FORT TOTTEN, N.D. -- Gregory Holy Bull was remembered this week as a talented artist, teacher and someone who could effectively bridge the gap between the traditional Native American and contemporary worlds.
Holy Bull, of Minnewaukan, N.D., died Dec. 29 on the Spirit Lake Reservation. He was 53.
The cause of death is unknown at this time.
Holy Bull earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art from the University of North Dakota. He also taught the Lakota Sioux language for several years in the UND English Department.
Immersed in Lakota heritage from an early age, he was a pipe carrier and sundancer who composed songs and sang with many drum groups. Those who knew him said he reveled in sharing stories about his beloved Lakota culture and was well-known for his stained glass artwork, beadwork, horsemanship and bull riding.
Holy Bull and his son, Gerimiah, were part of the Lakota Sioux Dance Theater of New York City, which gave them the opportunity to tour around the world with other dancers and singers.
Longtime friend Cynthia Lindquist, president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College, said Holy Bull was a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, based in Eagle Butte, S.D.
His death “is a huge loss,” Lindquist said.
Holy Bull was “a fluent Lakota speaker,” Lindquist said. “To me, he was one of those people who had a deep cultural knowledge and understanding,” and could apply it to living and functioning in the traditional and contemporary worlds.
“It’s a significant generational loss, related to bridging two cultures,” she said. “He was eloquent and articulate and could speak from both perspectives, helping people to find common ground.”
He was able to impart “cultural knowledge that had such relevance,” she said. For example, tying today’s concerns about environmental stewardship to Native Americans’ traditional values of “living in a good way with Mother Earth.”
Lindquist remembered their many conversations over the years.
“He was wonderful to sit and visit with,” she said. Those talks were a reminder of the traditional values they shared. “As an educator, it makes me question, how do we keep this going; how do we use this” to improve the lives of students and others in the community.
As college president, Lindquist commissioned Holy Bull to create stained glass windows for the administrative wing of a recently constructed campus building.
“It’s a big glass wall that faces east,” she said. “It’s just gorgeous.”
Leigh Jeanotte, retired director of American Indian Student Services at UND, also recalled that Holy Bull “was a fantastic artist” and that two of his metal sculptures are displayed at UND’s American Indian Center.
Images of Holy Bull’s sculptures are featured in a large-format book, published in 2010. It was a collaborative project led by Arthur Jones, UND professor emeritus of art, who retired in August.
“Storytelling Time: Native North American Art from the Collections of the University of North Dakota” won a national book award in 2011, he said.
“The artwork (Holy Bull) left behind as a student at UND reflects his Native American heritage, even though it qualifies under the category of contemporary art,” Jones said. “His art reflects his culture in not only traditional terms but contemporary ones.
“It demonstrates that Native American art is not just something of the past, but is something of the present. It’s a living tradition, not a dead tradition. It reinvents itself.”