By Brandy McDonnell, The Oklahoman
This article and photograph originally ran in the Sunday Oklahoman on Sept. 6, 2020, and is reprinted here with permission.

Even 26 years later, Nelda Schrupp still recalls winning an honorable mention at her first Red Earth Festival.

“To me, that was like the sky gave me the sun, because I was just beginning my art career at that time. I was awestruck and in wonderment,” recalled the Nakota Sioux artist. “I was being accepted for what I was striving to be as an artist. … They deserve some of the credit for encouraging me to continue in the direction I was going.”

2020 Red Earth Honored One Nelda Schrupp poses for a photo at the Red Earth Festival at Grand Event Center at the Grand Casino Hotel & Resort. (Photo by Bryan Terry of The Oklahoman)

The nationally renowned North Dakota-based artist made another pilgrimage to Oklahoma this year for the Red Earth Festival, where she was named the 2020 Red Earth Honored One. She is displaying, among other artworks, a set of handmade jingle dresses in red, white, yellow and red to signify healing for those affected by COVID-19.

“The jingle dress (dance) was to dance for the people to help heal the people, so I call them ‘Spirit of Healing’ dresses,” she said. “It’s just a mishmash of emotions and thoughts (to be here) … but it’s always nice to see the old friends.”

Schrupp is among more than 50 Native American artists from around the state and country gathering through Sunday at the 34th Annual Red Earth Festival.

Although the event was delayed from June to Labor Day weekend in light of the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of artists, exhibitors and patrons turned out Saturday for Red Earth, which moved this year to the Grand Event Center at the Grand Casino Hotel & Resort in Shawnee.

“We had actually planned on the casino before (the pandemic), but it almost ended up being a godsend,” said Paula Cagigal, president of the Red Earth board of directors. “We have a lot of wonderful artists … in three different rooms over 35,000 square feet so that the artists and the patrons can walk around and feel comfortable in the situation.”

Coronavirus changes

An intertribal celebration of Native American art, dance and culture, the festival continues through Sunday at the Grand Casino, which is owned by the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Previously, the event’s primary home was the Cox Convention Center, which is expected to be phased out once the new downtown Oklahoma City convention center is completed.

“In the past few years, we’ve noticed that there’s a lot of people at our events from rural Oklahoma … and Shawnee is located in a place that’s very easily accessible to just jump on the highway,” Cagigal said. “Shawnee has embraced the event.”

Festivalgoers must follow the casino’s COVID-19 protocols, which include requiring masks, temperature checks and social distancing.

The pandemic forced organizers to make several other changes, including swapping the Native dance competition and grand entries for dance exhibitions, recruiting volunteers as personal shoppers for collectors who were unable to attend but still wanted to buy, and spacing out the artist booths to allow for social distancing.

Although some artists who usually participate skipped this year due to the pandemic, others were eager to show their wares since so many art markets, festivals and events have been scrapped in response to COVID-19.

“This is really the first show of the year because so many have been canceled,” said Broken Arrow painter Clancy Gray, who is Osage.

While Schrupp attended her first Red Earth in 1994, she has rotated between the Oklahoma festival and the Eiteljorg Indian Market and Festival in Indianapolis for the past several years. But the latter was canceled this year.

Despite some anxiety about traveling during the pandemic, the Lakota, North Dakota, resident said she was excited to return to Red Earth.

“I sometimes call myself an honorary Oklahoman,” Schrupp said. “They’re kind of like family, the local artists that are from Oklahoma. It’s kind of like a homecoming.”

Eclectic artistry

Over the years, Schrupp has worked in a variety of art forms, from jewelry and dolls to ceramics and metalwork.

“Sewing was my very first art form. I was about 6, 7 years old on my mom’s old treadle machine. I worked on that for years, and then I became an adult and I still sewed. I became a mother … and I used to sew all her baby clothes and her little dresses,” said the artist, who grew up on the White Bear Indian Reservation in Saskatchewan, Canada. “In the ’60s and ’70s, the bell-bottom pants and leisure suits, I used to make them for my husband, and they were fun.”

A 1990 University of North Dakota graduate, she majored in ceramics in college, but a friend encouraged her to take a metalworking class.

“Right from the get-go, I was just amazed at what metal could do, and I just had a new love of material and medium. I just ran with it and I’m still running with it,” she said. “The nice thing about fabrics and metals is that they’re such forgiving materials. Some people think that metal is so hard and so sturdy and static, but it isn’t. It’s flexible … so is fabric, it’s so free form and flowing and moving all the time. … You can take it and mold it and just create something that’s uniquely you.”

Along with her “spirit dress” she also is showing at this year’s Red Earth several of her well-known contemporary versions of Native rattles, sacred items traditionally only made by men.

“I kind of jumped that boundary by making mine very contemporary out of metal, out of semi-precious stones, but still sticking with some of the design elements of our tribal history, of the horse hair and the deer antler. … That’s just all combined with geometric shapes and hollow forms, creating work with kind of a futuristic appeal,” she said.

“(Some people) they always comment, ‘Oh, this is not Indian art.’ … It’s really hard to be different, but I just hung in there. And Red Earth gave me a place to exhibit my work and really appreciated my style and really helped me develop as an artist.”

Her work now is in such high-profile collections as the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.; the Heard Museum in Phoenix; and the Eiteljorg Museum, and she was named this year’s Red Earth Honored One, an award annually bestowed on a Native American master visual artist who has substantially supported American Indian art.

“I felt so honored and so undeserving and all those emotions. … I was just amazed. I was in happy shock,” she said. “That is such a big honor.”