'Blue Cloud Reflections' Features Historical Images from the Blue Cloud Abbey American Indian Collection

At the crossroads of westward expansion and indigenous establishment lie many realities, half-truths, and complete fabrications. In essence, the historical record is an interpretation of events by the people writing it, inhibited by the constraints of the time and place in which they lived. Under the weight of progress and in the harsh glare of enlightenment facts bend, they fade, and sometimes they completely disappear. Truth is in the eye of the beholder and the moments that make up the events of history belong to the direct witnesses of those events. Luckily, some of those witnesses were holding cameras.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the stories told by the photographs in “Blue Cloud Reflections,” are endless. Get a sneak peek of the gallery exhibition in this short video.


This latest exhibition at the Center for Western Studies is actually centuries in the making. Among those settling the Northern Plains during the mid-19th century was an order of Benedictine monks who created missionary schools throughout the region, and set about chronicling the lives of the Native American people who called this land home. Father Ambrose Mattingly, who, in 1888, came to Immaculate Conception Indian Mission at Stephan on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota, was a photographer whose images captured the history of day-to-day life of the Sioux people. The honesty captured in Mattingly’s work is proof of the trust his subjects had in him.

Mattingly wasn’t alone in his quest to preserve a historical image of the Native American population on the plains. Other monks added to his photographic record and in doing so, amassed a visual chronology of the evolution of a culture. The collision of European expansion and the preservation of indigenous ancestral heritage were reflected in their lenses. 

Several decades passed before a monastery was founded near Marvin, SD, in 1950 to serve as a base of operations for the Benedictines. Out of respect for the Native American communities in the Dakotas, whom they had served since 1876, the monks named it Blue Cloud Abbey after Yankton Sioux elder Blue Cloud.

Father Stanislaus Maudlin, a founding member of the abbey, was interested in taking his appreciation for Native American culture a step further. In 1967, he founded the American Indian Culture Research Center (AICRC) at the abbey. Father Stan intended for the center to accomplish two missions: to support emerging Indian leaders as they attempted to rebuild institutions that had been destroyed—family, education, law and order, economy, and church—and to raise up non-Indian respect for Indian spirituality, philosophy of life, and culture. In addition to supporting special projects, the center housed a museum and served as a repository for the monks' more than 100 years' worth of accumulated photographs.

Due to a lack of new members, the Benedictines voted to close Blue Cloud Abbey in 2012, and with it the American Indian Culture Research Center. Having worked with Father Stan for several decades to preserve his personal papers here, the Center for Western Studies received the AICRC’s collections of art, artifacts, books, and images

Now, some 125 years after Ambrose Mattingly began photographing the plains, the Center for Western Studies is humbled to present "Blue Cloud Reflections," a gallery exhibition featuring his historical photography and other select images from the Blue Cloud Abbey American Indian Collection.

Narrowing the selection for this special exhibition was no simple task — today, the Blue Cloud Abbey Collection encompasses an estimated 85,000 items in various formats including glass plate negatives, lantern slides, photographic prints, film negatives, and slides.

Some of the images have been exhibited at CWS before. In the early 2000s, a number of Ambrose Mattingly's deteriorating glass plate negatives were scanned and digitally restored by staff at the Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center outside of Sioux Falls. This work culminated in a traveling exhibit that was displayed in Washington, D.C., and later at CWS in conjunction with the publication of “Impressions of Tribal Life: The Reverend Ambrose Mattingly Photographic Collection” by the Eastman Kodak Company in 2007. As part of our 55/50 anniversary celebrations, we're excited to display them again this year, alongside others that have never before been seen by the public. Several artifacts from the Blue Cloud Abbey Collection are also available to view in the "Voices of the Northern Plains" exhibit in the Froiland Plains Indian Gallery.

"Blue Cloud Reflections" opens July 6, 2020, and runs through August 7, 2020. The exhibition is free and open to the public. Viewing hours are Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibition is located in the Madsen/Nelson Galleries of the Center's Fantle Building at 2121 South Summit Avenue, Sioux Falls, SD. We ask that you observe all posted public health and safety policies during your visit.