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July 25, 2018

Bobby Joe Smtih III, Graphic Design MFA 2020 – Part 1: Standing Rock

by Bobby Joe Smith

Part 1: Standing Rock
Bobby Joe Smtih III
Graphic Design MFA 2020

Designing a visual identity is challenging. Designing something that has personal meaning to you is harder still, although ultimately more rewarding. There is a sense of ownership over the material that can make it difficult to create enough space to make critical decisions and prevent a desire for perfection from getting in the way of completion. The mission and background of the SaveMoneySaveLife foundation, which is building programs that will help Black and Native American communities, particularly connect with me as a Black and Native American designer. Begining the first leg of the Maharam Fellowship with my tribe back on the Standing Rock reservation in Fort Yates North Dakota reminded me of why I am doing this, to do my best, and also to give myself permission to have fun and make mistakes.

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At different points in my life, Ft. Yates has been home to me. Even though SaveMoneySaveLife’s office is in Chicago, one of the founders, Laundi Keepseagle, shares this home with me. It was therefore important for me to re-immerse myself in this community before heading to Chicago, the home of the other founder. The South and West sides of Chicago may seem like entirely different worlds than the rolling prairie hills of Standing Rock North Dakota. It will be my job as a designer to find the commonalities and while celebrating the unique character and complex culture and history of both places.

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I haven’t been to Standing Rock since I decided to become a graphic designer. It was interesting exploring a place that had twice been home to me with this new lens. I spent a lot of time walking about, taking photos, and observing the professional and vernacular design of the reservation. I looked at everything from road signs, tombstones, brochures, quilts, and traditional and contemporary beading. I found the graphic t-shirts that people wore marking powwow celebrations or Native humor to be particularly interesting.

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I scoured through the library of the local Tribal College—Sitting Bull College—for books on winter counts, modern Native art, and traditional Native architecture. I made friends with the librarian Mark, who gave me leads on where I could find high-resolution images of my tribe, maps, historical documents, and sound files. Mark also plays an interesting role as curator, and recently installed an exhibit on protest posters, photos, and artifacts from the NoDAPL movement which took place two years ago about a mile North from Standing Rock. I also got a tour of the Standing Rock visitor’s center. The woman who runs the center has a wealth of knowledge about the community and surrounding area, and also runs public art workshops and helps connect art buyers with local artists. The program she has built is truly inspiring and a reminder of the talent and power within our communities.

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The three weeks I was in Standing Rock I wanted to expose myself as much as possible to the visual language of my tribe—anything that could be used as potential inspiration while designing a visual identity for SMSL. I had some ideas of what to look for, but also kept myself open to being inspired by unexpected sources. It was important for me to acquire culturally specific graphic information—designs, symbols, colors that were specific to my tribe and region—as opposed to appropriating designs from other tribes or resorting to pan-Indian symbols. Being with the people, getting to feel the place’s rhythm and vibe, all of that which is a part of me will be channeled into my design work for the fellowship.

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