. The metal-made sculpture featured an eagle above the traditional four directions and a miniature replica of the sacred Bear Butte, or Mato Paha. Runnels said he didn’t know at first where the piece ended up but eventually discovered that someone had obtained it, and it’s now at home at the Angostura State Recreation Area near Hot Springs.

A much-revered local spectacle of Runnels’ making is the mural painting known as “Oyate Bridge” at the curve on East Boulevard North under the railroad bridge. It depicts several Native Americans in traditional garb standing beside one another. The mural was created under his direction in the mid-1990s by Native students he was instructing.

Most recently, Runnels has finished a design for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate headquarters. He said the upcoming tribal building is “going to be better than most state capital (buildings).”

On July 18, he will give a presentation about Lakota art, past and present, at the 2nd Annual Matthew and Nellie Two Bulls Memorial Youth Culture Camp on Pine Ridge. He will then work on art projects with camp attendees at Payabaya Community Number Four.

Runnels has accomplished a lot, and he says he has no plans to stop any time soon. He recently sent two art proposals to South Dakota’s Tribal Relations, Tourism and Economic Development boards. One of his proposals is an ambitious campaign with a series of posters featuring Lakota artists. He has plans for a high-end, invitation-only Lakota nation art show in Rapid City as well.

And as for the racism he experienced as a child, the Oglala Lakota elder now combats it with educating people about the history and meaning of racism. Runnels said he has “armed himself with knowledge and facts” to counter racist and stereotypical arguments.

In addition to painting and designing buildings, Runnels says he is also a guitarist, singer, songwriter and cowboy poet.

That’s enough to keep a person at any age busy.

In reflecting on his accomplishments in life thus far, Runnels said, “I’ve been called a ‘Renaissance Man’ and been told a lot of times that I should write a book.”

(Contact David Arredondo at

Copyright permission by Native Sun News

Join the Conversation