Art Bringing Northern Cheyenne Students ‘Closer Together’

Lame Deer High students collaborate, find inspiration for upcoming art show

Art Bringing Northern Cheyenne Students ‘Closer Together’
Kojiro Umezaki works with Lame Deer High School students at the Stapleton Gallery in Billings in 2019 during one of many visits to Montana. The ongoing partnership has developed over the years, and the latest collaboration between Silk Road and students at Lame Deer includes an art exhibition opening May 7, at Refuge Gallery in Basin, Mont. / Photo courtesy of Allison Kazmierski

There are thousands of stories in a pair of shoes, from their origins to their ultimate decay. For students at Lame Deer High School, shoes have also become artistic muses.

The assignment: Deconstruct and rebuild a shoe using new materials and forms. Not just any shoe, but Nike’s iconic Air Force 1. Twenty-two pairs of blank new sneakers were donated to the high school through a partnership with Nike, Portland-based fashion designer Palani Bear Ghost, and Nike’s N7 Fund, which provides grants to support positive experiences in sport and physical activity for Native youth.

“I wanted to empower the students while working with them, inspiring them to tap into their imaginations and freedom of expression,” said Bear Ghost, an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation whose grandmother was Northern Cheyenne. She is including student designs on fabric as part of an upcoming release through her fashion brand, No End Of Designs.

The fashion textiles, finished shoes, block prints, clay designs and other artwork created by students from Lame Deer will be on display as part of “Closer Together,” a group show opening May 7, at Refuge Gallery in Basin, between Helena and Butte. A music video created by Lame Deer students and Silkroad Ensemble musician Kojiro Umezaki, also titled “Closer Together,” will make its world premiere at the opening.

Palani Bear Ghost (left), a fashion designer based in Portland, and Jonathan Riley, CEO of Portland-based agency Better, work with students at Lame Deer High School during a course on brand design. / Photo courtesy of Susan Wolfe
Palani Bear Ghost (left), a fashion designer based in Portland, and Jonathan Riley, CEO of Portland-based agency Better, work with students at Lame Deer High School during a course on brand design. / Photo courtesy of Susan Wolfe

Susan Wolfe, art educator at Lame Deer Public Schools, said “Closer Together” has been a collaborative effort and has inspired the students to work together, something she’s not seen in the past. “It has drawn everyone toward one another,” Wolfe said. “When they were engaging with one another, it was often behavioral issues, but now they are helping each other.”

Skylar Moore, a senior at Lame Deer High School, is creating his shoe design from Frooties candy wrappers. “It was around Halloween when we came up with the idea,” said Moore, who has been working with Natista Clubfoot, a junior. “I couldn’t really think of anything to do, so I chose candy wrappers.”

Moore bends over his shoe like a surgeon as he utilizes tools including a precision knife and seam ripper to disassemble and reassemble the shoe. “I like it because I got to work on it with my friend, and he was a lot of help,” Moore said.

Clubfoot chose a traffic cone for his shoe design. “I wanted mine to be unique from everyone else’s,” he said. “A traffic cone was the most random object I could think of at the time.”

Wolfe has been teaching art at Lame Deer High School for 13 years, and she quickly realized how important shoes are to the students, so she developed a brand design course to incorporate into the curriculum. Students mold shoes from clay, use their own footwear in drawing class and construct artful shoe boxes to contain their designs.

“Shoes have always been a focus of mine because it was a way to relate to the kids,” she said. “It’s such a status symbol.”

Wolfe said her teaching methods are heavily influenced by the students.

“I want real situations. We can’t afford to waste a minute of their time. If I can find that moment and that skill that they are interested in, I have to run with everything I have to get them there. If they are interested in mixing, they get involved in sound design. If they are interested in shoe design, I have to go straight to the top, and Nike is it.”

A COLLABORATIVE SOUND

The musical portion of “Closer Together” began with a grant awarded by Silkroad Seeds to Kojiro Umezaki, a member of the Silkroad Ensemble founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma to create cultural connections through music. Umezaki, a composer who plays a Japanese flute called a shakuhachi, has been working with students in Lame Deer since 2012.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic stalled the project, Umezaki and the students began this year to finalize the music track inspired by Korean pop music, aka K-pop. The mastered recording will be released at the gallery show in tandem with a music video directed and filmed by students.

“I find K-pop to be a very interesting phenomenon,” Umezaki said. “It has this embrace from all corners of the world.”

Shandiin Kaline, a senior at Lame Deer High, said she loves K-pop and has been listening to it for several years. “It just hits differently,” she described. She and fellow students wrote their own song, created bit by bit each time Umezaki visited. The melody originated with a series of Japanese and Chinese characters that students were learning how to paint. Each character represents a phonetic sound, and students chose their placement as Umezaki played the tones until they found a melody that would become the core of “Closer Together.”

The finished track is a culturally rich composition with global musical influences that combines the Northern Cheyenne language and lyrics by the students.

“The mission of the Silkroad for me is to try to challenge the kinds of boundaries that get created around you,” Umezaki said. “I think about how boundaries get created and how we can punch holes though those barriers.”

When it came time to record and mix the final track and film a music video, the students met Umezaki in Los Angeles, with additional funding provided by the University of California, Irvine, where Umezaki teaches.

Norman Stewart, an eighth grade student, experiments with color blocking on a Nike sneaker worksheet during a course on brand design. Photo courtesy of Susan Wolfe
Norman Stewart, an eighth grade student, experiments with color blocking on a Nike sneaker worksheet during a course on brand design. Photo courtesy of Susan Wolfe

“Being there in person is so valuable,” Umezaki said. “There is nothing that replaces the physical experience of being somewhere and meeting people. It’s different to walk into the studio and have an instructor well-versed in the medium and go through the moves physically, feeling physiologically what it takes to engage in this music.”

In California, students visited a recording studio and took part in the process. They also participated in the creation of a music video that incorporated K-pop dance moves and traditional Northern Cheyenne dance.

“I realized that not a lot of people know about Native American culture,” Kaline said. “All they see is what is on TV. When people meet me and I tell them I’m Native, some people think we went extinct. It was pretty cool to teach them about Native culture and show them our traditional regalia.”

Wearing a dress adorned with metal cones that make a bell-like sound when the dancer moves, Kaline shared a dance of the Northern Cheyenne people for the recording and video. “The jingle dress is known as the medicine dress,” Kaline explained. “It’s healing, the sound. When there is a whole group of jingle dress dancers dancing together, it’s like a rainstorm. The sound is very soothing, and it goes really well with music — not just powwow but contemporary music in general.”

Throughout the song, electric guitar creates a wild and invigorating sound, but there’s also tragedy in the undertones. One of the students playing guitar on the recording, Kash Spang, died on Dec. 10, 2020.

“We wanted to include a piece of his guitar playing and engaged his peers and asked their thoughts,” Wolfe said. “They wanted to include it.”

For Umezaki, “Closer Together” captured the essence of many years working with students in Lame Deer and navigating such tragedies.

“I felt compelled to bring some of that recording into this,” he said. “We are trying to be better with each other. But there are still some things we need to work through.”

For Cheyenne Hiwalker, a junior who helped direct the music video, the experience informed her art and helped her heal from another tragedy. She comes from a family of artists and was influenced by her older brother, Jayshawn Medicine Top, who was a talented drawer and made dream catchers. His death in September has been hard for Hiwalker, but she found a way to honor her brother in her art.

“Art really did help me,” she said. “When I thought about him, he really brought me a lot of joy, and we used to sit in this field, and I thought of flowers, and it inspired me to put that into the piece.”

“You don’t always know what is happening in their lives,” Wolfe said. “My goal here is to keep a safe space for them to just do their work. It’s their piece, however they want to express themselves. I want them to be comfortable.”

TO THE MOON AND BACK

The song “Closer Together” makes its world debut on May 7, and then it’s headed to the moon. In collaboration with Montana State University’s computer science program, the track is one of several recordings hitching a ride to space on the upcoming NASA mission inside MSU’s “RadPC.”

No larger than a Rubik’s Cube, RadPC is one of 12 radiation-tolerant computer technologies being sent to the moon for testing on the lunar surface as part of NASA’s Artemis program.

“Now we are not talking local/global, but celestial,” Umezaki said. “That the Northern Cheyenne language is represented, and that the names of the students who recorded that track and the translation in Northern Cheyenne — it’s a beautiful thing. It reinforces the aspiration that all voices have value and should have value across humanity.”

Wolfe submitted the song after hearing about a call for recordings to accompany the device into space.

In this film still frame from “Closer Together,” Shandiin Kaline, a senior at Lame Deer High School, presents a dance of the Northern Cheyenne people, wearing traditional regalia, for a music video that will be released on May 7, at Refuge Gallery in Basin, Mont. / Photo courtesy of Pete Tolton
In this film still frame from “Closer Together,” Shandiin Kaline, a senior at Lame Deer High School, presents a dance of the Northern Cheyenne people, wearing traditional regalia, for a music video that will be released on May 7, at Refuge Gallery in Basin, Mont. / Photo courtesy of Pete Tolton

“It’s about relationships,” she said. “This is how we gain trust and get close to the kids, the theme of being closer together repeating itself over and over. This is what it takes to get that deep connection going.”

Such relationships are instilling confidence in students, one project at a time.

“I had to put myself out there,” Kaline said. “A lot of kids here are very antisocial, so we are scared to put ourselves out there, but when it’s with a group of friends or a group of people, it makes it less scary.”

Kaline attributes her emerging artistic skills to having confidence in herself and her work. “Had it not been for Miss Wolfe, I would probably not be who I am today,” she said. “When she took us on all these art trips, my confidence began to grow because I got more experiences around people and more experiences around the art world. My time here that involved art will really stick with me. It changed my life.”

“Closer Together” is on display at Refuge Gallery, 101 Basin St., from May 7 through June 24. For more information, visit montanaartistrefuge.com.

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