October 4, 2017

One guy, one hand drum – Nakoa Heavy Runner

Round dance singer brings healing, connection and solid talent to area


Abena Songbird

former Journal Staff Writer

Hand drums in hand, Menominee singers Josh (left) and Joel Fish (right), (also a drum maker) form a Round dance song trio with lead singer/composer, Assiniboine/Blackfeet Nakoa Heavy Runner (center) last week at a CD signing and live performance at Prairie Edge. The three performed a request, “Smiling Eyes.”

Hand drums in hand, Menominee singers Josh (left) and Joel Fish (right), (also a drum maker) form a Round dance song trio with lead singer/composer, Assiniboine/Blackfeet Nakoa Heavy Runner (center) last week at a CD signing and live performance at Prairie Edge. The three performed a request, “Smiling Eyes.”


RAPID CITY — There is a ever growing buzz about a new “lean and mean” talent coming out of the Fort Belknap, Montana  area, who has been singing and composing for fourteen years, both Round dance and Pow wow songs. His name is Nakoa Heavy Runner.

Formerly known on the Pow wow circuit for his clear, high leads with Black Bull Jr. Drum, Heavy Runner has joined forces for the last two years with two tight Menominee singers, Josh and Joel Fish, and has been solidly composing, recording, producing and self-promoting his contemporary style, stacking layered vocal tracks and creating a unique sound of many voices that is “stand-out” in the Native American music world.

“I’ve been singing my whole life, but started actually composing at the age of 14 in 1994,” said the 28 year old singer, Heavy Runner. DSCF1220

Not only known now from various clips on YouTube performed by himself, and fans of his songs, Heavy Runner and his Round dance songs have gotten significant exposure from Native radio, including KILI Radio on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Grant Weston, lead singer in Rapid City’s Standing Horse Drum, and founder of Wimahiya Hand Drum Group said he first heard Heavy Runner at the Denver Indian Powwow Expo a few years ago. “His voice stood out, it was a crisp, clear sound,” he said. Wanting to help promote his music, Weston got the word out about this gifted composer/singer and his hand drum trio’s stops in South Dakota.

In 2003 he decided to cut his first album himself. Using home equipment, Heavy Runner laid all the tracks, recorded it, designed the artwork for the CD, burned and duplicated it by hand, even doing his own final shrink-wrapping.

“Even today, although these later two CDs have been ‘sent-out’ for duplication, that’s something I still do: all my own recording, mixing, mastering, and graphics,” he noted.

Heavy Runner comes from a large family of traditional singers. All his uncles and grandpas sing, he said. Most of his friends and family grew up around the drum, listening to the Round Dance songs.              Growing up around the Powwows, he said he’s been out of that for about two years when he met Joel Fish and his younger brother, Josh, enrolled members of the Menominee Nation from Wisconsin, two years ago in August 2006 at the Rocky Boy Powwow.

Never having met before, the two were unfamiliar with each other’s work but both liked what they heard. After hearing his Round dance material, Joel Fish had some songs to show the singer, Heavy Runner noted. “I liked them and asked if we could put them on a CD.” Last year was the debut of this collaboration – two songs released on Heavy Runner’s CD, “Brothers.” “Butterfly” is one track on that CD that Fish composed.

Joel, 22, is also a prestigious drum maker. Formerly a student in Construction Technology at United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) in Bismarck, North Dakota, he met his wife, Mastewin Fish, (who traveled to South Dakota with the trio) and they now both reside in Fort Peck, MT.

“That’s just the next rez down from me,” Heavy Runner noted. “We just talked, got to messing around, showing me some of these songs, and so I went ahead and signed them (Fish singers) to a 15 year contract,” he jokes.

Joel Fish also started from the time he was 8 or 9 years old, traveling with his family to Powwows “as a snotty-nosed kid” he laughs. “I began singing at a young age, got into hand drums, as I liked a lot of the Cree style music, and Menominee,” he said. “I really enjoyed the words and always wanted a drum.”

He got his first drum at the age of 10, a 13 inch elk hide hand drum.

 “One guy, one drum” Assiniboine/Blackfeet singer, Nakoa Heavy Runner, of Fort Belknap demonstrates why his is a rising star on the Powwow circuit for his unique style, and original Round dance compositions last Friday at a CD Release party at Prairie Edge.

“One guy, one drum” Assiniboine/Blackfeet singer, Nakoa Heavy Runner, of Fort Belknap demonstrates why his is a rising star on the Powwow circuit for his unique style, and original Round dance compositions last Friday at a CD Release party at Prairie Edge.

“I was told by my uncle to take care of it and it will take care of me,” he said. He had it for five years and lost it. His older brother, Jeffery, showed him “told me what was what” about the basics of making and taking care of the drum.

“I just started doing it. I started killing deer, scraping the hides, making hand drums all the time,” he said. “I started getting good at what I was doing.” Now looking back on his work the artist said he realizes he did “okay” but is always looking ahead one-step ahead of anything he did in the past.

Currently he has turned from using primarily deer hide to horse hide with his signature drums. The sound difference is in the vibration he says.

“Horse hide only contracts so far,” he explains, adding that elk hide, horse, buffalo, and deer all have their own tonal quality, and tighten up differently when exposed to moisture, contracting to heat.

“My brother (Josh) calls this one, Norman,” he said, pointing at one of his favorite horse hide drums. He has no need to sign his drums he said, as he “knows his own work.” Many agree that his drums are quality.

Any good drum maker or drum keeper will know how to take care of his drums, Fish added. “If you make drums you take care of them.” Well versed in drum etiquette he said, “You always keep a drum face-up, never upside down when not in use.”

He said he never thought he and his younger brother would “team up” playing music with Heavy Runner and traveling together.

Josh, 20, echoes his brother, also saying he’s spent most of his early years singing back home. He and Joel will also be featured on a future album “in the works” by Heavy Runner, called, “Traditions.”

Now all three are full-time singers; able to earn an income solely from singing their original songs. They travel together, promoting heavily on the Powwow circuit, and do many school presentations for the youth.

Friday the three held court at Prairie Edge, with Heavy Runner front and center, promoting four of his CDs, that comprise 4 years of work, and signing his newest release.

The first CD Heavy Runner ever did, was called ‘Round Dance Time”, however it’s now out-of-print, he says, so had no copies at his new CD Release Party last Friday at Prairie Edge in Rapid City. His subsequent recordings include, “Dance For Me” (2004), “Journey” (2005), “Brothers” (2007) and his newest, “Indian Summer” (2008) which was recorded over a course of five months at Heavy Runner’s dad’s place in Ft. Belknap the trio has christened, “The Healing Ranch.”

“My first album was just me on vocals – a guy and a hand drum singing,” he said. “But my second solo album (Dance For Me) developed a whole new sound.” One can hear all 11 tracks from this CD on the website

Heavy Runner started singing softer and overlaying his voice to create two or three tracks – creating a thick sound that sounds like many voices – two or three guys.

Each CD holds significant meaning for Heavy Runner, and he names his favorite originals songs from each: On Journey he cites, “Warriors and Walk with You”: from Dance For Me – it’s, “Grandma’s Wisdom” and “So & So” are his favorite songs, from Brothers, “Give you the World” and “Don’t Matter” and from the newest CD Indian Summer Heavy Runner says, “Gone Away” and “Mine O Mine’ are his personal standouts.

“I was singing a lot of years, just sitting there, didn’t know how to do CDs and get it out there,” he said.

In 2003 he decided to cut his first album himself. Using home equipment, Heavy Runner laid all the tracks, recorded it, designed the artwork for the CD, burned and duplicated it by hand, even doing his own final shrink-wrapping.

“Even today, although these later two CDs have been “sent-out” for duplication, that’s something I still do: all my own recording, mixing, mastering, and graphics,” he noted.

Nakota HeavyRunner

Nakota HeavyRunner

Following the CD signing, the trio was slated to perform a Round Dance in Little Eagle, South Dakota on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation Saturday night, and would return home to gear up for their next promotion at Spirit Lake, North Dakota.

Though Round dance songs are social songs, and the music Heavy Runner makes with his hand drum trio these days is not spiritually based, his message to youth and the way all three singers conduct themselves is steeped in traditional culture and ceremony

“We’re sharing what we do, and what a Round dance is, a lot of them don’t know” he added. The traditional roots of Round Dance – the songs and social dances were for healing, Heavy Runner noted. “Many times when someone is sick, a family will have a Round dance, feed the people, and the sponsor will have a giveaway.”

He grew up hearing the stories of the dances his late grandma would speak of, when she was young.

“You’re bringing all the people together for their healing,” he continues. “Everyone when you go out there and join hands, and dance for anyone in your family that may be sick, even though you go there to have fun and to share.”

Back home he says there’s a resurgence of these songs, and social dances. “It’s always been pretty big in Canada, but it’s really growing now, even in the states, these last four years,” Heavy Runner said.

His current hand drum is signature, a special gift to him. It has two strips of blue tape circling the inner and outer bone-white rim, and he handles it protectively, not allowing others to touch it.

Heavy Runner’s message in his presentations to youth and all who hear his music rang out loud and clear with his group’s debut in South Dakota, “Music is what keeps us connected to everything. It helps to align mind, body and spirit. My belief is that we need to stay connected. Everything we do as Indian people, there isn’t a ceremony out there that doesn’t have some kind of song connected to it. Even though this isn’t ceremonial music it still keeps people connected in some way.”

He says that all have something to share, whether it’s one’s voice, song or path. He encourages this wherever his group travels, “Find what it is that connects us, what you have to share.”

Steeped in these ways of respect, the singers carry this with them to their performances. Every performance is opened with an older Round dance song Nakoa originally learned from his cousin called, “Prayer Song.”

“It’s on the Brothers CD. It’s an opening song in our language,” he said, adding that his Powwow Drum, Black Bull Jr. is also still active, but the Round dance songs have kept him preoccupied and have “kinda taken over.”

“A lot of our ways were lost, but now they’re coming back,” Heavy Runner added. “We’re helping not just to bring it back, but to help understand it.”


All four Nakoa Heavy Runner CD titles: “Dance For Me”, “Journey” and “Brothers”, “Indian Summer” (featuring Josh and Joel Fish) are available at Prairie Edge Trading Post & Art Gallery in Rapid City for $15.00 retail plus tax.

June 26, 2012

Molly Murphy Mixed message: Beading a multi-colored palate

For me it feels like my skills belong to my community,” she said. “I feel like I have that obligation – to care-take the skill itself and to make these beautiful things for my community.” 


Molly Murphy

Mixed message: Beading a multi-colored palate


“Consumption” by Molly Murphy. Photo courtesy of the artist

By Abena Songbird

(for Native Legacy Magazine Vol. 2 Issue 3 – Summer 2009)

MISSOULA, MT- Molly Murphy, 31, a mixed-blood descendant of the Oglala, Lakota, is one of the premier contemporary beadworkers to emerge from the Great Plains region.

Though her maternal lineage is Lakota, since childhood Murphy was raised by her mother in the Salish country of Missoula, Montana and on the Flathead Reservation.

“A lot of my culture and how I was raised is more Salish,” she notes. Her mother, Laurel Tynes, an Oglala Lakota, was adopted as an infant and raised in Great Falls by non-Native parents.

From the Standing Bear and Usher families of both Pine Ridge and Rosebud, Murphy’s mother has maintained contact with her birth parents since the age of 28. Tynes later became close to the Little Shell Band of Cree.

Murphy’s dad’s family is Irish Catholic from Helena, Montana. Knowing him only vaguely, she became close to her paternal grandmother, great-grandmother and aunts. Her father and all of his brothers are dead – victims to the scourge of alcohol.

“It’s pretty much just women left,” Murphy said. “In many ways there are many parallels from an Irish background to a Native background. It’s not a very surprising story on either side of my family.”

Montana has a large mixed-blood population, some of who are part-Irish, according to Murphy.

“It’s a unique reality in Montana; people are part-white, people are from multiple tribes – there are a lot of combinations.”

Murphy hasn’t yet met all of her extended family, yet feels pulled at times to return to South Dakota for that reason.

Early influences

“I have family built here, it doesn’t have to be just about lineage,” she added. This rich “family” includes ties her mother built in college to a Salish woman, Arlene Savage. In the summers they would camp at the tribally hosted Salish Culture Camp in the Montana Mountains. There they would live together. Savage’s mother, Ethel Buchane became a strong mentor to Murphy and her mother.

“She just took us in and adopted us as family – a powerful influence,” she said, “a woman who had suffered tuberculosis as a young woman severely limiting her physical capabilities.”

“She became so central to a really large extended and adopted family,” Murphy said, adding that the early beadwork both she and her mother were doing is patterned after this strong female legacy.

Murphy began to bead at the age of seven taught by her first teacher – her mother who’d learned her skills from older Cree women that volunteered in the Head Start programs. Another major influence on the women’s art was the work of her mother’s friend, Blackfeet bead worker Jackie Larson Bread

By the age of 13, Murphy was deep into the passion: making her own fully-beaded Powwow outfits patterned after her Lakota heritage using photos of her great-grandmother in early dresses of the 1920’s.

True to these roots, Murphy not only weaves rich floral patterns in contemporary style, and bold geometric patterns, she also incorporates her Irish blood into her beadwork, weaving in Celtic border knot work designs.

“I think in a lot of tribal cultures there are obvious similarities,” she said, “The use of circles, triangles and spirals; patterns cross each other and come back from one tribe to another to another.”


Murphy, Oglala Lakota descendant, was raised in Montana

Insanity Beads

“I was taught that if you weren’t using size 13 cut beads you weren’t really a bead worker,” she laughs. “I’ve learned to relax that a bit.” The women she learned from were strict, she said, proud of their tightly threaded uniform beadwork. Using larger beads was considered lazy, and those people really doing quality beadwork became scarce as Murphy grew older.

“For me it feels like my skills belong to my community,” she said. “I have that obligation – to care-take the skill itself and to make these beautiful things for my community.”

Bead working is a highly respected tradition, Murphy said.

“People need objects from their material culture,” Murphy stated. “I was taught as a bead worker that if someone comes to you in the community and formally asks for something – someone needs baby moccasins for example – I have an obligation to do that.”

“Our community needs those objects as a way to remember what we do and what those symbols mean,” she adds. “I feel I am a resource in that way for my community.”

This sense of responsibility should carry weight she says, similar to being asked to be a godparent or perform a ceremony and should not be subject to monetary value.  Carrying these traditional Lakota and Salish designs and skills is a cherished role for Murphy.

Murphy estimates there are only 20 to 30 contemporary beadwork artists currently exhibiting in the country.

“I know a lot of Salish women in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s that do fabulous traditional beadwork,” she said, “but I’ve noticed in my age group there’s almost no-one.”

This gap due in large part to the time investment the art requires, is threatening the traditional art’s survival. There is no store to go to for professional bead working, she reminded.  “There’s no substitute.  You can’t study up real quick to learn these basic stitches,” Murphy said. “It’s more a labor of love requiring hours every week – doing it constantly.”


A style emerges

Murphy, a graduate of Hellgate High School in Missoula at the age of 16, ended up on the University of Montana, Missoula (UM) campus pursuing pre-med through a National Indian Health minority grant.

                “Finishing my freshman year at college at age 17, I was burnt out on school,” she said, adding she was also disillusioned with biomedical science and dropped out.  “What I thought was pure science, very altruistic that was going to help people and benefit my whole community, I discovered was the pharmaceutical companies benefiting,” she noted.

Murphy then “ran away” from school, taking a variety of odd jobs until she could return five years later to find a profession that might be “ethical”.

Returning to the UM, she discovered art.

At the end of Murphy’s junior year, she began experimenting in abstract imagery, receiving a poor reception from the campus art department.  A socio-political community consciousness had begun seeping into her work.  “I was told to stop doing it and decided that if something made people so uncomfortable that they didn’t want to see it, I was going to force the issue,” stated Murphy.

“I was trying to paint like a white person from New York and what did I know about that,” she adds. “That didn’t have anything to do with where I was from. I didn’t know or had never seen anyone make a painting. What I did know was beadwork, hide tanning, parfleche, powwow outfits and dancing.”

Being in the sculpture department of the college, Murphy felt it was a natural progression to three-dimensional beadwork.  For her senior thesis she decided to design boxes that combined bead work with traditional parfleche painting.  “I make these beaded sculptures that were still useful,” she explains, “and used materials from the early reservation period — wool, ribbons and trade cloth — as metaphor for being a mixed blood from a mixed background”.


“Six horses courting blanket” close-up of piece by Molly Murphy. Photo, courtesy of the artist

Counting Coup with Indian Humor

“I don’t use pure traditional items,” Murphy said. “I don’t try to ever go back to the 1750’s because I don’t know that.  That’s not who I am or where I come from.  I don’t want to make some type of replication.  I want to make something current.”

Her pieces are often iconoclastic: ironic and funny.  “I really like going out and stealing symbols,” Murphy said of the signs she uses of Western culture. “I call it reverse appropriation.”

                Her one-woman show last May at the Missoula Art Museum’s Lynda M. Frost Gallery focused on the thread between athleticism and obesity.  She displayed  XXX large t-shirts beaded down the front and arms in traditional war shirt patterns (“Tribal Size Me”) and a series of three dimensional maps.  On another piece she mapped Missoula and Pine Ridge’s relative location using latitude and longitude lines, rivers, and made a map that “made no sense”.

“It was a map that if I used only white information, wouldn’t get me home,” Murphy said. Her intent was to bead a type of reliquary (a symbolic vessel holding an abstract key, such as those used by the Catholic Church) meant to be a mental link.

The show also contained many smaller pieces: tulip purses (three-sided reticules or sculptural Victorian purses) and Murphy’s boxes. She used mostly Japanese 15 size beads and in her contour floral beadwork different sized beads added texture.  “On some pieces I just have to use 11s,” she added. “There’s just no way around it.”

Drawing from her scientific background, Murphy beaded the molecular structure of DNA in her tapestry “Molecular to Stellar”.  “I wanted it to be a gentler, emotional piece – not political in any sense,” she said.

Her moccasin border patterns merge and melt one into another becoming the double helix.  “It’s a beautiful shape.  There’s a lot about who we are encoded there but also our personal patterns are woven in.”

She shows an amazing gift to draw; illustrating her patterns of animals and people on both purses and large blankets that show scale.   “College taught me a lot about composition and problem solving,” Murphy explains of her gifts. “A lot of my pieces are technically challenging – working with beads and fabric so they hang correctly.  Comparatively, painting canvas seems easy.”

: “Past is Prologue” Molly Murphy’s Salish-style Cradleboard won prestigious “Best of Show” 2009 Heard Museum Fair and Market in March.

.               Of her 3D boxes — a spin on parfleche rawhide envelopes — she said, “I was really devoted to the idea of making something useful – something that couldn’t collapse the way parfleche does…  It was the first thing I did professionally and felt it was a beautiful solution,” she said of this marriage between functionality and sculpted design.  “I still make the boxes constantly.”

“Consumption” is one of her most emotional pieces: a fully beaded sculptural box that has a microscopic view of the tuberculosis bacteria on the lid.  Of the four vertical sides, two geometrically beaded sides represent her biological great-grandmother who had the disease.  The other two feature beaded florals, representing her adopted Salish grandmother who also had TB.  Dangling crystals hanging in the interior “basically drip blood.”

“When Native women got TB the impact it had on their families was still being felt many generations later,” Murphy said. “Families were taken apart and kids were put into other families.”

“That was the hardest piece I’ve ever had to sell,” Murphy said.  It went to a collector who grew up near a TB clinic in Arkansas and had a personal connection to the piece.   She felt he would really treasure and understand it.


Supporting herself through her art

: “Molecular to Stellar” beautifully weaves the DNA double helix pattern in beadwork. Photo courtesy of the artist

Murphy lets gallery owners take into consideration their market and their clientele but sets her own prices.  Her works garners anywhere from $300 – $5,000 and up.

“I am starting to get the place where I am paid for my ideas in addition to my hourly labor,” she said.  “I feel I am finally winning. Not that I object to do something I love for $10 an hour. Montana’s a poor enough state to where that still felt like a pretty major accomplishment.”

Her husband, Ben Murphy, a ‘white boy from Indiana’ is a firefighter on a Hotshot crew and their daughter, Anastasia, is 7 years old. He is a staunch supporter of her work.

“I never thought I’d end up marrying a white guy that would end up learning about and loving beadwork so much,” she says. He also helps her with archiving and logistics and is a good sounding board for some of her more “outlandish” creative ventures.

Supporting herself solely from her art is a growing reality.  “This year I am going to make a living wage. Up until now I’ve been really lucky that my husband had a good firefighting job,” she laughs. “It’s kept our heads above water.”

Up until last year Murphy had to balance her art with the duties of parenting.  She wanted her daughter home “in the yard getting dirty and watching her mom bead and work in her garden growing food.” Anastasia is now in second grade, making Murphy’s life as a full-time artist more feasible.


From traditional beading to Murphy’s contemporary style:

Nervous about receiving criticism from her Native community, Murphy has been pleasantly surprised. At the annual Heard Museum show in Phoenix, Murphy gets a chance to meet Indian people from all over and hear their critiques.  “Using beadwork to be critical of my Native community felt like crossing the line but I wanted to do it anyway…For me to use beadwork to say we have a problem with obesity, we have a problem with loss, with racism, when I was taught that beadwork was to always be positive…  I felt I crossed the line with the (“Tribal Size Me”) t-shirts.  Maybe not too far…in a way it was subtle criticism but the response has been incredibly positive.”

Seeing elders come who have watched her work since the age of 11, Murphy was hungry for their words.  “Probably what meant the most to me was when Corky Claremont, the art professor at Salish Kootenai  Community College, helped me navigate where these two communities come together: the art community and the native community.  He made a point of coming to the opening of my show, giving me a hug and telling me, ‘good work.’  He is known as a man of few words.  He said, ‘This is a really good show.’”

Murphy recently finished a Salish-style cradle board which won the Heard’s prestigious 2009 “Best of Show.” Like many of her pieces it is both functional and practical with hidden compartments in the top beaded part that hold all the documents for the baby: birth certificate, tribal enrollment card, hospital bracelet.


Future Aspirations:

Contemporary bead worker Molly Murphy of Missoula, MT. teaching a Masters Class at the Philbrook Museum, May 23, 2009. Photos courtesy of Philbrook Museum

“I would like to be able to give back,” said Murphy.  “I have running vehicles, I have my own house and I have everything I need.  If I don’t do something that’s seen by Native people I go a little crazy.

Many times she prioritizes by saying no to some items that come for profit to give back pieces to her community.  “I have to make my living but I am not a very material person,” she adds. “I am pretty frugal”.

Her largest concern is that enough Indian people see her work.  This speaks to the economics of who buys her art — often exclusive private collectors and galleries.   “Most Native people can’t afford my work,” she says. “I couldn’t afford my work. It goes to markets, exhibits and shows that have a primarily white audience.”

Murphy is exited to have a show catering to Indian people.  “It’s about cultural self-esteem.  I don’t want all the things in our community to be all about mortality rates.  Indian people need to keep seeing that you can be professional and still be Native – how to bridge that without leaving the community”.

Murphy wants do what she can to continue support the longevity of bead working; to sustain this viable, cultural art.  “I’m hoping with the community center where I have my studio, I can begin to host beadwork nights for women who need space and time to work on outfits or pieces for their family.  Sometimes home is too confusing and cluttered.  It’s hard to make time for that.”   A former powwow princess, she also recently made three crowns for the UM student Kyi-Yo powwow and donated them to the club – traveling crowns that the girls would take with them and bring back each year.

Powwow Princess Crown for Missoula’s Kyi-Yo Powwow by Molly Murphy. Photo courtesy of the artist

Following Traditional Cycles/Seasons:

Murphy rents studio space at The Zootown Arts Community Center in Missoula.  Until recently, she worked at home which she says was both “really great and difficult”.  Through college she’d been able to stay at home with her daughter and create her art.          She enjoys the challenge of staying focused in this new setting.

“I try to bead 40 – 45 hours a week in the winter time,” she said.  The rest of her work time is devoted to bookkeeping, writing, client information, contracts, research, drawing and ordering supplies.

Murphy gardens fairly “furiously” putting up jams, and pickles; lots of fruit and every summer the family goes berrying.  “I want to keep doing those things that have something to do with the culture I come from,” she explains. “I don’t want to just spend time earning a wage and not be able to do for myself anymore because I have no time…What’s the point of having money if I can’t go berry picking or tool around with my mom on the rez this summer and go chokecherry picking”.

She teaches kids, but not until they approach her.  “I certainly want to teach my daughter but I’m not going to push it,” Murphy adds. Anastasia has been able to pick up beads with the needle from age three.   “I think she’ll do it.  I certainly do it much differently from my mom.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she goes in another direction as well,” Murphy said. “She may never want to do this as a profession but I certainly hope she learns how to do these patterns and the more traditional pieces.”

To encourage her daughter she makes her a little gift of beadwork every year.


Ancestral connections

Murphy said she notices a presence of her ancestors when she works.  “They come through my hands and my materials.  I really had that feeling when I use vintage beads,” she said.

“From my dad’s side of the family I inherited my great-grandmother’s yardstick.  She was a seamstress and had this beautiful old hardwood yardstick with brass.  It is completely covered in her writing where she would mark her different projects.” Murphy added that it was probably the same measuring stick she had since the 1930’s.

From her mother’s adopted side of her family she also inherited her grandmother’s sewing machine with all the old supplies from the 1950’s. She uses them all.  “I really do feel that the (Lakota bead) patterns that come from my great-grandmother’s dress are pretty powerful.”


SIDE BAR: Molly Murphy received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University or Montana in 2004. Her “Past is Prologue” cradleboard piece won the prestigious “Best of Show” at the Heard Museum in March 2009. Murphy was voted “Best New Artist of the Year” by her peers at the Northern Plains Tribal Arts Show and Market in 2003. She was included in the “Changing Hands 2: Art Without Reservation” exhibit at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City, which traveled the country beginning in 2004. Murphy’s work is represented by two exclusively American Indian galleries: the “Ancient Nations Gallery” in Salt Lake City” and the “Home and Away” gallery in Kennebunkport, Maine.

To view further samples of her work please visit her website:



June 17, 2012

A living treasure: Christine Weston Prairie Chicken

A living treasure: Christine Weston Prairie Chicken
By Abena Songbird
Journal Staff Writer

Christine Prairie Chicken, 94 proudly sits in the home she owns in Rapid City, surrounded by photos of her many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She is the second oldest living member of the Santee Sioux tribe and the oldest living Dakota direct lineal descendant in the Minnesota Mdewakanton Dakota Oyate Litigation Wolfchild, (May 20, 1886).

RAPID CITY — Christine Weston Prairie Chicken, recently celebrated her 94 birthday in Rapid City at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church on Haines Ave. surrounded by her large and loving family.
Born Nov. 10, 1912 in Flandreau, South Dakota, she is Santee Sioux on both sides of the family; her grandfather, Daniel Weston, was the first homesteader in Flandreau.

A proud lineage
Her father, Samuel K. Weston was the first Presbyterian Minister at Pine Ridge. Her mother was Martha Redwing or “Wanahca Waste Win” (Pretty Flower), her Dakota name, which was passed down to Christine, who in turn passed the name down to another generation – her granddaughter. Her grandfather, Daniel Weston’s wife, was Julie Weston, whose father was white. His father was also Daniel Weston “Kuiyanhiyaye” (Saw You Chasing) and her father Samuel’s mother was Julia Culbertson , “Tate Hnakewin,” (Seated Wind Woman).
Her mother’s father was John W. Redwing, “Anpetukatedan” (Hot Day) and her mother’s mother was Elizabeth Columbus, “Tawizicewakanwin” (Yellow Holy Woman). Christine’s grandmother Elizabeth’s sister was Lucy Ta’opi, (Wounded) a medicine woman.
Her mother’s mother’s father and mother were: William Columbus (Tunkanahuamani) Grandpa Walking and Jane or Jennie. William and Jane Columbus are on the 1886 Minnesota Mdewakanton Sioux Census. Her mother’s father’s parents were “Manpiyacoka” (Middle of the Sky) and “Tuhmagawin” (That Flies).
Christine is the oldest living lineal descendant of William Columbus, a direct lineage in the Minnesota Mdewakanton Dakota Oyate Litigation Wolfchild, (May 20, 1886) which she was recently honored for in May in Minneapolis. This Indian trust case has been brought by over 4,000 individuals claiming descent from those persons who were members of the Mdewakanton band of Sioux Indians and who assisted settlers in Minnesota during the “1862 Sioux Outbreak” of hostilities (the “loyal Mdewakanton”).
Seeing five generations, she has six great-great grandchildren, and “lots of grandchildren” she said.

“Generations of Dakota Santee Oyate” Christine Weston Prairie Chicken’s family: Jane, wife of William Columbus, Christine Prairie Chicken’s mother’s mother’s mother, whom she traces as a direct lineal descendant in the Minnesota Mdewakanton Dakota Oyate Litigation Wolfchild, (May 20, 1886).

The reservation years
Prairie Chicken recalled how her parents used to travel by ox wagon from Flandreau to Pine Ridge in those early years – a considerable trip that would take a week or more – stopping to visit family along the way.
She remember the days before telephone, telegraph, when many families would communicate with a looking glass – the reflection cast in the sun to distant hillsides to let families know you were home. She was the youngest in a family of seven: with four brothers and two sisters.
“The winters were more severe then,” she said. Her brother Harry died at 18 of tuberculosis when attending school in Flandreau. Her brother Andrew, 7 died of the measles. In the days before embalming, when they used ice, they had to transport her brother all the way to Flandreau for burial.
Her sister’s Etta and Bessy both died of cancer; however her brothers Gilbert and Rueban lived to have older children and later passed away on the reservation. She is only remaining living member of her family, “They are all gone now,” she said.
She remembers when several men came from New York, starting up different churches bought up 40 acres on the reservation in Pine Ridge. They “thought the People were too wild,” she said, and they wanted young couples to come to the reservation and “teach them about God,” she said. There were three initial families they brought down, hers was one.
They came from Flandreau and Sisseton by wagon to Pine Ridge where they built a Presbyterian Church and moved her father, then minister, and family in White River, into a log house they provided.
“It had a dirt floor and roof. That’s where my family lived – it had no bed or nothing, just a stove. We slept on the floor,” she said. She said her grandmother’s sister used to use traditional herbs, roots and medicines to heal her and her siblings when they were sick. She still remembers the bitterroot she used for colds. She would make teas for them to drink. She also learned how to make much of the traditional foods she still cooks today from her mother and grandmother.
Prairie Chicken attended Pine Ridge Boarding School through eighth grade.
“When I went to school there, Indian people that were underweight, which she was, were quick to be misdiagnosed by a doctor. They were told, by this one physician, that they had tuberculosis.
“He made a big fool out of himself,” she said and never went back to school. “I think then a lot of people didn’t know any better.”
In 1932, Prairie Chicken, 20 married Solomon Prairie Chicken, Oglala then 25 years old. After an initial stay with his parents, which she “didn’t care for” she moved back with her family.

John Redwing & Elizabeth Columbus, Prairie Chicken’s mother’s father and mother.

“When they told my folks to go around and preach the gospel, we were used to a four bedroom home but his folks lived in a log cabin with one bedroom,” she said.
She told her husband, “You never prepared a home for me and my little boy,’ she left with her folks for two weeks, saying, ‘Even if I have to live in a tent I don’t mind, I’d rather than live

Christine Weston Prairie Chicken’s Parents: Daniel Weston and Martha Redwing Weston “looking dapper” in a photo taken in Gordon, Nebraska

Her husband followed after Prairie Chicken when she moved with her folks to the reservation in Allen. There was little work for her husband at that time but building recreation for $5.00 a week in Oglala and Allen, but he provided a home for her. They lived in a tent for two years but they put a bed in it. He would get up and build a fire to get them through the cold winter.
Prairie Chicken said she and her husband used to travel to Denver to pick beets, do migrant work to feed themselves and their then infant son. They were furnished with small, stark houses with a stove but no beds.

Rapid City in the early years
Prairie Chicken first moved to Rapid City with her husband in the early ‘50’s she said from Allen, South Dakota, her youngest son was a year old.
“It was just a bunch of shacks with outhouses then,’ she said. They used to move houses from Igloo, South Dakota on dirt roads that weren’t fixed “too good” she said.
She initially worked at The Bright Spot, a restaurant still located across from the Alex Johnson. She washed dishes and worked as supervisor in their ballroom restaurant. She worked banquets and evening dances.
Her husband began working as a chauffer for the Sioux San nurse’s training while she garnered a job at
Ellsworth Air Force Base, first in the Laundry Services, she eventually moved up to a supervisory position at Ellsworth in the Officer’s Club, Dining Room Food Services.
Prairie Chicken retired in 1972 after more than 22 years of service, but many still remember her fondly by her nickname, “Miss P.C.”
She had six children with Solomon, five boys and one girl: Kenneth Stephen Prairie Chicken, Eleneta Veree (Klicknee) Prairie Chicken, Melbert Dean Prairie Chicken, Lonnie Curtis, Darnell Woodrow and Solomon Larry Prairie Chicken, her youngest who carries his father’s name.
In 1966, her husband, working for the government Nurse’s training; on the tip of a white male co-worker, bought a house on Lemmon Ave. in Rapid City, the house where she currently lives. The previous owners couldn’t pay the mortgage and moved out.
They took it over, paying only $25.00 total for the house, and moved in. “I liked it, we never owned a decent house before,” she said. They then had to pay $40.00 in property taxes monthly – more than the cost of their home.
Working at Sioux San Hospital for over sixteen years, her husband, Solomon, was well-known and respected. In 1970, Solomon, passed on.
Though she felt a great absence with his passing, she has a full and active life surrounded by family.
“She now owns her own house, and still drives her own care,” said daughter-in-law, Marilyn Prairie Chicken, Sicangu, Marilyn, who is married to Christine’s youngest son, has been instrumental in encouraging Christine to document her history, the stories and proud lineage of her family,
“I came from humble beginnings,” Prairie Chicken said, but these days on a fixed income, but these days she is happy she can afford to remodel her bathroom. “I don’t have a lot of money to do these things but I have some,” she said. Always good at managing money, Prairie Chicken was one of the first customers at Rapid City Credit Union, and now shows others how to track their accounts.
Christine is also a frequent traveler, dispelling the myth that age has slowed her down.
With her “frequent flyer status,” two years ago she flew to visit a son in Wasilla, Alaska. She has also traveled to Anchorage, Alaska and this year she visited Buffalo, New York where she has a granddaughter.
“There’s lots of Indians there too,” she said. In summer she has traveled with her son and daughter-in-law to San Diego, Los Angeles, even Mexico “to eat lobster” she said.
Last Fall she traveled to Washington, D.C. with her daughter-in-law, Marilyn, to celebrate the Grand Opening of the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian.
In September of this year she was one of the honored elders to also travel to D.C. for the World Peace and Prayer Day, which included indigenous spiritual leaders, elders and a multi-cultural inter-denominational prayer services from spiritual leaders around the world. The all converged on the grounds of the Washington Monument to hold a prayer vigil and medication for world peace.
Christine is well-known by defendants in the Wolfchild litigation but she also recently approached Cobell class action lawsuit attorney, Keith Harper, in regards to a case of land mismanagement on her deceased husband’s behalf.
Holding onto papers for over fifty years (she had the foresight, along with her husband, to notarize and sign the papers back in the ‘50s) which recorded a blatant incident where a white man openly swindled her husband out of land, Prairie Chicken presented the documents to Harper.
After December 15, 2006 she should get a decision on this theft of their land. She also stands to have much to gain from the Wolfchild litigation, if it is “ever settled” she said. “I have several irons in the fire,” she said adding that she has a large tract of land on the Pine Ridge. “Wanblee school sits on part of my land,” she said.
Barbara Feezor Buttes, who works for the Clearinghouse for Genealogical Information on the Wolfchild litigation with Mohrman & Kaardal, a Minneapolis law firm, had Prairie Chicken, as oldest living descendant, come to Minnesota as their honored guest.
Buttes, a close friend, presented her with a plaque which reads: “The Minnesota Mdewakanton Oyate presents this Certificate of Recognition on this 20th day of May 2006, to our esteemed elder, Christine Prairie Chicken, born November 10, 1912.

Deeply religious, she believes in healing ways
Following in her minister father’s footsteps, she is a loyal member of the St. Mathews Episcopal Church, still attending their annual convocations.
Prairie Chicken said she notices people “slacking” when it comes to taking little ones to church. “Those in school today don’t know who God is,” she said. She also has sons who practice ceremonial ways and she recently attended her son Lonnie’s Sun Dance, in support. Respecting the traditional ways; she remains a steadfast member of her church, where her sons Melbert, is a Catechist, and Larry, is a Lay Reader.
A deeply religious woman with a close family and solid work ethic, Prairie Chicken also credits sobriety for having a healing impact on herself and her whole family.
She began attending Al-Anon meetings after her husband died. “Al-Anon helped my whole family, my boys were drinking and almost died,” she said adding that now one of her sons has been sober 28 years.
She herself never drank, but recently attended an Al-Anon retreat in Placerville with Sunday services and communion recently which she felt “really was healing.”
Her son Darryl, “sobered up” to move back and take care of her, she said. He finished college and now works in an Optician’s office in Rapid City. He used to work as a counselor on the reservation.
“He does all the cleaning” she said. She also owns two dogs, Buffy and Rosco, both a “bulldog mix,” and keeps an account to pay for all their shots, or if they get sick at the Vets.
As second oldest member of the Santee tribe, {the oldest is Lillian Beane, who she said moved back to Flandreau} Christine said, she tries to share in her memories of her family ways and has given demonstrations on traditional foods.
“We knew all the parts of the buffalo and how it was used,” she said. She still makes it at home, drying it in a box her son Darryl made her. She offered some of her wasna during the interview and still bakes her own bread.
Every Christmas she will have her whole family over and cook a traditional dinner of bapa stew (thinly shaved buffalo or beef) with timsila (wild turnip) and dried corn, wojapi, and her homemade fry bread.
She is looking forward to the graduation of her son Larry’s daughter, Christina, who carries her Dakota name, “Wanarcha Waste Win” (Pretty Flower). Christina goes to college in Colorado Springs and has one year to go she said. “I am really proud of her and all my grandchildren, who are healthy and thriving.”
Her message to others in the community, ‘I never thought I’d live this long. Take good care of your families; life is different now,” she said.

Oglala spiritual leader, educator, Wilmer Mesteth shares history, traditional songs

Oglala Lakota spiritual leader, educator, Wilmer Mesteth(Wanapeye Najica) shares history, traditional songs
A beautiful history, a beautiful country, a beautiful people

By Abena Songbird

Dakota Lakota Journal Staff

At the foot of Crazy Horse, Wilmer “Stampede” Mesteth, Oglala spiritual leader, gave his presentation: Historical Music & History of the Wakpa Waste Tiospaye (Good River People). Mesteth, (Wanapeye Najica) is a direct descendent of Chief Red Shirt. (all photos by Abena Songbird)

CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL ? Oglala spiritual leader, Wilmer “Stampede” Mesteth gave a generous presentation to an appreciative crowd of foreign tourists and members of the local community Thursday, July 5, at Crazy Horse Memorial.
Mesteth, Wanapeye Najica, (Stampede) born in 1957 at Silver Lake, South Dakota, is a direct descendent of Chief Red Shirt, who fought in the Battle of Little Big Horn. He spoke of the history of the Wakpa Waste Tiospaye (Good River People) who settled in 1879 along the Cheyenne River in what is the northwestern corner of the Pine Ridge Reservation at Red Shirt Table.
“My Indian name was passed down over six generations through my family,” said Mesteth. “I also have a grandson who now carries the name Stampede. My ancestors were great chiefs like Chief Red Shirt. My father retained many songs, and stories that came from that battle (Little Big Horn).”
Welcoming the tourists to the “sacred Black Hills” Mesteth said, “According to 1868 Treaty, this land belongs to the Oglala Lakota people. We still keep that in our hearts.”
As a professor of Lakota history, art, ethno botany, culture, thought and philosophy at the Oglala Lakota College, Mesteth is also a well known artist and carrier of these old, traditional society songs, some of which he shared last Thursday evening.
Crazy Horse education director, Minnicoujou author and historian, Donovin Sprague in his introduction of Mesteth said he carries with him a “treasure,” his knowledge also of the Lakota language; kept alive in his teachings and now on his new CD: “Lakota are Charging,” a collection of Victory Songs from the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Explaining all the bands of Oceti Sakowin, he said, “In my band, we have 60,000 people who are members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. I’m probably related to 2/3s of them.”
Asking everyone to stand, Mesteth opened his presentation entitled: Music and History of the Wakpa Waste Tiospaye appropriately enough with a song for Tashunka Witco, (Crazy Horse) whose effigy in rock towered above him in the background.
He explained to the crowd that his great-grandfather Joseph High Eagle and some elders (Henry Standing Bear) approached sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, and blessed the ground for him to carve the image of “a great leader who once lived among us.”
Giving the song’s meaning, Mesteth said it told of the time of Crazy Horse’s surrender at Ft. Robinson in the spring of 1877. In the song he follows his journey along the east side of the Black Hills, to Red Shirt Table, came down from Bear Butte sat and prayed along the Rapid Creek, then the Cheyenne River and White River to Ft. Robinson. Ten miles outside of Ft. Robinson, 1,500 of his people followed along behind him singing that same song.
“He was a proud, great chief who fought to the utmost of his ability in the Red Cloud’s War: Canku Wakan Akicitay, the Holy Road War,” Mesteth said, adding, “He fought in those battles: The Battle of Kills One Hundred and Fetterman’s Fight. The greatest battles were Rosebud and the Little Big Horn.”
“They were fighting for this beautiful country you’re looking upon here today,” he said. “For a way of life for our people. They were fighting for our buffalo herd…for men, women and children…”
“That’s who the leader Crazy Horse was: honored by many people,” Mesteth told those assembled. “Today we still speak his name, still tell his stories. Today this mountain is carved in his image so we’ll never forget him,” he said, adding that Lakota medicine people told the people that Crazy Horse was going to “come back in stone.”
He also spoke of Chief’s Red Shirt, Red Cloud and Sitting Bull, saying that all the bands had great leaders, autonomous societies and social networks of great morals and manners.
“We’re a good people, kind, and gentle and wise, were the elders. The young people listened to the elders and upheld our way of life, our beliefs” he said. “Our people were very religious people. To this day we hang onto our ceremonies; the Sundance, Vision Qwest and the Sweat Lodge. We still have our God given Lakota language, a Lakota culture that’s still alive and up-to- par with mainstream society.”


Mesteth also spoke of the sacred areas in the Black Hills where elders come, and where he brings young people and his students to learn of the Lakota “medicines” that grow there, used for healing: to the north, Mato Paha, or Bear Butte, and in the Needles area: Epahaska, or Harney Peak, the “Highest Peak” or “Perch of the Thunder Beings” and Mayeska, or “Bald Mountain” to the West, many Buttes that are sacred, as well as rivers and streams: Mni Luza, Rapid Creek, Wakpa Waste, Big River, or Missouri, the Cheyenne River, Wakpa Tanka, and Waschi Wakpa, or South Platte, areas where Native people still bring offerings and pray “for our existence of life and to thank the Creator for giving us life.”
“In the Springtime I bring my children here to see the buffalo calving,” he said.
Mesteth explained that these places were known in memory, as are the stories that took place there.
Speaking of the Wind Cave site as the emergence place of Lakota people, he also said it was in the center of an ancient buffalo migration route, Tatanka Ta Hochoka, where millions passed from the Southern Plains, “So massive they could walk on the top of their hump.”
“We know our country quite well, the history that took place here. It’s a beautiful history, a beautiful country, a beautiful people, the Lakota people,” Mesteth stated, before singing three versions of the “Song of Chiefs.”
The first was a song sung by Chief Red Cloud’s Headsman, over his signing of the 1868 Treaty: Great Chief Red Cloud why do you want me to be a white man, sign the treaty and move onto the reservation; Red Cloud you told us to hang onto our ways, always be Lakota; and finally – after a disheartened Red Cloud, taken and placed under guard at Ft. Robinson: Red Cloud take courage, there’s nothing you can do. Only the earth lasts forever…

Oglala spiritual leader Wilmer Mesteth, opened his presentation with some Brave Heart Society songs for Tashunka Witco, Crazy Horse, July 5, at Crazy Horse Memorial.

Mesteth also shared a song of Chief Sitting Bull, and two Victory Songs of the June 25, 1876 Little Big Horn Battle: My friend Longhair (Custer) what is it you search for? You come among our country searching for our people, our camp… so now there you lie in such a way; and, Where does Custer lie? He is over here.
He spoke of intertribal wars with the Pawnee, Omaha, Chippewa, Plains Cree, Arikara, Chippewa, Kiowa and of course, the Crow, saying it was great honor, act of bravery, a “sportsman-like” type of warfare to steal the enemy’s horses.
With hand drum, he sang a rousing Crow horse-stealing song: Crow Nation watch your horses, Keep a close eye on them, I am a horse thief…
Picking up the cedar flute, he shared several Lakota love songs, one his father wrote and recorded in the ‘40s to woo Mesteth’s mother, Rosalyn Red Shirt. His father , who had a big ranch over in Kyle, was from the Chief Little Wound band and married a Red Shirt, Rosalyn of the Wakpa Waste Band, many families that were part of that original Chief Red Shirt band who settled there with their allotment after the battle of Little Big Horn, close to the Badlands, in the northwestern corner of the Pine Ridge.
“My dad was coming through Red Shirt table on one of his cattle driving trips, he stopped in to visit with my grandfather, that’s where he met my mother…”he explained, adding that later on he brought him thirty head of cattle in dowry for his mother. “This song tells of when they met and when their love started.”
For thirty five years, as a spiritual leader, Mesteth has held his Sundance there at Red Shirt Table, “On top of that table is like on top of the world,” he said. “I pray for my people, still practice my traditional ways. That land is very special to me – I have many memories there of my grandparents,” he said, speaking of the great gardens they had along the Cheyenne River, and their chicken ranch.
“They were self-sufficient during the 1920’s and ‘30’s,” he added. Mesteth said they spoke there of many stories, such as the Battle of the Little Big Horn. “There’s a lot of history there in that Red Shirt community. I learned a lot of history there as a child, a lot of stories.”

Lois Putnam, 81, a teacher at the Loneman School for ten years, who knew Mesteth when he was teaching Lakota studies there, showed the crowd why he is also known as a prestigious Northern Plains artist by presenting him with a pencil drawing he did many years ago of a “Lakota Madonna.”

Mesteth said that at one time that Tiospaye was known “all about” for their progressiveness and self-sufficiency, then adding that during W.W. II was made by the government into a bombing gunnery range, giving the families a two-week ultimatum to leave, causing the displacement of many families… also part of Red Shirt Table history.
Speaking further of his family, members of the Wakpa Waste band of his mother he said, “The people that lived there, my uncle Mathew Two Bulls, was a great historian and singer. I looked up to him and learned many things, many songs,” he said, also adding his aunt, Nellie Two Bulls, who passed away this winter “Today they are no longer with us…it’s a great loss to our people,” he said. “They were our wisdomkeepers and we cherish them.”
Closing out the day the way it had begun, Mesteth sang a Chief Society Song, another Crazy Horse song, composed by Tashunka Witco’s mother on Sept. 5, 1877 at the time of his killing.
“She sang a song befitting a Chief, as they carried his body from Ft. Robinson to an unknown burial site,” he said: When you look upon the sacred Black Hills remember me, remember who I am. I was a defender for my people, for this land…never forget, I am Crazy Horse.

David Moses Bridges – The Trees Let Me Know

Editor’s note: This is part 1.of a 2 part series on First People’s Fund 2006 Community Spirit Award recipient David Moses Bridges, master birch bark canoe and basket maker.

The Trees let me know
Passamaquoddy master birch bark canoe and basket maker, David Moses Bridges
2006 First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Award Recipient

By Abena Songbird
Journal Staff Writer

RAPID CITY — David Moses Bridges, 44, is a Passamaquoddy master in an ancient ancestral tradition; the art of birch bark canoe building. He grew up on the Sipayik [Pleasant Point] Passamaquoddy Indian Reservation near Eastport Maine – the most easterly point in the United States.
The Passamaquoddy are part of the Wabanaki [people of the Dawnland] nation, a former confederacy of five; four of which are federally recognized Native American tribes: Abenaki, {non-status, state recognized – not federally recognized in the U.S. only in Canada], Penobscot, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and the Mi’kmaq, are spread across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, the Maritimes and Quebec.

In the blood
Bridges’ maternal great-grandfather, Sylvester Gabriel was born in 1886.
“My great-grandfather, Sylvester Gabriel, was one of the last of the old time makers from the old school,” said Bridges. He was already quite elderly when he knew him. As a young man his great grandfather was a hunter and fishing guide in the state of Maine. He lived with Bridges, his mom and dad, and his sister, when they were young.
Because his mother and father had to work, David’s grandfather was their care-giver.
“This was the days before day care – when the elders took care of the young ‘uns,” he said. ‘He was right there in the house, took care of us kids, made sure we had lunch.” Bridges used to read to him when he was learning how to read.
“One day he just said to me he was a birch bark canoe builder. That just mesmerized me. I was very young– six or seven at the time, and was reading him a book by E.B. White called, “Stuart Little” about a little mouse that had a birch bark canoe.
Bridges said right then and there they decided that was what they were going to do: build a canoe. .Knowing the age gap between them he said his grandfather probably already knew then they’d never get to it.
Gabriel passed away in 1972 when David was 10 years. Though he died before they ever had the opportunity to work on a canoe together, he left his grandson his tools: a crooked knife, draw knife, an awl, and a thirst for following this traditional hand craft. The seed was planted; ever since that day, David Moses Bridges wanted to make birch bark canoes.
“Grandfather told me a lot of the old stories,” said Bridges. “He was my best buddy. We took care of each other. You can learn an awful lot hanging out of the elders.”
Bridges’ grandparents first language was Passamaquoddy, right up to his mother’s generation, with the intervention of parochial schools and Catholic boarding schools – the Sisters of Mercy.
“I was born in 1962 – the first generation in the history of our family – it’s not my first language. I guess then the only way to make it was to try to be white. It was a dark time to be indigenous.”
His grandparents took annual basket selling trips all over New England: to places in Quebec, the Abenaki reserve of Odanak, and Connecticut, and places rich in summer communities such as Bar Harbor, Maine.
His great-great grandfather on his mother’s side, William Neptune was a traditional tribal chief. Bridges had two different hereditary leaders in his family. In 1851 the state mandated tribal elections, but Neptune was always considered the traditional chief.
“All of this is built into me, you know. Listening to my grandma’s stories and my great-grandfather’s stories,” said Bridges, who understands and speaks some Passamaquoddy-Maliseet.
As a boy, he spent summers on the reservation but, after high school, in his 20’s he traveled throughout the U.S. for more than a decade.
“I just wandered around and got that out of my system,” he said.

Birch Bark baskets by David Moses Bridges. Bridges’ baskets, aimed at collectors of Native American art, sell for $350 to $500 for a 4-inch square-bottomed berry basket, $400 to $700 for a basket the size of a coffee can, to as much as $3,500 for a foot-tall, ornately etched cylindrical storage basket. He signs each one “Tepit,” Passamaquoddy-Maliseet for David.

Back to the rez
Called back home to the reservation in 1992, Bridges apprenticed himself to his grandmother, Beatrice Soctomah, [Gabriel’s daughter] a master brown ash and sweetgrass basketmaker. At first she was reluctant to show him how to make the fancy baskets. “Men make birchbark baskets,” she said.
Around this time Bridges got his hands on the book, “Bark Canoes and Skinboats of the North American Indians,” a Smithsonian publication that chronicles canoe building styles and culture.
Studying it lead him to another book, “Uses of Birchbark in the Northeast,” an Abbey Museum publication of the ’40; reading this lead to Bridges’ revelation. He saw his family names in the book: the mark of Chief Neptune and the Neptune family.
His great grandfather was also a main contributor in this work. Gabriel was a hunting and fishing guide, who needed canoes to make a living as a young man.
“Most people who came up to northern Maine and needed a hunting and fishing guide and a canoe – they always sought out a Native individual who knew Maine and had a canoe,” said Bridges. “Even at that time he was sought out for his knowledge of birch bark, canoes and baskets,” he said. He was well versed in woodcraft.”
Growing up in the 1800s in the Passamaquoddy community, as part of the culture, it was quite common Bridges said to know the skill and craft of birch bark canoe making.

Becoming a builder of canoes
Bridges, though wanting to adopt this craft that ran in the family; had no one “in the flesh” still around to teach him. He studied the books but couldn’t read the line plans for boat making so he decided to go to school. At the age of 29 he enrolled in “The Boat School” of Eastport, Maine. There he learned to read three dimensional boat plans on a flat page.
From 1993 – 1995 Bridges, stayed in school for three years, until he was 31; becoming proficient in building western wooden boats. His son was born around that time; so he ran out to get a job. A single dad, he recalled being about the same age as his own son, 11-year-old Tobias Gabriel Francis, when his great-grandfather fascinated him with his tales about fashioning birch-bark canoes
A year into living in mid-coast Maine working in the active boatyards, Bridges met a man, Steve Cayard, a non-Native boat builder.
“He’s a wonderful man, full of knowledge,” he said, adding that they both mentored each other, learned about forest materials and “have been fast friends ever since.”
Apprenticing with Cayard, Bridges devoted all his spare time outside of work researching and gathering traditional boat making materials.
For three years he worked at the “The Boat School” doing the traditional western boat building; Cayard worked there with him.
Eventually he left the boatyard and made the leap, fulltime as a basket maker, and canoe maker with Cayard. They began doing programs together at The Boat School. Bridges would be assistant instructor under Cayard. The school was interested in and supported these traditional boat building classes. Together as a team they taught there for the next three years.
One day a conservation worker from the Smithsonian came by. He said they had an ancient Passamaquoddy canoe that needed to be repaired at the Museum.
After being in Bridges’ and Cayard’s class for a couple of weeks the Smithsonian instructors decided to hire them to come and repair their canoe.

Repairing an ancestral canoe
Bridges studied the canoe, and eventually determined it was built in the 1890’s, and grew very excited. He recognized the etching style immediately as belonging to Tomah Joseph, a Passamaquoddy canoe and basket maker widely respected and revered in Eastern tribal communities for his artistry in design. Here was an opportunity to hand repair an ancient canoe of his ancestor!
“He had an etching style that was unmistakable,” Bridges said. “History on birch bark is all about Tomah Joseph. Their was no mistaking his work.” He said the Smithsonian was thrilled to learn they had a Tomah Joseph canoe, identified by Bridges. Under their combined knowledge, he and Cayard repaired that canoe.
To confirm that it was a true Joseph canoe, they got hold of a canoe book put out by the Rhode Island Haffenreffer Museum called, “History on Birchbark” by Joan A. Lester, all about Tomah Joseph. They compared its contents to the etchings on the canoe they were repairing and saw the common themes he would use: camp scene, hunting scene, creatures from Wabanaki legend. ‘There they were. It was his work, there was no mistaking it. We were really honored.”
The Smithsonian was thrilled to have a genuine Tomah Joseph canoe and a contemporary Passamaquoddy canoe maker who could actually fix it!

Bridges with canoe (hands) Photo courtesy of Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, photographer

“It was an honor to be a part of that project. In 1999 we stabilized that canoe,” said Bridges. Of the many repairs he did to the canoe included: recording the hull forms; the shape of the canoe, took offsets of it, took out and repaired some of the structure of the canoe as it was starting to distort, took out failed lashings and repaired them, stabilized the planking frames.
Bridges said that in the early 1800’s no screws of nails were used in canoe building, only natural materials – paper-birch bark sewed over bentwood frames, cedar gunwales and battens, spruce root for lashings, pine sap or spruce gum for sealing; they later began using rattan chair caning – brown ash strips, like they used in basket making,
It was in 1860’s – 70’s that builders decided to simplify the process, as canoes were their main money-makers, and began using screws and nails, as was the case with the Tomah Joseph canoe
Every canoe Bridges builds however is made 100% traditionally, however. He uses traditional Wabanki hull forms, lashed with spruce root, also uses wooden pegs – no screws, glue or metal fasteners. The 500 hours of construction he might put in to make an 18’ canoe, doesn’t include the gathering time to get the bark, the spruce root – easily a 1400 hour job.

The sap is rising, scouting for bark
Bridges collects his own materials, he scouts all over Maine, New Hampshire, New Brunswick, Quebec – “anywhere in the southern fringe of the boreal forest that is close to me, where the trees are abundant,” said Bridges.
Maine, a heavily forested state – these days is suffering the plight of much of New England.
“There is a lot of clear cutting, due to the paper industry,” said Bridges. A microclimate affects the quality of the trees; the steeper the slope, the lower the quality he said.
“There is also a high forest acidity in Maine, high levels of acid in the soil naturally. “If there’s a lot of beech trees, the bark is going to be weak.” He said. At the higher altitudes, in the White Mountains, which Bridges calls the “tailpipe of America” along the rocky coast, trees are dying from the tops down from acid rain. “The trees are always being exposed to this.” He calls these trees “the canary of the coalmine” and though not an air specialist, he ventures they are a clear indicator that something has to change and something needs to be done.
Bridges said the birch, a “pioneer species’ the first to grow, along with spruce; as mature trees – 150 years old – are getting harder to find
He gathers his “winter bark” – the browner bark good for etching on, in April; those strips he uses for baskets and goes scouting for the “canoe trees” that will give him the side paneling for his canoes. Winter bark peels harder than summer bard, which “pops right off, letting itself go,” he said. Bridges cuts just underneath: about 1/8 inch for an entire layer of outer bark, or ½ inch for the inner bark – chestnut brown in color.
It has to be a large, straight tree. He looks for trees about 40 inches around for a 4 foot canoe. Bridges climbs high, 24 feet straight up the tree using rock climbing gear. He brings the bark down straight from the tree using a system of ropes and pulleys so he doesn’t have to fell the tree, which would mean carrying a chainsaw. The bark must be strong, 1/8 inch thick, a foot longer than the 18 or 19 foot canoe he’s building. Bridges carries a climbing kit small enough to fit in his small fanny pack.
“From March to mid June if you take the bark when the sap is rising, you’ll generate a second layer of bark,” said Bridges, always mindful of restoring and preserving the precious birch that gives him his canoes. Then he goes back in early June, and a layer of browner bark, good for his etching style is ready in that second layer.
Bridges uses tools such as a moose bone, split porcupine jaw, beaver tooth, or horseshoe-crab tail, etching designs in bark; a technique called “sgrafitto.”
On his museum quality canoes and baskets Bridges uses traditional Wabanaki “double curve” designs and animal motifs.

Fighting for land preservation and protection
Not finally recognized as a tribe until the Nixon era, in 1972, the Passamaquoddy had a government structure that dated back to the 1600’s. Samuel Champlain found them in 1604 – when the French “discovered” that part of the world.
“We had bounties on our heads from the English going back to 1755,” said Bridges. “All through history we were there, speaking the language, in that same place.”
This recent federal recognition enabled the tribe to get a health center, and freed up federal dollars to help build a school. At that time there was hardly electricity in most peoples homes said Bridges, which he calls the “eastern most ghetto” of the United States. “There’s a strong and beautiful presence to the Passamaquoddy people in Maine now,” he said. “We’re still here.”
Bridges said they just recently had “strong” tribal elections. Rick Doyle, in his mid-50s, was sworn in Sept. 30th, as tribal chairman. He said he is a “good guy” intent on supporting the political issues and struggles they have with land preservation.

Deforestation, environmental toxins – clear-cut
“The paper industry is after all the soft wood trees and birch is a hard wood tree – so those trees are in their way,” said Bridges. He said they also spray for hardwoods – have a “hard wood killer” of some sort. “They want to create a soft wood monoculture because soft wood makes paper – and paper means money to them.”
After a fire or a clearcut you’ll get a lot of birch bark coming up – a pioneer species. “They spray for those, which sucks because along with birch there are a lot of raspberries out there – you can’t eat them,” he said.
They are spraying these trees at the sapling stage, so finding mature trees is growing harder and harder.
“You have to go to places I haven’t hit for over a hundred years. The trees I’m using have to be at least 150 years old.” Canoes, made from one strip of bark – have to be from large straight trees.
He himself has worked fervently with the Maine Basket Alliance for years to preserve the gathering places; the trees and groves where they get all their basket and canoe materials. He has formed an alliance group called: “Nulankeyutmonen Nkihtahkomikumon” Alliance [We take care of the homelands]. They are currently lead plaintiffs in a Federal Case to preserve 100 acres of reservation land – right on the ocean bordering Canada – from the oil and gas industry which are eyeballing it for building a liquid natural gas input terminal.
Squaring off in Bangor Maine court, a federal corridor, on Sept. 21st, Bridges said the companies wanted to bring in a very hazardous, toxic material –liquefied natural gas or LNG, within an 1/8 mile of reservation homes, and schools. As this is a hazardous, toxic material – a huge, heavy industry, his alliance is bringing an “injunctive relief” against the B.I.A. and the Department of the Interior based on tribal trust responsibility. Hoping to see the development halted and re-thought, Bridges said his community is divided over this issue, approved by tribal council, as these companies are offering jobs and lots of money.
Many, Like David, in his community feel the process was rushed. “It was stuffed right down our throats by the developer. The state government is compliant as well,” he said.
Theirs is a small community reserve, only 243 acres total. The 100 acres slated for this development, are part of the old community homeland, which up until the mid-70’s [when they received Federal recognition] bordered their land. It is now part of the reservation – ceremonial, sacred ground. A place called, “Split Rock” where the elders access the beach.
“This is the only public access we have to Passamaquoddy Bay,” said Bridges. “If that’s what the community wants, that’s what they got.” Bridges said the decision was rushed; the tribe approved it in one hour without a reading, it went to the B.I.A. who approved it in one week’s time. No environmental impact studies were done. “No water quality or emissions studies, which it’s their trust responsibility to perform. It definitely alters our little, tiny reserve – the place where we exist.”
“Protecting our homeland is very, very important to me,” he said. “Our land base is just being chipped away on a regular basis.” Bridges said even within his own communities there is a draw to sell land for money – or long-term leases. He said this should always be ‘well thought out” and he’s seeing many transactions that are not.
The tribe approved a lease – a 93 page document, in very complex involved lease in legal language in an hour, without even reading it he said. Then the B.I.A. approved it in a week. Didn’t tell anyone until 30 days later after grievance was up – ‘very shady’. The Vermont Environmental Law School is representing Bridges’ group. Ron Schems is also a representing attorney. “It’s a big issue over here.”

Returning the gift, the strength of family, community
Currently David has been working with other native communities in Maine, sharing his gift of traditional birch bark canoe making. With Caynard he has conducted two canoe building workshops with the Penobscot, one in New Brunswick, Canada at the St. Mary’s Maliseet Reserve, next year he’s putting together a workshop for the
Skootick Band of Passamaquoddy in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada. All his programs are free of charge and open to all native people. “All they really need from anyone is a commitment of time,” said Bridges. “We lure them in with good food.”
This fall he’ll be gathering the materials for next Fall’s workshop. They set right up in the communities with materials provided. Bridges has a lot of the materials pre-prepared.
“Using a crooked knife is something you can’t learn in one day – or two week,” he said. “out of ten people that might help out – one or two usually turn out to be proficient with the crooked knife.” He has them carve up the frames, planking and hand-carving every peg out of maple.
He hopes to keep doing programs with Native communities – “Break even and make it worth his while.” Bridges needs travel expenses – compensate for time gathering materials around Maine. He has apprentices now. His nephew, Nicholas Pottle, 19, helped work on the Wyeth canoe – right out of high school. He goes root digging and gathering with him. He now goes to the University of Maine. He can be distracted but Bridges said he at least has a familiarity with materials and a “baseline of knowledge.” He’s his “main guy right now.” And of course, his son, Tobias.
Bridges takes Tobias, now 11, all the time gathering as well as his students. They spend 5-6 days to gather their materials – a lot of canoe trips and hiking are involved. Much of what they need is far off the beaten path.
“Tobias makes little things and sells them. He’s just starting to get into it now. He was raised in the same community I was – knows his grandmother is a basketmaker – lots of traditional people in our community and he’s a big part of their lives and they’re a big part of his.” Bridges said he loves to see him growing up in this same tradition. “It gave me a lot of strength.”
Tobias’ mom, Jessica Francis, is also Passamaquoddy, Bridges says they are still “great friends” – no issues of animosity. We worked it out as friends.” His son lives with him and spends vacations and some weekends with his mom. He sees her a lot. Bridges said she is a student at University of Maine. She is a beadworker from a long line of traditional people as well.
Raking the roots
Bridges has made Passamaquoddy ocean or river canoes, Maliseet river canoes, or Penobscot river canoe [Wabanaki tribes} all done in the traditional Wabanaki way – no metal fasteners 100% traditional.
They take up to 500 hours of construction, which doesn’t include the gathering of materials –which is a variable said Bridges. The latest 18 foot canoe took 1400 hours of labor.
Such an invaluable work of art as a traditional birch bark canoe, Bridges currently gets over a $1,000 a foot for his canoes.
“Prices are going up because the materials are getting so difficult to find. I am lucky if I can find enough materials to make one a year.” Having a young child to raise, Bridges 18 foot canoes – which take a good part of his year – go for $30,000 – $40,000 dollars.
Right now he is primarily working on baskets. Bridges didn’t make a canoe this summer as he had some basket designs he wanted to focus on. He is getting set up to make a 14 foot canoe over the winter months which he hopes to premier at Santa Fe Indian Market – if accepted. “I’m hoping to meet some of those “high end” collectors who just got to have one. I love what I do.”
When it comes to Bridges parents: father, Earl Bridges, his mother, Hilda Soctomah Lewis [remarried} he says, that having Bridges’ great-grandfather living with them, they understand where all his knowledge of traditional arts comes from.
“I couldn’t have done it without them. They’ve been the biggest supporters I’ve had. They are incredibly proud of me.”
Bridges said he can still sense his great-grandfather Gabriel with him in the making of his canoes – sometimes his hands become his grandfather’s.
“He’s with me all the time when I’m gathering. They [grandparents] give me strength to keep going. They don’t live on top of the earth anymore but they’re with me every day.”
“All my family gives me strength – all my aunts, uncles and cousins. All of them are a reflection of the elders that raised us. They’re always with me.”
Bridges loves sharing the knowledge. “I don’t want to hoard it. I want it to be out there again – part of our cultural identity like it used to be. It’s not my knowledge alone – this is the knowledge of my ancestors. I’m just trying to share that.”
Relatively young to be sharing such a traditional art, Bridges says, “I’m still up there climbing trees.”
“I will show anybody in my nation – share my patterns with them – give them everything I know so our birch bark culture doesn’t die out. It came real close to being completely gone. I want to ensure this never happens again.”
Sharing this knowledge with other Wabanki communities is dear to Bridge’s heart. “It’s something that doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the community.”

June 7, 2012

Beloved Win, Dawn Little Sky – Lakota Living Treasure



(Dakota Lakota Journal, 2006 – reprinted in Native Legacy Magazine – Vol. 2 Issue 4 – Fall 2009)

Photo: Traditional & contemporary Lakota artist and renowned Northern traditional dancer, Dawn Little Sky, outside her home in Yellow Bear Canyon, south of Kyle. She stands in front of one of her buffalo hide wintercounts. This piece is based on her husband, Eddie Little Sky’s grandfather, John Calhoff’s Wintercount recount and documents Lakota tiospaye history from 1759-1900s.


Beloved Win
Dawn Little Sky, artist, actress, dancer and teacher

A Lakota living treasure

By Abena Songbird
Dakota Lakota Journal Staff Writer

KYLE ? Dawn Little Sky is from Standing Rock, grew up in Ft. Yates South Dakota, and is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
Her parents – John and Ethel Gates were from Standing Rock. Her grandmother, Nellie Gates, the daughter of Chief Two Bear, and mother both were extremely deft in the Lakota arts of bead and quill work – she learned at their feet.
“Her beadwork is in the Smithsonian,” Little Sky proudly said of her grandmother’s work.

A renowned Traditional Dancer, Little Sky also has a long history of work as an artist in a variety of mediums: oils, acrylic, charcoal, pastels, sculpture and mural work, and has taught Lakota Arts and History in many tribal schools in South Dakota. She was head staff for 2005 Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque, New Mexico.She learned first with the trade beads of the era: white, black, blue, yellow and red – “We didn’t have the cut glass shiny beads of today,” she said. “Back then they were very small – size 13 or so.”
During World War II, Little Sky said demand for her beadwork really geared up as she, her mother and grandmother made things to give to service men to take back – novelty work in red-white-and blue, cigarette cases, and billfolds. She was nine years old.
“We didn’t have television then. In Winter time, that was our amusement,” she said of the bead and quill work she became a master of.
She also spent her time drawing – mostly animals. “Grandmother taught me how to do quillwork,” she said adding, that for her it’s easier now than the beading, as her eyesight is beginning to fail her. They would go and collect the quills mostly from road kill and use crepe paper for their dyes. They would soak different colors of crepe paper to get out the dye and soak the quills in it.
“The dyes in crepe paper are very good – they didn’t fade much,” said Little Sky. They used mostly reds, blues, yellows and greens – ‘whatever colors you could find.”
Dawn also has been involved in modern art, from a family of five – herself, two other sisters and two brothers, she said her whole family was artistic and she learned to paint, draw, sculpt. “It was just a way of life for us,” she said.
Little Sky went to boarding school in Kansas – Haskell Indian School where she met and married Eddie Little Sky. She eventually studied art at Kansas State University in Lawrence.
She and her husband Eddie moved to Pine Ridge and had five children. Her son, John Little Sky is a singer with Eagle Mountain Drum. As Eddie was a rodeo hand, the family followed rodeos for awhile.
Breaking Ground, uncharted territory
Eddie had a chance to work on the movie “Crazy Horse” when in came to Rapid City, and Dawn joined him herself; “We got interested in the movies,” she said. The movie, filmed in the late 1950’s spanned a thirty five year career for Eddie, an adventure which Dawn also embarked on. 
They both were character actors in the movie industry, and eventually moved to Los Angeles in 1959 to continue making films. Both she and her husband had speaking roles in various films at a time when the majority of Native actors of the time were extras; their filmographies are equally impressive. Eddie was in over 60 films, Dawn, in ten.
To help support the family Dawn took a job with Walt Disney Productions doing her art. She was placed in the ink and paint department and learned how to color cells.
This was quite an unknown for an Indian woman of the time. “I just packed up my portfolio and went and applied,” she said.
Little Sky said she didn’t realize every artist around was trying to get a job at Disney. They were intrigued by an Indian artist and they hired me,” she modestly said.
She inked cells for 3-4 years all the while beaded and doing quillwork for outfits in film. Being lonesome in Hollywood, Little Sky said they got acquainted with other Indians and formed clubs and had powwows in the California Area – which also kept her busy making regalia.

Photo:  Dawn’s husband, prominent actor, Eddie Little Sky, in a “still” from his movie portfolio. Photo courtesy of Dawn Little Sky, from her collection.
The Little Skys spent close to twenty years [1959-1975] in California. When Disneyland opened its gates in 1956, she and her husband went to work there. She was a narrator hired to explain dances she also performed. Dawn danced traditional in the Indian Village, along with other tribes who had relocated to the Los Angeles area during the work relocation era.
Both she and her husband made numerous movies and were principal character actors on a variety of television shows including: “Rawhide,” “A Man called Mushy,” “Gunsmoke,” a movie “Cimarron” in the early ‘60s and later, “Billy Two Hats,” “The Apple Dumpling Gang,” and “Duel at Diablo.” Some may recognize her for her role as Grandma Moore in the 1994 movie: “Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee.” They both were featured prominently in many of their films and shows.
“I really enjoyed that very much – making movies. It’s an interesting way of life,” said Little Sky of those years.
She met many of the screen stars of the era: Glen Ford, Robert Mitchum. She said they were friends with Robert’s brother, John Mitchum, also an actor. They also both knew Jay Silverheels, the Six Nations actor who had been among the first Indians in film in the late 1930s.
Movies starring Indian people in that day was in its infancy: “They thought all Indians were stoic and said, ‘ugh!” said Little Sky.
Though typecast in his Lone Ranger role as “Tonto,” Silverheels’ career spanned over sixty years and he starred in more than a hundred films and shows.
Little Sky said she really liked actress Sophia Loren – “she was really nice,” and liked working with German actress, Maria Schell.
Though they spent many years in Los Angeles, Little Sky said they both never felt it was home. They still said home was South Dakota, and they would go back and forth to spend time with family in Yellow Bear Canyon, south of Kyle, where she now lives.
Little Sky worked for Western Costuming and did all the work for John Wayne’s costume in the 1960 film, “The Alamo.” Wayne played Col. Davy Crockett.
She also had a booth at different art festivals and county fairs in California.
“I made a living off it when I wanted to,” she said. At that time she was doing a lot of pastels, portraitures of Indian children, warriors and maidens. “My best seller was an Indian medicine man,” she said. Even then her work was highly sought after. She remembers one customer who followed her around at the various shows and bought up everything she ever drew.
She could do a drawing in ten minutes. She also gave much work away to family – children.
She and Eddie also traveled extensively with rodeo cowboy and World Champion Trick Rider, Casey Tibbs’ American Wild West Show & Rodeo. They went twice to Japan; also toured most of Europe. They performed their dances before the then Crown Prince of Japan and also Prince Albert of Monoco.

Photo: Dawn Little Sky in her fully beaded regalia, on horseback in Japan [circa 1973] as part of World Champion Trick Rider, Casey Tibb’s Wild West Show
The call back home
In 1975 she, her husband, Eddie and kids moved back to South Dakota. They lived in Eagle Butte for awhile as her mother was getting up in age and Dawn wanted to be near her. The kids were older and she said they were “phasing out the Hollywood era” and wanted to move back home.
Little Sky says she has also raised two grandchildren. When she came back to the reservation she became involved in teaching art to children in both grade school and middle school. She found out that she enjoyed teaching. She started in the Eagle Butte Program supplement to Educational Curriculum. Little Sky would tell Indian stories, developing an art project to go with them. She taught youth how to bead, sketch on charcoal – about composition.
“They didn’t know about composition,” she said adding, “I thought that was really great.”
In the 1980’s she went to work in Kyle at Little Wound School as an art instructor for K-8th graders. For ten years she said she “had her hands full.”
Little Sky retired after her husband passed away in 1997 but as she didn’t want to stay at home; she went back to teaching. “It helped me deal with my grief,” she said. “You can’t be sad around kids. They really cheer you up.”
She has since spawned several generations of traditional artists with this encouragement. She still has students who come up to her and say:
“You taught me how to bead,” and “You were the first to teach me how to do quillwork – now my wife is making a living doing it.”
Little Sky says it’s through these arts, song and dance, ‘It’s the main way we retain our Lakota culture.”
She said when you are doing these traditional arts it requires research. One must ask – why did we use these different colors? or find out what certain signs mean.
She heats her quills with a certain eye bolt which has an antler handle; a tool hand-crafted for her by her husband.
Not wanting to divulge her trade secrets, she said over the years that some people use a bone, and that her grandmother used her teeth. “Pulling the quills with your teeth – you have to be very careful,” said Little Sky. She said her grandmother also had very long fingernails and used them also to flatten the quills.

In 2001, Little Sky retired for the second time. She said she likes her afternoon naps. Currently working mostly in her home, she is enjoying working with acrylics; painting mostly dancers – fancy shawl. She also does hide painting – wintercounts.
Dawn also was one of five artists who demonstrated her work at the Agate Fossil Beds national Monument in Nebraska. Her wintercount, “The Running Water Winter Count” on display there is acrylic on elk hide. It symbolizes the creation of earth, and took eight months to research and paint.

In Jan. 2005 Little Sky traveled to Pierre to receive the 15th Annual Living Treasure Award from The South Dakota Arts Council in recognition of her mastery of traditional Lakota arts and a lifetime of achievement. Governor Mike Rounds presented her a Pendleton blanket at a special dinner at the Ramkota River Centre.
Brother C.M. Simon, SJ, of the Red Cloud Heritage Center, Pine Ridge shared these comments when she received the award, “Dawn has dedicated her life to the preservation and teaching of Lakota Arts,” said Brother C. M. Simon, SJ, of the Red Cloud Heritage Center, Pine Ridge. “Dawn is an accomplished artist. Her tribal artistry includes bead and quillwork and hide painting winter counts.”

At the 2006 20th Annual He Sapa Wacipi Sunday evening Oct. 8, her granddaughter, Chanda Pendon, a traditional dancer, hosted a Golden Age Special on her behalf. Her daughter, the former Miss Indian World, Prairie Rose, came from Canada. All three of her sons were there to help, as well as all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“My great-grandchildren are now coming into the arena,” said Little Sky. “It’s really great, fun to watch.”
Her favorite, most enjoyable part of the powwow are the drums. She has known many of the singers when they were children, and has seen them grow and form their drums. Her late husband, Eddie used to make drums and would sing for his sons, when they danced. Her son, John Little Sky is a singer with Eagle Mountain.

“I was the first female eyapaha in Anaheim Park, California. We used to 49 all night in those days, “said Little Sky adding, “They were very tame back then. We had all our children and just naturally gravitated together with other Indian families.”

Her children are now hounding her to begin recording excerpts of her life to include in a book. She has lived such a groundbreaking, creative life: first woman eyapaha in Los Angeles, first Indian woman to color cells at Disney, one of the early Indian actors in the movie industry, traveling and dancing the world in the Wild West Shows, becoming a master at the Lakota arts of quill and beadwork, as well as masterful artist with pastels, charcoal, in contemporary forms.
Though she holds some memories close to her heart; those which may be painful to relive; Little Sky’s life has been one of great adventure, courage and creativity. It is clear that she is an inspiration to indigenous women and men everywhere.
“I’ve been very fortunate; been involved in artwork most of my life.”

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