Telling the story of the Lakota through art

Spring 2012 Red Cloud Country

You can hear clearly the wisdom and experience in Donald Montileaux’s deep voice. And he will tell you—with honesty and pride—that in his early years as a young artist, he traveled a road that was “rough and rocky and curvy.”

But he will then tell you how he is trying to change that for the young Native American artists of today. “I tell them that I’m going to try and help straighten out that road for you… I’m going to get some of those rocks out of the way.”

Commitment to the Native American artists of tomorrow may well be his legacy—even more so than his renowned ledger art, for which Montileaux has become known across the world. From humble beginnings on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to an impressive career spanning more than five decades, he has lived life telling the story of the Lakota through art.

“I never realized it growing up, but we were extremely poor,” Montileaux says one winter afternoon from his home in Kyle, South Dakota. “My mom and dad were always working around cows—they both had an eighth grade education. But they knew education was the only way to get anywhere in the world, so they worked hard to send me to school.”

His father lit the fire within him to be an artist. “My dad was a drawer. We didn’t have a television, so after dinner we would draw Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck together. Mom would judge the drawings and naturally, I would always win,” he recalls with a smile, “being the only child.”

In high school, Montileaux decided he wanted to hone his craft, so he enrolled in an industrial art course that looked appealing to him. On the first day of class, he walked in the classroom and saw nothing but saws and hammers.

“I thought this was art class,” he said to the teacher. “Where are the paint brushes and easels?” The instructor said, “You want fine arts.” He found the fine arts class, and hasn’t looked back since.

The summer after his high school graduation, Montileaux was recruited by the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he met great artists who also were his instructors, like Fritz Scholder and Allan Houser. His mentors and long-time friends Herman Red Elk and Oscar Howe, both well-known Lakota artists in South Dakota, instilled in him discipline, a love of storytelling, and a respect for family.

“I’ll never forget the day they came up to me and said that Montileaux wasn’t a very Lakota name,” he says. “So they held a naming ceremony for me, and gave me the name Don Yellowbird because they said I was like a yellow bird… I was everywhere… my nose was always in something… looking for something. It was a tremendous honor.”

This summer, Montileaux will enter the Red Cloud Indian Art Show at The Heritage Center for the 44th time—the only artist to showcase his work every year since the show’s founding in 1969. He says it’s a fantastic showcase for emerging artists and seasoned professionals, colliding the young and old in an art show where artists can continue to learn from each other and patrons can grow in their knowledge of Native American art.

“I tell the emerging Native American artists of today that I was young once too—I just happened to be young when the Native art movement started,” he says.

“Every time I create a piece, I assume it is going to end up at The Met in New York or the Louvre in Paris. Every work has got to have the refinement and detail it deserves because it might end up in a place just as perfect.”

“And while I do want people to see that this artist is Native, I also want them to see that he is a good artist. That he belongs with the best artists of the world. The bright color, the use of lines and symbols and composition… it is all there, flowing properly and presented in simple yet stylistic approaches. It tells the story of the Lakota.”

Montileaux—and many artists from his generation—work tirelessly to lift up the young artists of today. They oftentimes hold workshops so that everyone realizes the artistry within them.

“There is some marvelous storytelling happening today,” he says. “I remind the new generation of artists that the way you present yourself, and your art, is key. I tell them to have a nice appearance, to get out from behind the table and invite patrons into your artwork. The Heritage Center does that too. It’s why I will always come back to the show.”