Professor Follows her Passion into Service at a South Dakota Indian Reservation

Professor Follows her Passion into Service at a South Dakota Indian Reservation

“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”— a powerful novel of the injustices suffered by Native Americans in the Dakotas from 1860 to 1890 — ignited a lifelong interest in Native American history and culture in Rhonda Peyton. She was only in middle school when she read it.

“It was the kind of book that wrings you out and changes your world view. I will never forget what it felt like to read it,” said Peyton, who today is an associate professor of Graphic Design at Santa Fe College.

Her friend, Petur Redbird, dances with the contemporary Native American dance troupe, Airo, to the music of Brule. In July 2007 they were performing at Mount Rushmore. Would Peyton be interested in photographing it? She did so over the course of three days, and the experience fanned her interest in Native American culture.

The following summer, Peyton read Ian Frazier’s “On the Rez.” That solidified her intention to volunteer on a reservation. She contacted Chick Big Crow at the Boys and Girls Club at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Pine Ridge, about 80 miles from Rapid City, S.D. The two chatted about the needs of the children and what was happening on the reservation. Rhonda offered to teach free art classes the following July, and Big Crow accepted. It was ironic that Big Crow had just been saying that they needed to add more art classes at the center.

Peyton spent the 2008-2009 school year collecting art supplies. Her plan was to teach the children to create linocuts, silkscreen prints, pen and ink drawings, colored pencil drawings and watercolors. She packed everything into eight large plastic bins and even managed to squeeze in a small glass kiln.

With her husband, John, and 15-year-old son, Jesse, she loaded their Ford Explorer with the bins and strapped 16 silkscreens into a rooftop carrier. When they arrived at Pine Ridge, they settled into the volunteer house across from the SuAnne Big Crow Boys and Girls Club, and got to work.

Rhonda taught daily from 11 a.m.- 6 p.m. during the week. All her classes had a minimum of five to 10 children ranging from ages 7 to 16. The final class of the day consisted of teenagers only since they worked with more complicated techniques such as silkscreen and glass fusing. Peyton’s mornings were spent walking the track for exercise and then firing the kiln to the high temperatures required to fuse glass.

The children created beautiful art projects: paper lanterns decorated with watercolors and pastels, collaborative projects such as a four-color linocut image of Airo dancer Thirza Defoe performing the Eagle Dance, and a pastel portrait of Red Cloud, a Lakota chief. She taught them to enlarge images by drawing a small grid onto a photograph and copying it onto a much larger grid. Then they would fill in the image and develop it with pastels.

She was rewarded with statement such as: “I never thought I could do anything like this” as the project came to a close.

“One special moment came when one of the student’s fathers told me, ‘I sure am glad you came here this summer. We never knew he had this much talent,'” Peyton recalled. The dad was referring to the work created by his 13-year-old son Demcie.

Volunteering was a family affair. John, who is retired from the Federal Aviation Administration, painted and hung signs, repainted decks, and hung shelves. Jesse taught a keyboard class, having taken lessons for the last eight years. On weekends, the family traveled to Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Yellowstone and Badlands National Park.

“Jesse saw a lot of beautiful landscapes, made new friends, and saw some of the harshness of life on the reservation,” Peyton said. “It helped him to grow up and to appreciate what he has.”

She loved the dry, vast, high prairie landscape, so different from Florida: “I thought the landscape was beautiful. I loved how far you could see into the distance and the rolling hills. We really enjoyed it.”

When it came time to leave, the Lakotas honored Rhonda with a Star Quilt Ceremony, reserved for very special people who have contributed to the community. The tribe celebrates the honoree by wrapping him or her in a star quilt or Pendleton blanket. All of the center’s staff and Rhonda’s family were present for hers.

“I was almost in tears,” she recalled. “It meant a lot to me. I had hoped I had enriched the children’s summer in my classes, maybe even introduced them to techniques and concepts regarding art that would stay with them indefinitely. I wanted to give them a means of expression that they could use all their lives.”

She is grateful for the opportunity to volunteer, for the welcome her family received, for the relationships formed with the children and her fellow staff.

“It was a great experience for all of us,” she said. “I enjoyed getting to know the children and working with them in the classroom. I would like to go back. I miss everyone, my students and my friends.”

Peyton is applying to the South Dakota Arts Council for a grant to help her return. In addition, there are six different Native American linocut prints for sale as a fundraiser for supplies and travel expenses.

Contact Rhonda Peyton for more information at

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