49 Minutes of Fame Artist Profile: Nathaniel Ruleaux

Nathaniel Ruleaux connects with family history through art, seeks to increase Indigenous representation with Unceded Artist Collective.

Since he was young, the arts have been in Nathaniel Ruleaux’s blood. 

Born in the Nebraska panhandle town of Bridgeport, Ruleaux grew up in an artistic family. His grandfather was an artist and teacher, and his father directed high school plays. Ruleaux says those early influences led him to pursue a career in art and theater.

“I tell people I’m a storyteller,” he says. “I was around the arts a lot as a kid.” 

A prolific Lakota artist, Ruleaux says his grandfather Donald D. Ruleaux had a profound impact on him, teaching his grandson everything he knew about art.

“We had his pieces all over our house,” Ruleaux says. “He was my strongest connection to what it means to be a Lakota. Grandpa was a great influence and he was always teaching.”

Visibility and representation 

Throughout his life, Ruleaux says his Lakota heritage and family have shaped his identity. After completing grad school in Texas and pursuing full-time acting in Washington, D.C., a desire to live closer to family ultimately brought him back to Nebraska in October 2019. Currently, Ruleaux is living in Omaha with his wife Katie and 2-year-old son Luca.

With a new baby at the time, Ruleaux says the move allowed him to become a stay-at-home dad and spend more time with his family. He also wanted to prioritize talks with his grandfather. Their conversations about art, family and heritage have inspired his current pieces.

“Those themes started playing in my head a lot about what it meant to be Lakota and my family’s story,” Ruleaux says. “I started to paint and draw that more. I did politically charged work that tied more into Native issues.”

During one of their talks, Ruleaux says his grandfather encouraged him to submit his work to the Red Cloud Indian Art Show on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a place where his grandfather and cousins had displayed art in the past. After sending work there, Ruleaux ended up selling a few pieces. The experience proved to be a “launching-off point” for taking his art more seriously.

From there, Ruleaux says he found various opportunities in Omaha to elevate his art. After doing shows and meeting other Native artists, he saw a need to bring more visibility for the Indigenous art community. His answer to a lack of representation in Omaha’s art scene was Unceded Artist Collective, a group he started in 2021 that seeks to empower Native artists and expand the Indigenous art sector.

“Omaha has a huge Indigenous community made up of many people with different hopes and dreams,” Ruleaux says. “We’re trying to figure out a way to bring them together in a positive way through art.”

Co-founded by Ruleaux, Sarah Rowe and Steve Tamayo, Unceded Artist Collective serves as a directory for people to purchase art and meet other members of the Indigenous art community. The organization is also working to educate youth and offer collaboration opportunities.

“We want to use Unceded Artist Collective to bring them up and guide them,” Ruleaux says. “We want to recruit the talent that is in Omaha.”

Righting wrongs

Along with founding Unceded Artist Collective, Ruleaux has continued to make his own pieces for shows such as 49 Minutes of Fame. At the exhibit, he is contributing his pieces “At the Mountains of Rushmore: Defend Sovereignty, Vote Early” and “Number 369.” He also designed the exhibit’s event poster.

“I tried to think about what Native pop art even means,” Ruleaux says. “It’s very diverse and each artist brings something unique and awesome to 49 Minutes.”

Besides his grandfather, Ruleaux says his biggest inspirations are Andy Warhol, Steven Paul Judd and Frank Buffalo Hyde. During his creative process, he enjoys experimenting with different styles, including spray paint, street art and screen printing. He also draws from his family history, such as with “Number 369.”

Ruleaux says the work came about after he heard the story of his great-great grandfather, Nicholas Ruleau, who was sent to Carlisle Indian Industrial School and had his language taken from him. “Number 369” references Nicholas’ student number at the school.

“He was brainwashed there,” Ruleaux says. “I made a screen print portrait of him layered with early stencils of Maȟpíya Lúta Red Cloud. It references the point in my family history where our language was taken away and our lives were changed forever.”

While researching his ancestor, Ruleaux says he learned Nicholas wouldn’t let his children learn the Lakota language even though he was a native speaker. This loss of the language altered the family’s cultural identity, something Donald Ruleaux also grappled with in his art.

“Grandpa was involved in trying to repair the harm from the past,” Ruleaux says. “I’m trying to do that, too.”

Art imitates life

Through his work, Ruleaux continues to carry on his family’s legacy in art and education. Although his grandfather passed away in 2020, he left Ruleaux many of his art materials along with a mission to further spread Indigenous stories.

As he makes art, Ruleaux says he enjoys incorporating family into his pieces, often giving his son crayons so that Luca can add to his pieces. His creative process also allows him to connect to Lakota history.

“It’s who I am,” Ruleaux says. “My work is an exploration of myself, my family, and life. I’m really at peace when doing my art.”

About Nathaniel Ruleaux

Nathaniel Ruleaux is an artist and actor currently located on unceded land of the Umónhon & Očhéthi Šakówiŋ in Nebraska. A member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, his work combines modern art with traditional Indigenous imagery “honoring the past, questioning the present and fighting for the future.” In 2021, Ruleaux founded Unceded Artist Collective, a community and directory of Indigenous artists who live and create on the unceded land of the Umónhon & Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (otherwise known as Omaha, Nebraska). A classically trained actor, Ruleaux received his BA in Theatre Performance at the Johnny Carson School of Theatre & Film at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and his MFA in Theatre from the University of Houston’s School of Theatre and Dance. To learn more about Ruleaux’s work, visit his Instagram page.

For more information

To learn more about 49 Minutes of Fame: An Exhibition of Native Pop Art, installed at the Red Cloud Opera House Gallery from November 5-December 14, 2021, and to read other artist profiles, click HERE. You can also view the digital gallery HERE.

We are grateful to freelance writer Juli Oberlander for her artist biographies and public relations efforts for this exhibit.