"Understanding Our Indian Neighbor" was commissioned & developed by Reverend Earl L. Bailey. The paintings were painted by Levi Black Bear (also known as Levi Mato Sapa). Levi was a full-blood Oglala Sioux Indian who was born in a log cabin near Porcupine, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1899. Levi never went past the fourth grade & claims he never had an art lesson.
Black Bear learned to paint using plain flat paint on masonite instead of the conventional colors and oils on canvas used by most artists. The flat paint makes the images more defined and gives Black Bear an unusual style.
Levi painted this set of 56 paintings between 1955 and 1961. He began painting scenes of old time Indian life for Reverend Earl Bailey who was the pastor of The Inter-Cultural Service Center in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Rev. Bailey then asked Levi to paint scenes and events that show the history and transition of the Indian from the old time Indian life to the present day. At the completion of this set of paintings, the “present day” was 1961.
Rev. Bailey started thinking about getting a script written by Indians who had seen and experienced the old time Indian life and culture. In the early 1960s, with assistance from Ben Reifel, they commissioned the writing of the scripts for the paintings. Dr. Reifel was a congressman from South Dakota who was an Oglala Sioux Indian.
Together, they organized three prominent Indian leaders that were familiar with the Indian culture to work together to write the scripts, Robert Bennett, Harold Shunk, and Barney Old Coyote, Jr.
Robert Bennett was a full-blood Oneida Indian. At the time, he was the acting area director for Indian reservations in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska. In 1966 he became only the second Native American to become commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Harold Shunk was a full-blood Oglala Sioux. He worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as Superintendent of the Sisseton, Turtle Mountain, and Standing Rock Indian agencies. When the scripts were dictated, he was Superintendent of Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.
Barney Old Coyote, Jr. was a full-blood Crow Indian. Barney became the most decorated American Indian in World War II, enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Corps with his brother the day after Pearl Harbor at the age of 18. After the war, he continued his education, becoming a revered teacher in Native American Studies and bilingual education. In 1964, Barney was appointed as a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior.
These three full-blood Indians spent a full day together analyzing and dictating the scripts for the 56 paintings that make up the "Understanding Our Indian Neighbor" exhibit.