In Terrance Guardipee’s painting “Receives the Vision,” a Blackfeet warrior enters a dream state that will guide him to his true path. His headdress stretches to the sky as his white horse leaps across the canvas.
The intertwining blue lines that dance along the bottom represent the warrior’s ancestors. A yellow-orange splash is the Creator or Sun God. The circles are stars and constellations; six circles make up the Little Dipper, seven make up the Big. A red patch on the horse’s chest is a spiritual shield, while the triangles running down its front legs are mountains.
In Guardipee’s work, everything means something. And it’s all part of keeping his people, the Blackfeet tribe of Montana, alive.
“That’s the spirit and soul of my art,” he said. “The heritage of my people.” Visitors can witness this heritage at Guardipee’s exhibit at Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center through April 30. The exhibit marks the reopening of the long-dormant Sacred Circle Gallery, as well as local artist Andrew Morrison’s first turn as gallery curator and manager.
“In my opinion, [Guardipee] is one of the best Native American artists in contemporary times,” said Morrison, who was hired in December. “He was the first person who came to mind.”
This is also the first time Guardipee’s entire family has exhibited its artwork together. His wife, Catherine Black Horse, of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, designs award-winning Native regalia. Daughters Bree and Victoria Black Horse create colorful works that reflect their Seminole heritage, when they’re not law clerking or attending medical school, respectively.
Like the warrior in his painting, Guardipee had his own vision, in 1997, that led him to commit to life as an artist. Today, he is internationally acclaimed and known for ledger art, a historical American Indian form dating to the 1860s and revived by a handful of contemporary artists.
Traditionally, Plains Indians recorded their battles and hunts by painting them on buffalo hides. But as the U.S. government slaughtered buffalo herds in the mid-1800s to drive Indians off wanted land and coerced tribes onto reservations, the Plains people turned to other art materials: ledgers and accounting books from traders, settlers
and military officers.
Guardipee dove into ledger art after he left the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. He moved to Seattle, where he met George Flett, a ledger artist of the Spokane Tribe, who served as a mentor. Flett died in 2013.
“I knew about [ledger art] but I wasn’t really into it,” Guardipee said. “I gradually started doing it, became really immersed in it, and it really took over my art career.”
Eventually, Guardipee developed his own take on ledger art by incorporating other antique documents, such as maps, war rations and checks from Montana that he digs up thanks to a few dealers.
Of course, those documents hold meaning, too. A map might represent ownership of land, he explained. A check, the vision of a family; a mining stock certificate, the minerals used by a tribe; a WWII ration, war societies.
In these collages, the background tells a story of a shifting and changing Montana, while the colorful image overlaying it — often a Blackfeet warrior — represents his tribe’s people holding on to their culture and identity: “That even though these changes came, we remembered who we are and where we came from,” Guardipee said.
A blessing from the elders
Guardipee’s art is mission-driven. Nearly all of it reflects the culture, society and mythology of the Blackfeet people as a way of ensuring they are never forgotten. One of Guardipee’s fears is that the meaning of Blackfeet symbols will someday be lost, so he passes it on to gallery patrons, clients and buyers nationwide.
“When I created these [ledgers], I wasn’t creating make-believe characters,” he said. “I was basing them on my family and my tribe mates and recreating their histories.”
His vision of preserving his tribe’s history was evident at the Sacred Circle Gallery exhibit’s Feb. 12 opening. As visitors toured a room of large canvases, rich color and sweeping texture, Guardipee was on hand to take them step-by-step through the symbols and stories that permeate his pieces.
“I love explaining and pulling people into my art so they can understand where I’m coming from,” Guardipee said. “It’s giving it life.”
At the opening, he shared the story of Running Eagle, a Blackfeet female war chief of the early 1800s. Guardipee said he visited Running Eagle Falls in Glacier National Park, where Running Eagle sat to pray and fast, many years ago. When Catherine Black Horse took a picture of Guardipee standing in front of the falls, a white circle appeared on his shoulder.
“I took that as a sign that she wanted me to bring her story back to life,” he said. Since he began painting her image years ago, he has sent works depicting Running Eagle all over the world.
Catherine Black Horse’s dresses, which have been featured on the cover of Native People’s Magazine, are also meant to serve as a reminder of the power of women.
“My artwork is about the strength and power of a woman when she is true to herself,” said Black Horse, also in attendance. “A reminder that we are precious, and that we are the true backbone of a family.”
Guardipee said elders in Montana didn’t always welcome sharing Blackfeet imagery with the world. He spent time in the late ’90s convincing elders that telling a story of Blackfeet strength, spirit and beauty would be good for his tribe. He didn’t want to continue, he said, unless he had their blessing.
A cultural rebirth
Having an exhibit at Daybreak Star, which provides a spiritual and cultural base for urban Natives in the Seattle area, is a return to the past for Guardipee.
He is now a Seattle resident who travels year-round, but when he first arrived as an up-and-coming artist, he said the center made him feel at home. His whole family has been involved in programs of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation (uiatf), which operates the center. At the exhibit, two posters he designed for past uiatf powwows were on display.
But for many, Guardipee’s exhibit is more a sign of the future.
Katherine Cleland, uiatf project coordinator, said the gallery opening and Guardipee exhibit signify a revival of Daybreak Star.
At the end of 2013, the center was facing a financial crisis and possible closure.
“The mood was just so somber, and people were so worried,” Cleland said. “This is the first tangible manifestation of a rebirth.”
A grant from the City of Seattle’s Art Means Business Program has allowed the uiatf to hire Morrison and reopen the center’s gallery and gift shop. When Morrison arrived, the gift shop had become a storage space full of dusty boxes and neglected artwork.
He set to work revamping. By the time the gallery opened for Guardipee’s exhibit, the gift shop and gallery were complete with shiny new floors, display cases and framed paintings that had been tucked away for years.
“It’s an exciting time of rebuilding energy, rebuilding relationships and resurgence of artistic creativity,” Morrison said.
For Jeff Smith, uiatf board chairman, seeing the Guardipee exhibit was thrilling.
“It’s like letting light into a dark room,” he said. “To see the energy that this has brought is amazing.”