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Rivera's bronze Buffalo Dancer II stands outside the National Museum of the American Indian, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy Glenn Green Galleries)

‘Every time I’d be in the dance, whether I was dancing, drumming or singing, I could envision the sculpture’

Roughly 1,600 miles from the heart of Pueblo Indian country in northern New Mexico, George Rivera’s massive bronze Buffalo Dancer II stands outside the entrance to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian—the first sculpture to represent American Indians on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Standing 12 feet tall and weighing a ton, the statue showcases the spirit of the Pueblo Indians, depicting a young man offering thanks in the ceremonial buffalo dance. “Native American people pay respect to the buffalo for everything it gives them,” Rivera says, “and show their gratitude in dance.” Rivera installed his sculpture outside the museum in October 2009. Less than a year later the museum made Buffalo Dancer II part of its permanent collection.

The figure started out much, much smaller. In 1997 Rivera completed a 20-inch maquette of the buffalo dancer. That’s how he starts most of his works, before recreating the image in stone or casting it in bronze. From the outset Rivera knew the young buffalo dancer, and what it represented, was destined for larger things. “It’s a dance that has been done for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years,” says Rivera, 46. “It’s pretty significant. I was doing the dance in my early 30s, and every time I’d be in the dance, whether I was dancing or drumming or singing, I could envision the sculpture or painting.”

Ten years after making the maquette, Rivera completed Buffalo Dancer, a larger-than-life bronze now on permanent display outside the new Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino at Pojoaque Pueblo in Santa Fe. Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian, requested another dancer for the museum.

Dancing is important to all Pueblo cultures, and especially important to Rivera, who has also created bronzes of deer dancers and butterfly dancers. “If you can capture that, that’s the essence of who the Pueblo people are.”

Rivera should know. The longtime governor of Pojoaque Pueblo, he is also a collector of the arts, an art instructor and the driving force behind the creation of Pojoaque’s Poeh Cultural Center and Museum, which teaches and promotes Pueblo Indian arts, culture and history.

“My roots are here,” he says. “I’m the governor because I really am genuinely interested in my Pueblo people having a better life and opportunities.”

As an artist — working in stone and clay, painting, sketching, even dabbling in ceramics and architecture — he has become internationally famous. Yet wasn’t aware of his interest in art, let alone his phenomenal talent, until taking an elective high school art class. “I had no idea I would like it so much,” he says. That love led him to studies at Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts, the California College of Arts and Craft in Oakland and the Lacoste School of Arts in France. After three years in that country, where he taught and apprenticed with a Japanese master sculptor, Rivera returned to his Pojoaque home, inspired to revitalize traditional Pueblo arts and culture.

“At a young age, I evaluated my career choices and asked myself, ‘Why don’t you do something to help your people?’”

Not just Pueblo people. All Indian cultures. The Poeh Center promotes all eight other Tewa- and Tiwa-speaking pueblos of Northern New Mexico as well as other tribes. Buffalo Thunder houses roughly 300 pieces of art by American Indians, both masters and newcomers.

He has learned he can help Indian people, not only as a politician, but as an artist, educating non-Indians about the Pueblo way of life.

“This culture,” Rivera says, “is still here. It’s very much alive.”

Art isn’t restricted to classrooms. It can reach people, and teach them, from a resort at a Northern New Mexico pueblo, to the Washington Mall, and all across the world.

“This culture,” Rivera says, “is still here. It’s very much alive.”

To see more of Rivera’s work visit Glenn Green Galleries.