In the News: Always a Regional Asset, CWS Has Evolved Quickly in Recent Years

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2014

Center for Western Studies Fantle BuildingFounded in 1970 by Augustana Writer-in-Residence Herbert Krause, the Center for Western Studies began as a collection of books and historic regional materials in the lower level of the campus library. Many things have changed since the Center's humble beginnings.

Argus Leader writer Peter Harriman recently visited the Center's Fantle Building and spoke with Executive Director Dr. Harry F. Thompson and Education Assistant Kristi Thomas about the institution's varied programming. The following story about the Center's regional value and rapid evolution in the last fifteen years was digitally published by the Argus on January 11, 2014.

Center for Western Studies Preserves Regional History
By Peter Harriman, Argus Leader

Place matters.

About 15 years ago, the Augustana College Center for Western Studies was a grand title for a collection of books on the American West stored in the lower level of the Mikkelsen Library.

“The big change was when we built this building in 2001,” says Harry Thompson, the center’s director for the past 28 years. “It made the center a player in the community in a way it hadn’t been before.”

The center, on Summit Avenue south of the library, with its distinctive conical lobby, extensive gallery space and offices, gives Augustana a venue to showcase its interpretation of regional history and contemporary public affairs. In addition to its original mission of supporting academic research, the center sponsors art exhibits and programs such as the Dakota Conference and Boe Forum.

It also puts on several free workshops each semester. South Dakota Poet Laureate David Allan Evans is featured in one this spring. Another, taught by the center’s archivist, Liz Thrond, will focus on creating scrapbooks to record events.

“We need people to share what they have learned, even if it is not academic or scholarly,” the center’s education assistant, Kristi Thomas, says.

The center’s endowment, less than $1 million before 2001, is now about $8 million.

Coming events include the 34th annual Artists of the Plains Art Show and Sale at the Holiday Inn City Centre Feb. 14 through 16, and a juried art exhibit and sale in observance of South Dakota’s 125 years of statehood. “South Dakota 2014: Artists Respond to the State’s 125th Anniversary” will run from May through September.

The deadline for submitting art reflecting aspects of South Dakota history is Jan. 17, although that can be extended if judges feel they need a more representative selection of pieces to choose from, Thompson says. “We’re talking pretty much everything,” Thomas adds.

In addition to paintings and sculpture, center officials are hoping to see examples of glasswork, pottery, photography and other art forms. “The only limit is what a gallery can hold,” Thomas says. The center is offering a $2,500 grand prize and $1,500 in other prizes, and artists have the opportunity to sell their work at the exhibit. That will ensure high-caliber submissions, Thompson says.

In keeping with another center tradition, feisty artists won’t be turned away.

“We are specifically encouraging Native American artistic comment on statehood, which may not necessarily see it as a good thing,” Thompson says. “They will have as much freedom as they want to critique the statehood event.”

The center has been down this road before. Its annual Dakota Conference in April in recent years has dealt with interesting but noncontroversial subjects such as the impact of railroads on the Northern Plains, the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery, and Hispanic influence on the region, going back to the Spanish conquistadors. This year’s conference will focus on the centennial of the start of World War I and the war’s effect on the Northern Plains.

But in 2012, it got real. The Dakota Conference then brought to Sioux Falls many of the seminal players of the Wounded Knee occupation and their descendants. It was the last opportunity Russell Means took to speak publicly of the event that defined his life and the American Indian Movement. He died in October of that year.

Thompson says he knew Means was ill but had been feeling better and invited him to the conference. When word got out Means was coming, other Wounded Knee principals announced they wanted in, as well.

Means repaid Thompson’s gesture by calling the conference “a South Dakota academics’ mutual masturbation society. It’s exactly the way South Dakota wants Indian history to be interpreted.”

But that was Russell, and it wasn’t even the most contentious thing said at the conference. Former Sen. Jim Abourezk’s thunderous “that’s a goddamn lie” probably still is echoing through the center’s Fantle Gallery. Abourezk got into it with John Trimbach after Trimbach claimed Abourezk’s son was at a house in Denver in 1975 shortly before Anna Mae Aquash was brought there and AIM leaders gave an order for her execution.

Trimbach and AIM co-founder Clyde Bellecourt argued long and loudly after Trimbach called AIM leaders “liars, thieves and killers.”

Means gave the conference keynote address in Augustana’s Reconciliation Chapel. By then, he had somewhat softened his stance.

“I’ve heard some naive presentations, some good ones and some outright lies,” he said of the conference. But he also told his audience that nearly filled the church, “Thank you all for being this interested. It speaks well for this area of South Dakota.”

That, too, was Russell. He gave conference participants a glimpse into the layered event Wounded Knee must have been.

The interaction of the Wounded Knee participants in 2012 showed four decades were as thin as tissue, and Wounded Knee for them still was as personal and real as a combat veteran’s memories.

This was a heck of a compelling insight to take away from the conference. It also was something you weren’t going to get in the stacks in the library basement. This is what the Center for Western Studies has grown into. Twenty-eight years ago, Thompson says, “I couldn’t have imagined anything like this. I did not even think we would have our own building.”