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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Northern Cheyenne Artist and Students Make Ornaments for National Christmas Tree
by ZACH BENOIT - The Billings Gazette Staff
LAME DEER — It's not often that a self-taught Montana artist gets national recognition from the federal government.

And it's practically unheard of for a group of Northern Cheyenne art students at Chief Dull Knife College — total enrollment, about 260 students — to have their work on display in Washington, D.C., for thousands of people to see.

But that's exactly what will happen beginning Dec. 1. Since mid-October, Billings-based Northern Cheyenne artist Alaina Buffalo Spirit and about 10 art students from the college have been crafting Montana's ornaments for this year's National Christmas Tree display and the tree in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, both in Washington.

"I want to show the nation what these Northern Cheyenne students can do," Buffalo Spirit said.

Involving students
Buffalo Spirit was selected as Montana's artist to create 24 decorations for the trees, which are sponsored by the National Park Foundation. One of the rules this year is that the artist must create the decorations with the help of a local youth arts group.

After considering several youth and student groups, Buffalo Spirit said her decision to work with the college's Foundations of Art class came down to one question: "Who's going to be mature enough to do the task?"

Every Wednesday evening from Oct. 19 to Nov. 2, Buffalo Spirit and the class, taught by Ron Firecrow, worked together for about three hours on the decorations.

They decided on a Native American theme showing off Northern Cheyenne culture. All of the decorations will be housed in, or created on, 5.5-inch clear plastic globes.

At a recent class session, students spent the evening using bright acrylics to paint miniature war shields and drums, cutting out buffalo silhouettes from rawhide and setting up traditional village scenes within the globes.

"After they told me what we were doing, I was really excited," said student Joanna Littlebird. "I just want people to see what kind of people we are here."

'Made my whole month'
In early October, Buffalo Spirit was having a bad day. She told the woman, whom she did not yet know, on the other end of the phone as much when asked how she was doing.

"I said I'm down because I'm a struggling artist," Buffalo Spirit said. "But when she told me why she called I said, 'You made my day, made my whole month.'"

Lesa Evers, director of the Montana Office of Indian Affairs, was calling to ask Buffalo Spirit if she would create Montana's decorations. One will also be selected to hang on the Christmas tree in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, which has one ornament from each U.S. state or territory.

Buffalo Spirit, of Billings, is a self-taught artist who works mainly in ledger art, using ledger paper and color pencils. The style originated in the 1840s from Cheyenne warriors imprisoned in Florida who didn't have any other materials to use.

Buffalo Spirit is a member of the So'taa'ee band of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. Her upbringing, in a traditional household in the Birney area, is prominent in her art, which features brightly colored Cheyenne women and horses.

Traditional Northern Cheyenne ledger art usually features war and battle imagery.

"When I saw the artists of today were doing that, I started doing women in the images," Buffalo Spirit said. "I honor women that made a difference in my life."

She started painting in 2004 as a therapy strategy after the 2002 death of her son. Her work has been featured in Cowboys and Indians magazine, at numerous regional festivals and fairs and will be featured in an upcoming issue of National Geographic magazine.

'Sharing your culture'
Many of the Chief Dull Knife art students said the ornament project is a way to show off their heritage.

Littlebird was working on a pair of intricate set pieces. One depicted village life, complete with a rawhide tepee featuring a traditional Morning Star cross and tiny, intricately beaded people. The other included a pair of larger Northern Cheyenne in traditional dress.

"I really wanted showcase the Northern Cheyenne people," she said. "I'm really proud of that."

All of her decorations were handmade using beads, leather, horse hair, rawhide, painted feathers and porcupine quills.

Ron Nightwalker Yazzie patiently cut out the silhouette of a small buffalo from rawhide, which will eventually hang inside one of the globes.

"It just makes me feel like, 'I'm an artist and this is what art is about — sharing your culture,'" he said.

The trees will be lit in D.C. on Dec. 1 and Buffalo Spirit and the college are working to raise money to send her and one or two representatives there to see it.

"The Chief Dull Knife College Foundations of Art class is going to be known throughout the nation," she said. "We don't know who's going to see these decorations."

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