Art as an Engagement Tool, by Jay Bad Heart Bull

Generations ago, one of my grandfathers was a tribal historian for my people, the Oglala Lakota of Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Amos Bad Heart Bull was a ledger artist who depicted many events that happened in the lives of my people and it is through those paintings that I have the ability to connect to my rich history. His artwork tells the story of how my people lived long ago with all the beauty and sadness that sweeping cultural change brings.

Through it all, art has remained a catalyzing force for how my people communicate and is used to impart teachings whether through paintings, storytelling, or song. In fact, all three of those  media play an integral part in our spirituality as well, which permeates every aspect of our traditional lifestyle. And we are not unique in this regard as all people have historically used art as a way to engage and build a sense of community and identity.

In our work at the Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI), we have established a firm belief that in order to heal and uplift our community, we need to rely on our traditional cultural strengths and art is a centerpiece to that work. Through our art gallery, we have created a special place that brings people together to celebrate and learn from one another. All My Relations Art Gallery was named after a worldview that all Indigenous people share. In my Lakota language we say, “Mitakuye Oyasin” which means “we are all related” and binds not only humans together but also connects us to the natural world. In this way, we recognize each spirit in our lives and the importance of respect and value for one another.

The gallery also serves as an engagement tool where everyone can come together and share ideas and build a deeper connection to community. We have used the gallery space for mayoral candidate forums, retreats, town-hall meetings with nationally elected officials, storytelling events, poetry readings, and artist residencies to name a few. Through all these events, non-native friends have come to understand our community better and feel a sense of connection to our mission and work.

Art as an engagement tool has been pivotal to the development of our organization and community. Another project of ours is the build-out of the American Indian Cultural Corridor in south Minneapolis along a half-mile stretch of Franklin Avenue. We have incorporated a robust branding of the corridor that includes street banners, bike racks, utility box wraps, and murals created by youth in our community. NACDI uses the installation of these pieces as a way to bring people together, celebrate one another, and create dynamic events that are positive and unique where participants can feel like they are closer to each other as a community. It’s also a way to practice creative place-making in our physical environment where community members can actively engage and build a home we can all be proud of.

For more information, please contact me at
Jay Bad Heart Bull, NACDI