“I was raised in the Twin Cities in an era when it wasn’t good to be known as a Native American,” said Antone LeBeau, a self-taught artist and member of the Cheyenne River Sioux. “When you’re up on the reservation, you don’t know there’s another world out there. You don’t see it. Living as a city boy, though, I learned quickly how things were. I guess I got a better understanding of the real inside picture.”
Now living in Benson, Minnesota, with his fellow artist and business partner, Mimi Alexander, LeBeau believes in the power of his ancestors’ art. His connection to it during his early years helped him walk through his own life’s challenges of drugs and alcohol, and now the art of his ancestors serves as his livelihood.
Besides creating jewelry, artifacts, beadwork and quillwork, LeBeau and Alexander spend a great deal of time doing educational demonstrations. On June 11, they traveled to the Gibbs Museum to demonstrate Dakota-style plaited quillwork and Lakota-style lazy stitch beadwork.
“A lot of the work we do is educating the public — what we do and how we use things,” said LeBeau. “I’ve had animal activists come by and comment about my using animal parts. I explain to them that I don’t kill these animals. The things I use in my work are a part of our spirituality where we can stay connected with what’s left and what’s been given to us by the Creator.”
LeBeau points out that Native Americans were the world’s first recyclers: “When I cut down a tree to use, I will plant two. It’s replacing whatever I take from nature and recycling a lot of things. Once I explain this to people, they get a different outlook.”
LeBeau is a versatile artist, moving nimbly and skillfully among native artifacts, jewelry, beadwork and apparel. Many of his pieces are a combination of several forms.
He pointed to a breastplate, the center of which is made up of porcupine quills, noting, “I used coyote leg bones and antique trade beads, which can be 100 to 500 years old.”
Quillwork is perhaps the oldest form of embroidery used by Native Americans, LeBeau said. Before glass beads were brought to America, Native Americans used porcupine quills to decorate clothing and other items.
Indian quillwork involved softening and dyeing stiff porcupine quills and weaving them onto leather or birch bark. War shirts, medicine bags, moccasins, jewelry and baskets were frequently quilled in the past. Porcupine quills are difficult to work with, and quilled leather is more difficult to take care of than beaded leather.
Most quillworkers switched to beadwork since beading uses many of the same skills as quilling but is less grueling. However, some Native artists are working to maintain traditional quill art today, and LeBeau is one of those.
“I’m not sure how many people are doing it,” he said, “The younger kids aren’t into this so much, so there are fewer quillworkers every day. The vests can take up to two years to make.”
LeBeau has bags of quills of various colors for his demon-stration. “I pick them off roadkill sometimes,” he said, “but mostly I buy them from traders.” His main suppliers are in Michigan and northern Minnesota.
While LeBeau learned to become a quillworker mainly by reading books, he does have a mentor in Dorothy Brave Eagle, a quillworker who lives in Denver, Colorado. “I would do a piece and she would tell me where it was working and where I needed to do some fine-tuning,” he said.
He also specializes in Native American artifacts. “I have some buffalo bones that are thousands of years old,” he said. “They were used for ceremonies and in sweat lodges. I’ve collected them from riverbanks, swamps and suppliers and use them to educate the public. Those are pieces of art that can’t be replaced.”
LeBeau also makes his own rattles from turtle shells and buffalo hoofs. Once, after fashioning a new rattle, he ran across one of the same design in a book of ancient Indian artifacts. “It made my hair stand on end,” he laughed.
LeBeau became a jeweler out of necessity. “I saw that the artifacts weren’t moving quite as quickly as the jewelry was,” he said. So he hit the books again and learned how to do jewelry.
Working with a variety of stones — agate, turquoise, amber and fossil marble — LeBeau makes bracelets, earrings and pendants. He cuts the stones himself.
When they’re not creating the art and doing demon-strations, LeBeau and Alexander appear at fine art shows.
“We go to a lot of Native American art shows,” he said, “but we don’t do powwows. At powwows, they sell a lot of cheap, imported stuff, and I can’t compete with the price.”
LeBeau has won many awards for his work. About the only thing he will not do is a commissioned piece.
He said, “I’ve never taken commission work because it would take so much away from my art and my personal feelings about it. Then it’s like I’m working for someone again. Once I got away from that, I never wanted to work for anyone again in my life.”
LeBeau is philosophical about his journey. “Growing up in the Cities and connecting with the Lakota artwork was a way for me to get away from the drugs and alcohol. I consider that I grew up on one side of the tracks, and now I’m on the other side. I’m trying to walk the Red Road now and live the proper lifestyle. When I see the younger kids now I think, OK, they have to learn and experience it. But some will make the transition. I was able to do that through the art, and I hope they will be able to too.”