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Exploring the art and design of the newly opened Oyate Health Center

The star skylight above the hospitals main entrance
C.J. Keene
South Dakota Public Broadcasting
The star skylight above the hospital's main entrance.

Walk through the main entrance of the newly opened Oyate Health Center, and the connection to local Indigenous culture is immediately apparent.

A pair of unmistakable stars greets every guest. One is three stories above the main foyer as a skylight in the roof, and the other is on the floor beneath.

This new facility stands in stark contrast to the neighboring Sioux San Hospital, a century-old brick building with a complicated history. It was first an Indian boarding school before becoming a longtime Indian Health Service facility.

The connection to Sioux San runs deep in the community and includes current Oglala Sioux Tribal President Frank Star Comes Out. He worked for the hospital following his time in the military.

He said he knew they’d need more space for the growing community.

“Every time I’d step outside, you’d have this big, massive open field here," Star Comes Out said. "And today you see a building standing on it, something I never thought I’d see happen. Seeing this now, it’s a good thing for the population here. There’s so many tribes that are here, this will definitely benefit the people for years to come.”

And that’s precisely who designers and leaders had in mind when drawing up the hospital's initial blueprints, right down to the facilities name. In the Lakota language, ‘Oyate’ translates to tribe, people, or nation.

Jerilyn Church, president and CEO of the Great Plains Tribal Health Board, said the building is designed to reflect the colors and cultures of the Plains.

“We have the prairie; you’ll see the colors that you see in the Great Plains," Church said. "In our rotunda you’ll see the star. The same star that you see on many of our star quilts. We want spirit to shine through not only this building, but through the work we do.”

Along with advanced medical care, there are also rooms dedicated to traditional medicines, complete with spaces specifically designed to house bundles of sage and sweetgrass.

Church said the new facility is an expression of hope for the community.

“Remembering our ancestors and those who were a part of Sioux San, and all that that represents, and also those who are a big part of our dream going forward," Church said. "So, this has all been very exciting, and bittersweet.”

Church said the building is designed to express a clear message to patients – you are welcome and the space you are in is safe.

“They’ll feel at home," Church said. "There’s going to be artwork throughout the facility that reflects our culture and reflects familiarity. This is a place where their whole being will be recognized and addressed and be a part of their wellness journey.”

That artwork was on display during the center’s grand opening ceremony. The pieces were curated by a small group with ties to the local art community.

Two members of the art committee, Ashley Pourier and Denise DuBroi said the art on display can have a significant impact on the patient.

DuBroi said they have chosen works that can be therapeutic.

“The first priority was to get the tribes that are in South Dakota and those working artists and that the subject of the work be somewhat geared towards healing," DuBroi said. "We just hope the families that come here and use this facility feel comfortable and feel at home, and I hope the artwork helps them feel that kind of comfort.”

But the question of what art belongs on the walls of a hospital raises deeper questions. Pourier said she considered her own experiences through the curation process.

“Being a Native health facility there’s always that sense of ownership that comes with buildings – I’m just thinking of my childhood growing up on Pine Ridge Rez and going to the different clinics and stuff, they’re also like museums in themselves," Pourier said. "Like, this is where I can find Native art and find that inspiration, but also get that sense of ownership to this building. This is a facility built specifically for us.”

Pourier said they also wanted to challenge what Native art looks like for the next generation.

“We give acknowledgment to Native arts as a history, but also trying to bring some of that into the future as well," Pourier said. "Acknowledging this dichotomy of our older artists and looking to our younger emerging artists.”

That philosophy can be seen in the selection. While traditional bead and quill-worked items are included in the lot, there are also contemporary paintings in eye-catching color, traditional landscapes, and portraits of historical figures.

DuBroi said folks are making themselves at home as the hospital opens its doors.

“It seems to me that people feel very comfortable here, and I think there’s that sort of display of a sense of ownership," DuBroi said. "It’s great to have this facility as a continuum, in terms of the size and how many people it can take care of.”

Sioux San Hospital is now closed, and the IHS-led demolition of the building has already begun.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture