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Stories On the Walls

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It's night, and the first floor of the building is dark and deserted. But as you make your way up the stairs, the pounding of Native American drums begins to echo through the hallways and the faint smell of turpentine enters the air. On the third floor the drums get louder, the turpentine scent stronger. Dim bulbs in a large room reveal a thin, wiry man with long gray hair and a narrow, lined face kneeling on the floor with a paintbrush. A tape player drums in the middle of the room.

Robert Wapahi is a member of the Santee Sioux, a teacher at Saint Augustine's Center for American Indians, and the unofficial artist in residence at the American Indian Center, a former Masonic temple at 1630 W. Wilson. Almost every night he comes to cover the walls with stories. "This is a painting I have worked on for some time," he says, facing a four-by-ten mural. "It is the story of a young man on a vision quest. He has fasted for four days, trying to find his uncle who has changed worlds, and in his dream it is his uncle who comes to help him."

The mural portrays a young boy dressed in buckskin and a woman with long black braided hair who has her arm around him. Both figures are suspended in a blue sky over a jagged cliff, looking at three ghostlike figures rising from the canyon floor.

"These three men are the grandfathers, who are a part of his vision," says Wapahi, dabbing paint on the boy's hand. "His fingers are jutting out straight, like a board, because the boy is tense. This is the first time he has gone through this ritual, and even though he has the woman to guide him he is still not sure of what he will encounter."

The walls of the Indian center are full of Wapahi's works. In one back room is a series of paintings depicting the massacre at Wounded Knee. A mural in the second-floor hallway portrays Sioux homes. There are also several paintings of a young Native American woman. "She is the face in the sky. She used to work here, and her spirit is still around here. Often during the night I catch glimpses of her, and I try to capture them on canvas."

Wapahi is a native of Nebraska and grew up on a 180-square-mile reservation. His great-grandfather was Leonard Walks Out. "In the history books [the Santee Sioux] are known for starting an uprising in Minnesota during which 400 people on each side were killed. Because of this 38 Sioux were hanged, and the tribe was forced to move to Nebraska. Afterwards they were forced to sign a treaty. But my great grandfather didn't agree with it, and during the signing he got up and walked out. So he got the name Leonard Walks Out."

Five years ago Wapahi moved to Chicago to be closer to his children, and soon after he arrived started spending his evenings at the center. "I needed a place to paint, so I cut a deal with the people here. They would give me a free work space if I would help clean up and decorate the space. I started by painting murals on the walls to cover up the graffiti. Then I started painting on old pieces of pegboard, plywood, leather, canvas, almost any blank surface I can find."

Wapahi mixes a dab of red paint with a lot of turpentine, then touches the three grandfather figures in the mural with his brush. "If you apply just a little bit, the turpentine will make the paint bleed downward to create a path from the rocks."

The brown stone cliffs below the grandfathers are jagged. "There was once a time, during the time of the buffalo god, when all rocks were smooth. He used to give wishes, and one time he granted a wish to a woman to make her son as fast as the wind. The buffalo god granted it under the condition that he would not use this speed to hunt the buffalo. But when he got older the young man wanted to become a chief, and in order to impress the current chief he hunted and killed a buffalo. When the buffalo god saw this betrayal he became angry, and he exploded all the mountains into jagged cliffs to try and keep them from hunting buffalo."

Wapahi drips more red paint on, smearing it slightly, then wiping most of it off with a turpentine-soaked rag. He goes on layering the paint and overlapping the colors well into the night. "I can still feel the spirits of the Masons in this building. They are not bad spirits. But this is now our building."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lauren Santow.

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