Don Redlich ’50 was inspired by Native American culture at a young age. That affinity has remained with him through his entire life.
Don, who grew up in Winona in the 1930s and 1940s, said as a boy he was in the YMCA Indian Club and studied the history of Native American tribes from Southeastern Minnesota. His favorite part was learning to make native arts and crafts.
While attending Winona State Teachers College and pursuing his bachelor’s degree in education, with majors in art and music, Don traveled to Colorado in the summer of 1949. “It was my first time I’d seen the West and the mountains,” Don said. The journey revitalized his interest in Native American art and dance, and was the beginning of a lifelong connection to that part of the country.
Don bought his first piece of Native American art on that trip, a katsina figure for “three or four dollars.” Katsinas are hand-crafted wooden figures decorated to represent ancestral spirits of the Hopi and Pueblo Indians.
More than six decades later, Don is still collecting Native American art. He has acquired a large number of significant pieces, but that first simple figure is still important to him. “I still have it hanging on my wall, because it reminds me of the time,” Don said.
Don has donated more than 100 pieces, including katsinas, pottery, textiles, beadwork, and prints to WSU’s Native American art collection, on display in the Krueger Library. In addition, he has been inducted into the Medallion Society, Cornerstone Society, and 1858 Founders Society for his enduring generosity to WSU scholarships and initiatives.
After graduating from Winona State Teachers College, Don did three years of master’s study in theater and dance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The humble, soft-spoken Winonan moved to New York in 1953 and began a groundbreaking and distinguished career as a performer, choreographer, director, and teacher in dance and theater, earning a resume that was equaled by few in his profession in the second half of the 20th Century.
Don studied under modern dance legends Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, Margaret H’Doubler, and Helen Tamris. He performed in shows on Broadway and television throughout this career, and in 1968 he formed the Don Redlich Dance Company, which toured the United States through the National Endowment for the Arts Dance Touring Program, and the Artists in the Schools Program. Don taught at Sarah Lawrence College, the Julliard School, Adelphi University, and Rutgers University, where he is Professor Emeritus in the Mason Gross School of the Arts.
“…One can never tell what Mr. Redlich will come up with as a choreographer,” New York Times reviewer Anna Kisselgoff wrote of Don’s company’s performances in the spring of 1984. “And so it should come as no surprise that his newest works are again different—plotless rather than episodic, emphasizing qualities of movement rather than character sketches.”
As Don continued his successful, highprofile career, he maintained his interest in Native American art and dance and began making frequent visits to the West. His interest strengthened when he began to study the tribal dances.
“Through the years, I traveled south into the Santa Fe (New Mexico) area, and there is where I really shifted gears in terms of seeing the American Indian dances, seeing their craft, seeing how they lived, and really became more interested in their whole culture. And that is probably the reason that I began to collect more seriously,” Don said.
Because of Don’s respect for Native American culture, he collects for personal reasons, not simply to buy, sell, and make a profit from the pieces.
“It runs deep in terms of my feeling for the American Indian; to support them, to acknowledge their art forms,” he said of the meaning his collection holds for him. “It’s very personal, I think. It represents a culture that I identify with now. My objects mean something to me, they talk to me. For me, it’s a more personal connection to the cultures and the place. It’s important whether or not an object means something to me, and it’s not just an object to fill a room.”
Don’s collection includes pottery, katsinas, textiles, and beadwork from the Hopi, Pueblo, and Navajo tribes. He owns 16 katsinas made by the late Wilson Tawaquaptewa (1873-1960), who was Hopi chief of the village of Oraibi, Arizona. Tawaquaptewa’s katsinas are considered historically significant because of his “quirky creativity,” according to his biography in the Sotheby’s catalogue.
“He was not a trained professional, he didn’t know his work was going to be popularized,” Don said. “He did it for the need to express something, to say something about his culture. It represents something that’s much deeper inside of him. That’s why I like it, actually, very much.”
Don began the process of donating his Native American art to Winona State about a decade ago, after visiting the Krueger Library and observing its collection of pieces donated by Ervin Bublitz, Darrell Krueger, and others.
He could have chosen to donate his collection to any number of museums or private collectors close to home in Santa Fe. For Don, the choice to gift his collection to Winona State was an easy one.
“The important part is that I wanted them displayed,” said Don, who was honored as a Distinguished Alumnus in 2009. “I didn’t want them in the basements and the archives of museums and never seen by the public but only researchers. I want people to look at it, and to wonder about it, and to try to investigate what this form is all about and really appreciate the extent of the American Indian culture in all forms.”