In 2002, Alaina Buffalo Spirit’s only child, John Kalama, was murdered.
The grief almost overwhelmed her, but her grandchildren, then 8 and 10, kept her focused on survival. Keoni and Kahelelani became Buffalo Spirit’s entire life.
There was something else that also helped her through those troubling times — art.
“One day I felt this twinge of loneliness. I sat down and started drawing. The loneliness subsided the longer I did the drawing. I realized that art is truly healing and it can help you through these feelings.”
Buffalo Spirit, who is a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, had always doodled, but after her son’s death she began painting, too. She began connecting with her heritage through ledger art.
“When I saw ledger art, it drew me in because it’s so unique. It’s a form of storytelling; that’s what I like about it,” she said.
Ledger art is dominated by male artists, and it often depicts wars and conflicts from the male prospective. It began in the 1860s when Cheyenne tribal members were jailed at Fort Marion, Florida. It was a woman who first snuck ledger paper and colored pencils to the imprisoned warriors so they could express themselves. Buffalo Spirit figured she should tell the story from a female prospective.
“I started painting images of women and what they may have been doing. I have one of four women sitting inside a tepee making moccasins, shoes for the family. They were taking care of the children, taking care of the food and taking care of the medicine. That was my first one. I call it "Cheyenne Elegance" because women are not only elegant themselves, but they bring elegance to their families.”
Buffalo Spirit was happy to tell the story of tribal women caring for their families, but she also wanted to feature female warriors, like Buffalo Calf Trail Woman who survived the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado Territory in 1864. During the massacre more than 50 women and children were killed by the U.S. Cavalry.
Buffalo Calf Trail Woman was a young girl at the time and her mother handed her a rifle and told her to run and hide. Like others, Buffalo Calf Trail Woman dug a hole to hide from the soldiers. She was one of the rare survivors.
“She was adopted by a Cheyenne chief and trained to be a warrior woman,” Buffalo Spirit said. “She rode into battle with her husband. They think she rode into the Battle of the Little Big Horn. My mother told me that she heard she killed Custer.”
Buffalo Calf Trail Woman had earlier saved her brother at the Rosebud Battle in Montana. Buffalo Spirit loved the story and the idea of a female warrior. Her ledger piece of Buffalo Calf Trail Woman is among her colorful ledger paintings and drawings. She exhibits and sells her work at Windy Flats Gallery in Nye, and at Montana cultural events, including the Montana Folk Festival in July in Butte.
In 2016, Buffalo Spirit traveled to Dieppe, France, to be part of the Indigenous People of the World Kite Fest. T.Z. Lee, who organized local kites for the festival, said Buffalo Spirit represented her tribe and Montana well. Montana stained glass artist, Angela Babby, represented her tribe, the Ogalala Lakota in France.
"She has a great presence about her. Alaina is a wonderful speaker and passionate activist," Lee said.
Buffalo Spirit is a self-taught artist who experiments with mixing paints and using colored pencils and ink to create an effect or set a mood. Buffalo Spirit changed her name from Medicine Bull after she found out that her great grandfather’s name in the Cheyenne language meant Buffalo God. She chose Buffalo Spirit because it had the closest meaning to Buffalo God.
“In 1935 when the U.S. Government wanted to enroll us to document our existence, whoever they used to translate our great grandfather’s name was apparently not fluent in the translation of the Cheyenne names.”
One of her ledger works honors her Northern Cheyenne homeland where she grew up along the Tongue River. The land was handed down from her grandparents Annie and Willis Medicine Bull for her family and descendants to enjoy. It is on that land where Buffalo Spirit conducts a tepee ceremony or peyote ceremony every June.
Other ledger pieces honor family members, including her granddaughter Kahelelani Kalama whose Cheyenne name is “O’tseeme,” which means Brave Woman, and other women from the tribe. Buffalo Spirit also paints in flowers and other plants because the natural world is such a big part of her tribe.
'Art pulled me through'
“One piece, “Spirit Rider,” shows a Cheyenne woman warrior and a riderless horse representing those who have left the physical world yet their spirit still rides the earth. Another work, “We Are All Connected,” was commissioned by Buffalo Spirit’s doctor at Billings Clinic.
“He wanted an original titled, ‘We Are All Connected’ to depict that we as people of all races are connected. The four colors around the sun show the four races that are connected, red, yellow, white and black.”
The woman in the piece symbolizes life.
“Without a woman, there is no life,” Buffalo Spirit said.
It took four years after the death of her son for Buffalo Spirit to start appreciating life.
“I started looking around and seeing the green grass and the flowers,” she said.
Lupine flowers, echinacea plants and native grasses started being included in her paintings. Friends have helped her along the way, helping to find old maps and ledger paper. She recently acquired an antique Lewis and Clark map from the 1800s. In 2016, Buffalo Spirit got the opportunity to design a Cheyenne themed kite and travel to France as part of a project to highlight Indigenous artwork.
She often thinks of her son when she paints, thanking him for the gift of her grandchildren.
“They pulled me through that deep grief and the art pulled me through. I had no idea that painting could help me with my grief.”
As Buffalo Spirit battles breast cancer, she looks again to her art as a way of dealing with life’s struggles.
“Sometimes I feel that my art comes from the cosmos.”