Monte Yellow Bird Sr. collects weathered deeds, treaties, ledgers and bank notes from the 1800s, and on them he draws images of Arikara and Hidatsa American Indians. One piece called "Earth Lodge Outpost" is done on a Wareham, Mass. general store ledger from 1805 on which you can still see the names and prices listed for the store customers. Over the aged list he's drawn a vibrant blue horse with red stripes and a warrior atop it brandishing a spear. It's a striking opposition of two worlds. In "The Warbonnets Two Eagles" two warbonnets, also in colored pencil, enliven a First National Bank check from New York circa the mid-1800s. Signed at the bottom is Black Pinto Horse, Yellow Bird's artist name.
Yellow Bird, 50, whose art is on display through the end of August at the Missoula Art Museum, is a member of the Arikara and Hidatsa Nation from White Shield, North Dakota. He currently resides in Great Falls where he served during the fall of 2007 through the spring of 2008 as the Artist-in-Residence with the Great Falls Public Schools and Paris Gibson Square Museum. He's been an artist since he was in diapers, he says. At age 16 he went to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M. He studied fine art at Minot State University in Minot, N.D. and he's shown his work all over the Northwest and once in New York City. As almost all artists realize, it's not easy to live on art alone, and so Yellow Bird supported himself working at various times as a carpenter, auto mechanic and an artist-in-residence at schools across Montana and North Dakota.
Yellow Bird's pieces at MAM are part of the Expressing Montana exhibit, which focuses on social, political and environmental commentary pertinent to the state. Behind a lot of his work is the ledger art aesthetic, which dates back to the mid-1800s when white people were expanding into American Indian territory bringing with them all kinds of official documents that stated ownership of land.
"I refer to it as the dark ages for indigenous tribes," says Yellow Bird. "With western expansion and the Homesteading Act, tribes were really being displaced. The buffalo herds were being wiped out to almost extinction. The lifestyle of the indigenous tribes was really changed during that time."
Accounting ledger paper came from all sorts of sources: traders, government agents, missionaries and military officers. The indigenous tribes who received the paper didn't really understand what it meant, but they knew it was powerful enough to change their lives. Warriors started drawing images and symbols on it to document the great deeds they had accomplished or the things they had witnessed during ceremonies or courtship. It was a way to remember a lifestyle that was quickly slipping away. And the documenting process itself shifted the consciousness of many of the Plains warriors.
"With ledger art it changed from a community-oriented, tribal viewpoint to expressing themselves more individually," says Yellow Bird.
The most popular story about ledger art comes from Fort Marion, Florida. In 1874, in what became known as the Red River War, a band of Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho and Caddo Indians fought the U.S. Army over the last free herd of buffalo. The supposed leaders—71 men and one woman—were rounded up to the fort where they were taught English and forced to assimilate. They were also given ledger paper and drawing tools. From that group sprung several artists who continued documenting their lives through ledger art even after their release from prison. Through the years, ledger artists have evolved the style. Yellow Bird says that his academic training helped him give an updated twist on age-old themes.
"Some try to replicate that old simplistic style and others, like myself, do more of a contemporary style," he says. "I like that idea. I want to show that even though we're indigenous people and we have a culture, we've also moved ahead."
Yellow Bird likes to draw themes specific to his tribe that he's personally intrigued by. He has a piece called "Young Hawk Ponies," a reference to Joseph Young Hawk, an American Indian who fought in World War I and was captured by the Germans. Indians at the time weren't even U.S. citizens but many chose to fight anyway.
The story goes that one night while imprisoned by the Germans, Young Hawk prayed and sang medicine bundle songs. That night a bear came to him in his dreams and told him that when he awoke, he should put his hands up to imitate a bear and growl. When he woke up, he startled the soldiers with his bear growl, and he fought them barehanded.
"In an interview he said that he broke three of their backs over his knee," says Yellow Bird. "They ended up shooting him in both legs but he took their guns away."
Young Hawk ended up in a hospital where his legs were amputated, and he was sent home. He died in 1925 of respiratory disease from mustard gas, just a year after American Indians were finally given citizenship.
"For Joseph Young Hawk it wasn't about a piece of paper saying they were citizens, or anything like that. It was about lineage, an honor, a part of his lifestyle that he would become a warrior like his father," says Yellow Bird. "That's what that piece is about. The First World War is really a contemporary thing. And the same thing for Native Americans being citizens, that's not that far away. And it wasn't until 1975 that we were able to practice our religion—and, of course, we did it anyway. We were practicing our way of life illegally."
But some of Yellow Bird's themes go way back. "Let the People Stop Crying I'll Make a Path Through the Water" is about the genesis of the Arikara people when a loon parted the waters to let Mother Corn take the people across. The sacredness of romance is another strong theme, and in his piece "The Courting Song of Red Lodge," Yellow Bird depicts a courtship: Red Lodge rides a red-tinged horse playing a flute. The blue halo around his head represents the sacred, while the yolk-colored globes symbolize the beginning of courtship. The piece is drawn on original 1873 sheet music for "La Serenade, and the musical notation shows through the colored pencil and adds astonishing detail to the backdrop.
Documenting history in art matters, Yellow Bird says.
"The history we've experience is a reality. Our people are struggling here in our own country. We have the highest suicide rate per capita, the highest alcoholism rate, and we are the least educated—in our own country. It doesn't have to be that way. Our traditions and culture are beautiful. We need to embrace them and make them part of our lifestyle. The only thing stopping us is ourselves."
Monte Yellow Bird's art is part of the Expressing Montana exhibit currently showing at the Missoula Art Museum through August 28.