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Native artist uses art, stories to encourage kids

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POLSON — “Jump over the enemy,” Monte Yellow Bird, Sr., said, quoting his uncle. The “enemy” is someone who tells you you can’t achieve or become whoever you would like to be, Monte told a group of fourth graders.

Monte, an internationally renowned artist, and his wife Emily, were at Linderman Elementary School during the week of Jan. 11 to 14. Originally from White Shield, N.D., Monte is a Native American, a member of the Arikara Hidatsa Nation. 

The Yellow Birds were at Linderman to help the second, third and fourth graders create herds of mud ponies and dozens of warrior shields.

But art was not the only subject Monte talked about with the students. Monte and Emily told coyote stories and discussed family heritage, goals and dreams with the students. 

After hearing the story “The Mud Pony,” retold by Caron Lee Cohen and illustrated by Shonto Begay, second and third graders made mud ponies.

Mud ponies, Monte said, are based on traditional Pawnee stories. These stories are “poor boy stories of leadership” Monte said, about aspiring to greater things. In the story, a poor boy wants a pony so badly that he makes one out of mud. One day when he awakens, his mud pony has come to life.

Students received a ball of clay, not modeling clay but real artist’s clay. Monte showed the students how to take their ball of clay and “crack it,” or break a large piece off the ball. Then the kids shaped the ball into “a fat u” and started smoothing and shaping it into a pony head, neck, body and tail. Monte also showed the kids how to roll “tootsie rolls” of clay for legs, insert toothpicks into the cylinders and attach the legs to the body.

Kayleigh Davies, in third grade, said, “The body was the hardest to make.”

Louetta Conko-Camel said she likes making the ponies as she painstakingly worked on tiny pony ears.

After the ponies are fired in a kiln, the students can paint them.

Some of the fourth graders also used ponies or horses on their warrior shields, which was the fourth grade project.

Instead of just turning the students loose with paint and canvas, the Yellow Birds sent the kids home with a worksheet. Their assignment: find out about your cultural heritage by talking to your family, moms and dad, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncle — “family stuff,” Monte said.

The warrior shields “display who they (the students) are as an individual,” Monte said. “They incorporate painting, designing and color with character building.” 

Linde Lambson, a young man in Mrs. Hall’s class, smoothing cobalt blue on his shield agreed, adding that he liked the painting and the sewing.

The four feathers attached to the warrior shield represent goals and accomplishments, Monte explained. It’s “a projection toward their future,” Monte said, “Now’s the time to start planning.”

The shield itself represents the circle of life. 

“All tribes, indigenous or not, have a circle of life,” Monte said.

The metal hoops, canvas, sinew and paint the warrior shields are constructed of all come from Mother Earth, Monte added.

“The coat of gesso” on shields is a “coat of purity,” Monte said. After the gesso dries, then students can begin using paint and symbols to personalize their shield. 

Fourth grader Malia Seeley was adding brilliant orange triangles as part of a sun on her shield as well as light turquoise skis.

“I like sewing this side of it,” Seeley said, showing the back of the shield. 

Her classmate Meghan Gambrel said she liked telling “what we like about our lives and what we like about our hearts.”

As he painted stars on his shield, Tristin Cardenas agreed, saying his favorite part of making a warrior shield was telling others about himself. 

One child asked Monte the secret to being a great artist.

Monte answered, “I don’t consider myself a great artist.”

The secret to his success, Monte said, was a lot of hard work and finishing school.

“I learned how to speak,” Monte added, “Not just with pictures but with words.”

Another student asked Monte what inspired him to be an artist.

“Trees, the water, … animals, horses,” Monte said. “Life inspired me.”

Monte told the kids about the first piece of art he ever sold, which was a painting of a wolf in winter. Monte won a blue ribbon with the wolf picture, and he sold it for $15. 

Selling that painting “gave me drive, inspired me,” Monte said. So when he was 15, Monte attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M. 

“If it’s in your heart, you can do it,” Monte urged all the Linderman students.

When the Yellow Birds left Linderman on Jan. 15, not only were remudas of ponies awaiting firing and rows of warrior shields drying, but also students were remembering Monte’s words and thinking about what they might want to accomplish in their lives.

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