Student sculpts tribe’s ancestors

A University of Wisconsin-Platteville senior art major has been hired by the Santee Sioux Tribe in Nebraska to sculpt busts of 40 of their ancestors.

The head sculptures will commemorate their death that was ordered by the U.S. government in 1862.

According to the Santee Sioux Tribe history page, the greatest tragedy to befall on their tribe was this execution that was the result of the Minnesota Uprising of 1862.

According to, “Broken promises by an apathetic federal government left the Santee facing eventual starvation.  Mistrust felt by settlers and the Santee led to isolated outbreaks of violence.”

Two young Santee men got into an argument over the courage it takes to steal eggs from a white farmer.  Three white men and two women were killed in the incident.

The Santee then took the offensive, anticipating retalitation by the federal army.  They were soon forced to surrender to the U.S. troops, according to the Santee Tribe.

A total of 38 Santee were mass executed in Mankato, Minn., December 1862.  This was the largest mass execution in the history of the United States, according the the Santee Sioux tribe.

Today, their reservation is located in northeast Nebraska along the Missouri River.  Their 17-by-13 mile reservation borders the north side of the Lewis and Clark Lake.

The Santee are creating a new casino where Austin Glendenning’s 40 sculptures will be displayed.

“I had no idea this event happenend, but it’s a huge deal for their tribe,” Glendenning said.  “Coming from a small rural culture, we don’t have a Native American Reservation.  Coming into contact with these people has been a journey.”

Glendenning was given the image of each ancestor that was executed.  He has until December 2013 to finish the project.

“I’ll be researching about their ancestors and an image will come up (online) that says ‘unknown person,’” Glendenning said.  “I’ll think, ‘Wait a second; I know them.  That’s so-and-so.”

Glendenning said he researches each ancestor in order to get their sculpture right.

“The amount of feathers they wear or if they have one or two braids signifys different things to tribe members,” he said.  “I would feel bad if I put an extra braid in someone’s hair.”

Creating the head sculptures

It takes Glendenning about three to four hours to mold each head sculpture.  He said he pays attention to wrinkles, hair, jewlrey, head dress and clothing details.

“I try to make them very distinct,” Glendenning said.

Depending upon the darkness of their eye color, he will either hollow out their pupils completely or create slight indents.

“I feel like when you look at a person, you look at their eyes,” he said.  “I want people to make eye contact with these people and understand their story.”

After they dry, the sculptures will then be fired in the kiln for about eight hours.

Picking a prefered medium

Glendenning found clay was his prefered medium after studying in Rome his sophomore year.

“After seeing all of the sculptures in person, I came back and was definitely more ino the sculpture scene,” he said.

Glendenning created his own depiction of a Native American man, and it was displayed in the Art Building.

Custodian Ron Redwing saw the sculpture and asked Glendenning to make one of his great-great grandfather.

It was after recreating Redwing’s great-great grandfather that the Santee Sioux tribe approached Glendenning.

“When they came to me with it, I was totally excited,” he said.  “I mean, I’m 22 and taking on a job like this.”

Glendenning said others have approached him to have themselves or other family members sculpted.

“I’ve had a lot of people ask me,” Glendenning said.  “I tell them ‘Yeah, I’ll do it, but finding time right now is hard.’”

Glendenning has about 13 out of the 40 Santee Sioux ancestors finished.