'Our way of keeping stories': Dakota elder can interpret Sitting Bull's painted robe on display in Regina

Wayne Goodwill, 78, from the Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation may be one of the last hide painters in Saskatchewan and his work is now on display at the MacKenzie Art Gallery next to a robe painted by Sitting Bull.

Wayne Goodwill may be one of the last traditional hide painters in Saskatchewan

Wayne Goodwill may be one of the last Dakota hide painters in Saskatchewan. (Matt Howard/CBC)

Wayne Goodwill, 78, is a man with a unique skill and a special family tree. 

Goodwill is a knowledge keeper from the Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation in Saskatchewan and may be one of the last known hide robe painters in the province. 

Born and raised at Standing Buffalo, about 70 km northeast of Regina, Goodwill has been practising the art of hide painting since the 1960s.

He was in his late 20s when he was first intrigued by hide paintings. Years later he's now teaching his children and grandchildren to read the symbols.

"Traditional robe painting is our way of keeping stories from a long time ago," he said.

"We had no paper or pencils so we drew on hides."

The paintings "tell stories of warriors, of families, of reserve life… hunting and all of those are just told on hide," said Goodwill. 

He said the paintings are often done with basic symbols that represent a person, place or thing. Men on horseback, for example, may mean a hunting party. Colours are also significant to the meanings, for example white in the Dakota tradition is considered to represent wisdom. 

Goodwill has the skills to decipher the symbols and interpret the story within. 

Each hide painting consists of symbols including animals, teepees and people. A man on a horse could symbolize a hunting party. (Matt Howard/CBC)

Goodwill said that painting on buffalo robe is considered sacred. His own hide paintings over the years have consisted of stories of his own life and visions he has had. Often times an artist begins with painting their own robe, called a winter count.

"There are some winter counts that are 70 years old or so. It tells the stories, the most important stories, of every year till the artist is deceased," said Goodwill.

Family history

Goodwill's great-great-grandfather Chief Black Moon Loves War was part of the same Sioux tribe as the famous Chief Sitting Bull, and was a close relative — his brother was Sitting Bull's father.

"Chief Black Moon being a leader would often ask Sitting Bull for advice — spiritual advice, because he was a medicine man as well as an old warrior," said Goodwill.

After Chief Sitting Bull's forces defeated American troops at Little Bighorn in Montana, he took refuge for four years (1877-1881) in the Wood Mountain area in southwest Saskatchewan. However the Canadian government refused his request for a reserve and would not provide food, and he returned to the U.S. 

Wayne Goodwill has been collecting the history of his family for decades. (Matt Howard/CBC)

Over the years Goodwill has accumulated archive photos of his Dakota family dating back to their arrival in Canada. 

"My great-great-grandfather and his daughters came to Canada in fall of 1876. They were one of the first [families] to come across the border and come to Wood Mountain," said Goodwill.

Sitting Bull robe on display

Now a new exhibit in Regina is allowing Goodwill the chance to share his family's history with the public.

The Permanent Collection: Walking with Saskatchewan will be showcasing a portion of the thousands of art pieces from the collection of the MacKenzie Art Gallery and the University of Regina.

"We want people to be able to feel the history of this land and to see the founding of Saskatchewan and how we became the province we are today," said John Hampton, director of programs at the MacKenzie Art Gallery.

The last existing robe to have been painted by famous Sioux Chief Sitting Bull will be on display at the MacKenzie Art Gallery until February 2020. It is on loan from the North Dakota State Historical Society in the U.S. (Dan Plaster/CBC)

As part of the exhibit, a robe painted by Sitting Bull while he was in Saskatchewan has been loaned from a museum in North Dakota.  

Goodwill said the Sitting Bull robe has several symbols of spiritual meaning beginning with the creation story in the centre, represented by a star burst, as well as stories of hunting parties and movement of the tribe during that time. 

"I think it was a spiritual robe," said Goodwill. "Instead of a praying rock, he had a buffalo robe."

Goodwill attended the exhibit's opening on June 20 and his work will be on display with Sitting Bull's robe, offering a contemporary look at the traditional art. 

"I am very proud that I have great ancestors," said Goodwill. "Both from here and from down south."

The Sitting Bull robe will be on display at the MacKenzie Art Gallery until February 2020.