Gift Shop Artist | Mitchell Zephier

Master metal artist Mitchell Zephier learned to create intricate jewelry as a young man, working alongside other artists from across the country. As a student taking part in a summer program at Dartmouth University, he was hired by New York-based Native artist and teacher Frank Standing High, who first showed him the basics of cutting and shaping metals. Later he lived in New Mexico and apprenticed with his aunt—a master silversmith—who taught him the delicate inlay process used by the Zuni people. But for Zephier, his passion always remained in creating art rooted in Lakota culture, history, and spirituality.

“My learning process began in New York and in New Mexico, but I always wanted to develop my own style. I wanted my work to draw on Plains Indian symbolism, using images of shields, buffalo, medicine wheels, eagles, and horses,” he explained. “So when I moved back to Rosebud, I started developing the distinctive style we have now.”

Over the last 40 years, Zephier has honed his craft—creating stunning jewelry and other adornments that honor and celebrate his Lakota heritage and the beauty of the Great Plains. Throughout his career he has collaborated closely with other artists, relatives and friends to design unique styles that tell distinctly Lakota stories. Some of his most prized pieces depict key moments in Lakota history: he once made a concho belt illustrating nine events in the life of Crazy Horse, the famed Lakota warrior, and another that illustrated a series of essential Lakota legends. His work has been honored at some of the country’s most prominent Native art shows—including the Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma and the Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico. Zephier also won the South Dakota Governor’s Award for his statewide contribution to the arts.

Early in his career, Zephier encountered the challenges that are so often faced by emerging artists. After opening his first shop on the Rosebud Reservation decades ago, he was uncertain whether he could make a living by selling his art alone. But he traveled to galleries and shops across the Plains and all the way to Denver, and quickly developed a following that gave him the confidence to devote his career to metal work. He says that working with The Heritage Center, and particularly with one of its founders, Brother C.M. Simon, SJ, helped encourage him to pursue his passion.

“Brother Simon would buy our jewelry—and even if he didn’t have it in his budget to buy bigger pieces, we would trade for things like concho belts or quill work. Ultimately that was a good thing because it gave us a chance to have some of our pieces in the permanent collection of The Heritage Center. And from that, we’ve been able to sell our jewelry in The Heritage Center’s gift shop,” said Zephier.

“Brother Simon was really an art historian, and he recognized that we had a unique style. He always wanted to see new designs and new pieces. There were some people that didn’t want to buy our work because they didn’t consider jewelry a Lakota artform—but Brother Simon encouraged us, and helped in the evolution of our art over time.”

Zephier creates his pieces using a range of metals, from German silver to brass and copper.

Drawing on what he learned about inlay work in New Mexico, he crafts intricate pieces—from earrings and bracelets to full concho belts—using natural elements like pipestone, buffalo horn, and mother-of-pearl. And while his own work has been recognized and sold both nationally and internationally, he also cherishes his role as a teacher and mentor to many other emerging artists.

“My work kept me so busy and at first I didn’t consider myself much of a teacher. But my grandmother said that, as a Lakota, I needed to help my relatives in any way that I could,” said Zephier. “Over the years I have taught over 30 people, and some have gone on to their own careers in jewelry making.”

Today Zephier’s work is truly a family affair. He has taught his craft to his brother and cousins, working alongside them over the last 30 years—and now his own children are helping with the evolution of his business. Many of the brick and mortar shops in which Zephier used to sell his work have closed. But with the help of his daughters, he is tapping into more online resources, like Facebook and Etsy, to market his work.

After 40 years of designing and crafting wearable works of art, Zephier still wants to challenge himself—and to discover new markets across the country and around the world. But one thing that will never change is what inspires him to create.

“We use a lot of cultural symbolism in our work—you can’t separate Lakota culture from our spirituality. So my work is really inspired by a combination of creativity and our spirituality.”  

You can find more work by Lakota artists in The Heritage Center Gift Shop, both in-store and online:


Meet Our Artists - Shawn Espinosa, Parfleche


Meet Our Artists - Miranda Red Cloud, Porcupine Quillwork


Meet Our Artists - Amanda Simmons, Bead Work

Photos © 2017 Red Cloud Indian School, Inc.
last updated: February 6, 2017