“We’re all from tribes,” Native American artist Monte Yellow Bird told a youngster last week.
The comment got everybody thinking over at Ponderosa Elementary, where Yellow Bird spent a week teaching students about art. But more than that, Yellow Bird, whose Native name is Black Pinto Horse, teaches youngsters to celebrate who they are — and to dream big.
“Dreams are where I want to be and hard work is how to get there,” is the mantra Yellow Bird has lived by most of his life.
A member of the Arikara and Hidasta tribes of North Dakota, Yellow Bird watched his father work himself to death, facing the relentless challenge of providing for a large family. Yellow Bird is the seventh son of 15 children. He wasn’t sure if his dream to become an artist would come true, but a math teacher at his school in Whiteshield, N.D., recognized Yellow Bird’s artistic talent and introduced him to the Institute of American Indian Arts of Santa Fe, N.M.
“At the time I was insecure and feeling the pressure of my brothers’ and sisters’ great accomplishments in sports and academics,” Yellow Bird said.
Yellow Bird never left his reservation until he was 16, but he found a way to come out of his shell, attending North Dakota State University to study history and going on to earn a bachelor’s of fine arts degree from Minot State University. He now lives in Wilsall and exhibits his art, including ledger art, across North America.
As Yellow Bird worked with fifth-grade students at Ponderosa last week, he asked students to design a war shield, using symbols that represent who they are, where they come from, and the direction they’re heading.
“You are the next leaders, you need to take the responsibility,” Yellow Bird said.
Students thought hard about the symbols that represent their tribe — which includes their family, their heritage and their dreams.
“I’m going to join the Air Force and get a Nobel Peace Prize,” said Adam Blankenship, 11.
Blankenship used symbols for the Air Force on his shield.
Easton Lee, 10, painted feathers on his shield because he is part Chippewa.
“This is fun,” Lee said. “I learned not to just throw things together but to plan what I’m going to paint.”
Emily Kohring, director of arts education for the Montana Arts Council, had allocated her budget funding artists-in-residence for the school year when a call came in requesting that Yellow Bird spend a week with the students at Ponderosa.
She was able to secure funding for Yellow Bird’s visit through the Office of Indian Education. The program fills the gap between the regular curriculum and the arts, Kohring said.
Like Yellow Bird, some students don’t shine in the traditional areas of sports and academics, and the arts help them experience success and express themselves.
“I learned that I can be whatever I want to be,” said Cassadie Perkins, 11. “I’m going to be a professional baker.”
Maycee Handley, 10, said working with Yellow Bird helped her understand that every culture has something to celebrate.
“We have different cultures and they all mean something to us,” Handley said. “It’s good to show other people what our culture is.”
The experience of selecting symbols to paint on war shields would be a good exercise for all of us. What would you paint on your shield to celebrate your culture and your dreams?