American Indian Art in a New, Bright Light

By Beacon Staff

Monte Yellow Bird Sr.’s life is full of color.

It’s in his paintings, coated on his ceramics and constantly on his mind. This week Yellow Bird, a well-known artist who also goes by the name of Black Pinto Horse, is sharing his colorful view of the world with people in the Flathead Valley, speaking at local schools, including Flathead Valley Community College, and at an Arbor Day celebration at Glacier Bank in Columbia Falls on May 3.

Part of his message is based on his personal motto: “We are on this earth for such a short time, if you’re going to shine, shine brightly.” Another part of his message is the importance of discussing modern American Indian issues with people who may not be familiar with them.

Yellow Bird said he appreciates that American Indian art and culture seem to be gaining traction in popular culture, but his contentment only extends so far. Art is sometimes guilty of perpetuating narrow-minded portrayals of native people, he said.

“Four Dance Ponies,” by Monte Yellow Bird Sr. is a mixed media painting with oil, quill work medicine wheel and horsehair.

“As far as the art is concerned, it seems to be very popular in general,” he said. “But the depiction of native people is more romanticized in a position that puts us in a box. We’re represented as the old traditional warriors that kill buffalo and ride horses.”

Using vibrant, bright colors in his art, Yellow Bird is trying to paint American Indians in a different light.

“If I was really pleased with it I guess I wouldn’t be so adamant about trying to introduce my style of work,” Yellow Bird said. “It’s allowing the world to see that (American Indians) have evolved – it’s allowing mainstream people to see that we communicate in a different capacity.”

Yellow Bird is a busy guy, dividing his time as a painter, ceramic-maker, educator and lecturer. A North Dakota native, he still lives and works in his home state, though his lifestyle takes him all across the country. He has shown his art in Montana before, including in Columbia Falls, but he hasn’t established himself in Montana as much as he would like, something he’s trying to change this week.

Yellow Bird, whose ancestry is Arikara and Hidatsa, says it is especially an honor to speak at Arbor Day because trees are important in tribal ceremonies and lore.

“First Woman, A Flower among many,” is a mixed medium piece with oil and beads.

“(The tree is) so representational of all people,” Yellow Bird said. “The trunk of the tree represents us now, the roots are our ancestors and all of their branches and even the little twigs represent our future.”

On Friday, May 2, Arrowhead Fine Art and Framing in Columbia Falls will hold an art reception and auction, selling works by Yellow Bird, George Bland, Mark Ogle and others. The reception begins at 5 p.m. with music, hors d’oeuvres and wine, while the auction kicks off at 7 p.m.

Then on Saturday, May 3, Yellow Bird will speak at Glacier Bank’s Arbor Day celebration. Along with Yellow Bird’s presentation, the celebration also features live music by the Moran Sisters and Jonathan Jenkins. Both days benefit Tree City USA.

At his school presentations, Yellow Bird said he discusses the fundamentals of art composition and touches on art-specific themes. He also, however, talks about the importance of understanding different cultures and how that helps to understand oneself. His talks, he said, employ elements from both his art and “my background, my heritage, my upbringing, my experiences.”

“If they respect themselves and their cultures, it’s easier then to respect other people and their cultures as well,” he said. “We look at commonalities as well as differences. We do self-evaluation.”

Artist Monte Yellow Bird Sr.

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