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Mary V. Bordeaux Changes the World
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Mary V. Bordeaux
Mary V. Bordeaux

I first met Mary V. Bordeaux in the summer of 1992 when we were young gift shop and museum attendants at Crazy Horse Memorial. Crazy Horse’s eyes and nose were just emerging from the granite and pegmatite as, below, we meticulously inventoried jewelry and Windexed display glass. Mary had a bright, electric smile and often carried a sketchbook. Learning I was an aspiring writer, she encouragingly asked me to pen something for her. I acquiesced only after she promised to draw something in return. At our next shift, we both arrived sheepish and empty-handed. “I was too shy!” Mary admitted. “Me too!” I replied.

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Neither of us overcame our diffidence that summer, but 25 years hence, Mary is co-owner and Creative Director of Racing Magpie in Rapid City, a collaborative space with a Native art gallery and individual artist studios. Mary says her father said he expected her to change the world, and while she used to feel overwhelmed by that directive, she now feels empowered by it.

Katy Beem: I can remember working at Crazy Horse with you, and I would ask -- because I was hoping to become a writer and you were an artist -- "Would you draw something for me?” And you would say, "Would you write something for me?” And we would say, “Okay, we will both bring something tomorrow.” And then the next day we would both come empty-handed. I’d say, “I did write something, but I was too shy to bring it.” And you would say, “Me too!” And we did this a few times, and I remember that our co-workers would just roll their eyes at us. (laughs)

Your artistic statement on the Racing Magpie website says how your father told you that he expected you to change the world. And that you used to feel overwhelmed or weighed down by it, but now you feel empowered. I am wondering what changed from, back in the day, from shy, feeling overwhelmed to change the world, and now feeling empowered by it?"

Mary V. Bordeaux: "Having my son, Austin Big Crow, Jr., was huge. I was 21 when he was born. I didn’t feel young at the time, but looking back I was pretty young and naïve. He has really given my life direction, and made me think more deeply about what I am doing and why. I realized, looking at him when he was this little baby, that he was my world. Whatever he was doing, I was doing. It made me think when my dad said, 'I want you to change the world," the world isn’t the whole world. It’s not being the President of the United States or the Queen of England, this really visible person to the entire world. My dad was talking about the world that I interact with on an everyday basis. And that it’s the world that interacts with me. Being able to shift the perspective of that. My son helped me to do that by just being himself, being a child."

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KB: I can relate to that. I think when I became a mom, there is a certain amount of ' I have to do this now. I have to face fears. I have to do this for him because I want him to see someone embracing things.' I can really understand that. What were some of the big things that you feel like you did after Austin was born?

MVB: "I applied to college after high school, but I waited a year after graduating before going. I tried it for a semester, and it felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. 'What am I doing? What am I doing here? I don’t even know.' I didn’t know how to grocery shop. (laughs) At the same time, I really wanted to be responsible for myself, so having a job was really important, moreso than going to school. I concentrated on having a job. Then I became pregnant and had my son. The whole time I was pregnant with him, I really tried to figure out what I was doing. I had to be responsible for a whole entire human being, and I can’t be working in hotels, eating Top Ramen all the time. It didn’t really matter if I ate or not, or if I slept on the floor with my friends. There was this urgency, until after he was born. I really thought about what I should be doing. His dad and I were married. His dad was an artist and really wanted to go to art school. I found us a school that we could go to together.

Before that, I had only a couple experiences with museums. One was when I was twelve at the Denver Art Museum. There was a sculpture that looked like it was a real human. I kept trying to touch her, which kept setting off the alarm. The museum security wasn’t mean and didn’t kick me out of the gallery--just kept an eye on me. I would go to touch her and the buzzer would go off and I’d step back. I really thought it was a real person lying there. A museum staff person came in with their white gloves, nametag, looking all official. They fixed her hair and the label. I was like, 'That's crazy! Who gets to touch these?' They looked all cool with their white gloves.

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So, I had that experience, and then working at Crazy Horse. I worked there four summers, starting in 1992. We had to clean the glass in the museum at the end of the night. I would walk around the museum, clean the glass, and just look. It always felt so important to be able to care for this.

These were my only experiences. I didn’t go to [museums] very often, but it was that interaction with the objects. When I was at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where my husband and I went to to school, he was an artist, and I could take art classes. That satisfied my want to be an artist."

KB: Were those your first art classes?

MVB: "Yes, my first formal art classes. I had taken art in junior high, I did summer day camp things, and that was really good. But I really got into working at the [Crazy Horse] museum, so I kept going with it. I was able to work with artists, help them, and kind of live vicariously through them. I have always worked with artists, and it’s all about the fear of being an artist. It’s all about rejection. It was my biggest fear. It still is. I was successful at being a museum studies student. I just kind of went with it and kept going that way. It’s funny, with my son being born, and then my husband, ex-husband now who passed away, it was his want to go to art school, and my want for us to be successful made this trajectory of where my life was going.

Again, I have always made decisions to make sure my son would be okay. And that I could have a way to take care of him, and that he could see me being successful and providing for him. And to always be in places that you wouldn’t think Native people would be. Always putting myself in those uncomfortable situations and making sure my son saw that happening. So he knew that it was okay to be uncomfortable and that he belongs where he belongs."

KB: What are some examples of that for you? Putting yourself in places to show him that you belong there and that he belongs there, too?

MVB: "I try to always be on time and be punctual, even being early. I don’t like the stigma that Native American people are always late. I think that is a Western concept that was imposed on us for being late. And that the whole concept of time is a learned behavior, and after we were placed on reservations, and interacting with the United States government, the whole idea that we were 'late.' I always work really hard to be punctual, especially when my son was involved.

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I didn’t want to be known as a single mom either. My son’s dad and I split up when he was about two years old. It was because we were young. We got married, but whatever. (laughs) I didn’t want to be known as this single mom and this poor Indian girl from Pine Ridge. I worked really hard to be not what people expected me to be. I worked to be really successful at school. I did internships, and I never felt like a single mom because I had a lot of family that supported me, and friends. There were just so many people involved with my and my son's life that I never felt like a single mom and I never called myself that either.

Once I graduated, I made sure I was working in the field I went to school for. Getting internships at museums and volunteering at museums. I worked really hard at doing what I said I would do. When I went to graduate school, I purposefully picked a school that did not have a large Native population, did not have a Native Studies focus. Again, putting myself in a situation where it is uncomfortable because I am the only Native person.

Usually what happens when you are the only Native person in a room or group, you end up having to be the expert. And telling this whole 500, 600 years-worth of history, the United States' interactions with Native peoples. But it gets them thinking, wondering about themselves, and their interactions with Native people and their communities. By doing that, you are kind of paving the way or opening a door for other Native people to come in and be even more successful.

When I was working on my thesis, I was really struggling because I didn’t have a lot of direction from the faculty. I often had to explain the history. If you’re basing things on U.S. history, there are a lot of nuances that you can draw on when you are writing. As a Native person, writing about Native issues you can’t research, because those nuances aren’t there to rely on because people just don’t know. You spend a lot of time explaining the history before you can even get to your point about what you are trying to write about.

While I was doing this, I sent a draft of my thesis to Dr. JoAllyn Archambault, [Standing Rock Sioux], a Native American curator and anthropologist and a Smithsonian director. She's got her PhD and she's a super smart lady. I wanted her input and help. She called me and told me my thesis was kind of awful. I said, 'Oh my God! I graduate in two months!' I’m trying not to cry. She tells me, 'It’s okay. It isn’t your fault this is so awful. It’s because you don’t have any guidance.'

She told me she researched my school [Philadelphia's University of the Arts] and 'there weren't any Native people there to help you. You are in a state that doesn’t even recognize Native people. There are no recognized tribes in Pennsylvania. You are in this place where Native people don’t really exist to them. I’m going to send you a couple of articles, if you just change a few things, you’ll have your thesis done. Then we'll have another Native person with their Master's degree and your school will be a better place because you were there.'

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So after I graduated and started work at the [Red Cloud] Heritage Center, I was the first Native museum professional that the Center had. They had other museum professionals, interns and things like that, but no professionally trained Native people. I worked there for 10 years and helped them catalog their collection and really professionalized the museum. At Crazy Horse Museum, I was the first Native museum professional that Crazy Horse Museum had ever hired.

They are difficult places to be in, but because raising Cain, pushing people, asking questions and just kind of being a pain-in-the-butt to everybody, it makes it easier for the next Native professional that’s going to come along and work there."

KB: Saying, even if I have to represent, I’m the only one in the room, so I’m going to roll up my sleeves and do this.

MVB: "Right. And even if no one was listening to me, I’m sure they were like, 'Oh, I’m so glad she’s gone. She was giving us so much trouble.' But then when the next person comes in and says, 'maybe you should think about it this way,' it’s something I’ve already mentioned to them and they would have already thought about it a little and might be a little more open and maybe more ready to move forward.

Same thing at the Heritage Center -- it’s at the Red Cloud Indian School, which is a Jesuit institution. Which is really paternalistic. Which, being a woman, makes it even more difficult. But then, pushing them, when I get out of the way, it’s almost like a relief when the next person comes in. Because I was one of the few Native museum professionals in the state of South Dakota, I tended to end up in situations where I’m the only Native person in the room. And as long I’m there, pushing people to think a little bit more, it’s just going to make it easier for Native people and maybe more Native people will be involved."

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KB: "South Dakota primarily has an art market where there are typically white people buying Native art and often selling Native art. It's a laden situation for which we could write many, many theses. There’s a lot going on there. Do you feel you're starting to chip away at that?"

MVB: "There’ve been a lot of artists in the state who’ve done a lot. Like Don Montileaux and Craig Howe and so many educators who have worked with the state to do the Oceti Sakowin learning points [curriculum developed by Department of Education's Office of Indian Education]. There’s so many people that have done those things, but in terms of specifically museums and the display of art by Native people -- it’s so romanticized. It's such a stretch for South Dakotans to think beyond the 1880 Native person. I’m really trying to challenge that and push people to think about how they represent Native people in exhibitions and gallery shows."

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KB: And you're also working on your doctorate in Lakota epistemology. Can you tell me about that?

MVB: "Yes, I'm working on an educational doctorate in Lakota epistemology and leadership. My focus of study is about Lakota epistemology. I know Lakota people learn things differently and we do things differently … we have different ways of knowing and understanding the world. I'm interested in how might I quantify that in some way to build curriculum of museum objects or Lakota-made items.You could teach anything around these objects, in a culturally relevant way that would be culturally significant to the students learning it. And once you started doing it with children, you could start building more curriculum on up further into college. For example, based on a pair of moccasins, you could teach science, art and design, storytelling, English, writing. There’s so many things that could be taught from one object. I believe historically that’s how Lakota people taught. And it started with children, mothers and grandmothers playing and learning how to be people. There's all that we could be doing with museums and museum collections. That’s all based in this idea of leadership and Lakota epistemology. Curriculum that’s based in a Lakota way of knowing and understanding."

KB: Is it hard to do that in a doctorate program?

MVB: "Where everything is based in Western thought and philosophy? (laughs) Yeah, I think that was the reason for an educational doctorate. There’s some philosophy in my program, but it’s not as deep as it would be had I been in a PhD program. I know other Native scholars have gone through education programs and have been able to bend the rules more than in PhD programs. And again, I’m challenging the program I am in. Right now I’m the only Native person in the doctorate program, that I know of anyway. I know they’re aware of Native issues and people, but there's not a strong standing."

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KB: Why did you choose St. Mary’s University?

MVB: "I’m really horrible at taking standardized tests. When I looked at a Master's program, I made sure I didn’t have to take the GRE. So, I looked for a good program that didn't require a GRE, that I could complete while I’m working full-time, and that wasn’t going to cost me like $75,000 a year. I have two sons, one who is 20 and one, Cante Nunpa, who’s going to be 8, so I need to provide for them.

KB: So, you've lived around the U.S. What brought you back to South Dakota?

MVB: The only time I haven’t lived in South Dakota is when I was in school -- Santa Fe and Philadelphia. I’ve always been in South Dakota. And I’ve always had this idea that if I don’t like something then I need to change it. And I don’t like the way South Dakota is so divided between Native and non-Native people. And if I’m not here helping, then I have no right to complain. My extended family is really important to me. They are a huge part of my development as a person. It was important that my son be here and be connected to community. So, it was never really my intention to be in South Dakota, but as I moved through life, it just always made sense to be in South Dakota."

KB: "And you were born and grew up in Pine Ridge, yes?

MVB: "Yes. This November will mark my first four years not in Pine Ridge! I was so sad when I had to give up my PO box in Pine Ridge. I've had it since I was 18. I had to get Rapid City, you know, Pennington County, license plates and now I’m starting to feel disconnected. (laughs) It was really weird.

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KB: What has been the biggest surprise since opening Racing Magpie?

MVB: "That people go! (laughs) And that artists are excited to be there. The way Racing Magpie is right at this moment, and the size it is, is really my husband pushing me to think bigger. Initially, my thought was to have a gallery and an office so we could do consulting and I could curate shows. But we know Linda Andersen at the Black Hills Playhouse (BHP). She's a good friend. She said BHP was looking for new offices and we discussed going in on something to have a bigger space and host classes.

All of a sudden we’re renting a 4,000 square-foot granary! What a minute! What are we doing? (laughs) That whole rejection is always a part of who I am. I’ve been really intentional about all my decisions since my son was born. It's how I’ve moved through life. Decisions really calculated so I didn't ’t really have the possibility of making a mistake, so I could be successful. I always threw myself into things: college, professionalizing the Heritage Center. Getting a bigger space and a lot of people invoved is really stepping away from my comfort level.

And I’m a really private person. I tend to make decisions without a lot of input from outside people. Inviting all these people to be involved in a dream of mine for my whole life -- to have a gallery -- was the scariest thing in the whole world because it could just explode in my face and I’d be sitting in this big giant space with nobody in it!

I’m always surprised that people are there, which may not be the nicest thing to say about the people who are supportive of me and my husband Peter (Strong), but I’m always so surprised people go and feel comfortable and happy.I like that it’s a combination of Native people and non-Native people. And that people are just getting together around art. It makes me feel so humble and just on the verge of tears all the time thinking that they’re there just because we’re all supportive of this idea that art can bring people together."

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KB: You're giving people something we want and need.

MVB: "Yeah. I don’t know why, but it’s always so surprising when people say ‘Racing Magpie is so great!” I feel kind of dreamy and not quite real."

KB: You're a speaker at the Potluck Society Live event in Sioux Falls on December 1. What will you be speaking about?

MVB: "I'll be speaking on the call-to-action and Native art."

KB: As a private person, how do you feel about public speaking?

MVB: "To be honest, it scares the shit out of me. In grad school, we had to do a lot of presenting. I would get scared and sweaty, like I was gonna fall apart. I worried that I would forget everything. But I learned to just tell people that I’m nervous before I start talking.

If it were up to me, I wouldn’t do it. But I feel like it’s not up to me. I feel this sense of responsibility to my son, and to the Native community and other Native women. Even if I didn’t want to be a trailblazer, I still am. Especially as a Native woman -- regardless of what I say or do -- I’m always being compared to other Native women and they’ll be judged by what I do. Even if I don’t want to, it’s still my responsibility to all those other Native people and women."

KB: Is there anything you want to add?

MVB: "It boils down to my sons. I want the world to be a different place for them. In South Dakota, it can be dangerous for Native men and boys. And I don’t want it to be dangerous for them. I want it to be okay. Like my dad said, he expected me to change the world. I would like to change it for my sons. So it’s not as hard for them to be Native in South Dakota. It’s about them."

KB: Do you feel that difficulty is getting better or worse?

MVB: "I think there are pockets of good. Pockets and places that are better. Overall, it’s still the same as when I was younger. And with the political climate that it is, we’re seeing a lot of things that we wouldn’t normally have seen. But there are pockets and moments that are there. People are trying and something good could happen. It’s like growing pains."

Racing Magpie, which Bordeaux owns and operates with her husband Peter Strong, is located in the historic Aby's Feed and Seed building. Racing Magpie also houses Scrap Iron Press: Letterpress & Book Arts Studio,a letterpress and book arts studio that offers workshops and open-studio sessions ​in the art and craft of letterpress printing; offices and classrooms for the Black Hills Playhouse, and Bird Cage Store & Mercantile. Native American owned and operated Book Store that specializes in Native American Books of the Northern Plains.