- Tom Haukaas, Lakota, American, 1950-
- Born: Florida
- Work Locations: Florida
About the Artist
Born in 1950 and raised in Florida, Tom Haukaas is a contemporary artist of Lakota and Puerto Rican heritage. In addition to being an artist, he trained as a medical doctor.
Haukaas did not have formal art training, but he grew up admiring his Lakota grandmother’s beadwork. He traces the beginning of his education in Native arts to his attempt to make his own traditional attire when he wanted to learn Sioux dances.
What Inspired It
While studying medicine at the University of Colorado-Denver, Haukaas made many trips to the American Indian galleries at the Denver Art Museum and took a course with the museum’s curator of Native arts at the time, Richard Conn. Cradle was made specifically for the Museum’s collection and grew out of discussions Haukaas had with Conn about the nature of contemporary art and its relationship to Native arts. Haukaas was especially intrigued by the work of Frank Stella, an artist who created sculptural paintings on aluminum in the 1970s, and he applied this concept when creating Cradle, using beads instead of paint. Haukaas calls the cradle an opportunity to explore the “false dichotomy between sculpture and painting.”
The cradle form is traditional among Plains Indians but lost popularity during the last century as Indians assimilated to white culture. Haukaas found Lakota elders to show him how to construct Cradle. The beadwork images tell the Lakota creation story, as described in the "Details" section.
Haukaas used extraordinarily small seed beads to decorate this cradle. Seed beads were introduced to Plains artists around 1855 and offered a larger variety of colors than previously available, which led to the development of new styles of beadwork.
By “painting” the cradle on all sides with beads, Haukaas blurs the line between sculpture and painting. He thinks of the cradle as a soft sculpture meant to be displayed in the round and seen from all sides.
The six stars on the front of the cradle help balance the light color of the hood and the dark color of the body. The animals on the hood (horses and birds) are arranged symmetrically on either side of the central human figure and the celestial bodies (moon, sun, and morning star) are also symmetrically placed.
“The design [for this cradle] is our creation story, when we are transformed into a human body after leaving behind a sacred place, time, and form,” Haukaas said (to Nancy Blomberg, Curator of Native Arts, DAM). In the Lakota creation story, the Buffalo Nation, or Pte Oyate, lived inside caves in South Dakota’s Black Hills until Iktomi the spider fooled them into coming to the surface world. As they ascended they assumed human form.
Haukaas illustrates this story moving from the back to the front of Cradle.
The back of the cradle shows the Buffalo Nation (represented by two buffalo figures) living inside the caves of the Black Hills, as well as figures making the buffalo-to-human transformation.
On the hood of Cradle, a human, flanked by two horses, emerges from the Black Hills. Above this figure are the sun, moon, and morning star—the three celestial bodies that “lord over” this world.
Haukaas uses an old geometric symbol for Iktomi, the trickster spider, on the top tab.
The buffalo-to-human transformation figures are Haukaas’s own invention. With no Lakota precedent to draw on, he looked at examples from other cultures, including ancient Greece. People should know that American Indian artists draw inspiration from many different cultures, Haukaas once said.
As part of his research, Haukaas discovered that some Lakota believe that Anog-ite, or Double-faced Woman, was involved in the creation of the Lakota people. Although this is not a predominant viewpoint, Haukaas includes his own invented rendition of Anog-ite in Cradle. He incorporates it in a place hidden from view (on the underside of the tab at the top of the Cradle) so that the figure is present but also symbolically removed from the main story.