(Dakota Lakota Journal, 2006 – reprinted in Native Legacy Magazine – Vol. 2 Issue 4 – Fall 2009)
Photo: Traditional & contemporary Lakota artist and renowned Northern traditional dancer, Dawn Little Sky, outside her home in Yellow Bear Canyon, south of Kyle. She stands in front of one of her buffalo hide wintercounts. This piece is based on her husband, Eddie Little Sky’s grandfather, John Calhoff’s Wintercount recount and documents Lakota tiospaye history from 1759-1900s.
Dawn Little Sky, artist, actress, dancer and teacher
A Lakota living treasure
By Abena Songbird
Dakota Lakota Journal Staff Writer
KYLE ― Dawn Little Sky is from Standing Rock, grew up in Ft. Yates South Dakota, and is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
Her parents – John and Ethel Gates were from Standing Rock. Her grandmother, Nellie Gates, the daughter of Chief Two Bear, and mother both were extremely deft in the Lakota arts of bead and quill work – she learned at their feet.
“Her beadwork is in the Smithsonian,” Little Sky proudly said of her grandmother’s work.
A renowned Traditional Dancer, Little Sky also has a long history of work as an artist in a variety of mediums: oils, acrylic, charcoal, pastels, sculpture and mural work, and has taught Lakota Arts and History in many tribal schools in South Dakota. She was head staff for 2005 Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque, New Mexico.She learned first with the trade beads of the era: white, black, blue, yellow and red – “We didn’t have the cut glass shiny beads of today,” she said. “Back then they were very small – size 13 or so.”
During World War II, Little Sky said demand for her beadwork really geared up as she, her mother and grandmother made things to give to service men to take back – novelty work in red-white-and blue, cigarette cases, and billfolds. She was nine years old.
“We didn’t have television then. In Winter time, that was our amusement,” she said of the bead and quill work she became a master of.
She also spent her time drawing – mostly animals. “Grandmother taught me how to do quillwork,” she said adding, that for her it’s easier now than the beading, as her eyesight is beginning to fail her. They would go and collect the quills mostly from road kill and use crepe paper for their dyes. They would soak different colors of crepe paper to get out the dye and soak the quills in it.
“The dyes in crepe paper are very good – they didn’t fade much,” said Little Sky. They used mostly reds, blues, yellows and greens – ‘whatever colors you could find.”
Dawn also has been involved in modern art, from a family of five – herself, two other sisters and two brothers, she said her whole family was artistic and she learned to paint, draw, sculpt. “It was just a way of life for us,” she said.
Little Sky went to boarding school in Kansas – Haskell Indian School where she met and married Eddie Little Sky. She eventually studied art at Kansas State University in Lawrence.
She and her husband Eddie moved to Pine Ridge and had five children. Her son, John Little Sky is a singer with Eagle Mountain Drum. As Eddie was a rodeo hand, the family followed rodeos for awhile.
Breaking Ground, uncharted territory
Eddie had a chance to work on the movie “Crazy Horse” when in came to Rapid City, and Dawn joined him herself; “We got interested in the movies,” she said. The movie, filmed in the late 1950’s spanned a thirty five year career for Eddie, an adventure which Dawn also embarked on.
They both were character actors in the movie industry, and eventually moved to Los Angeles in 1959 to continue making films. Both she and her husband had speaking roles in various films at a time when the majority of Native actors of the time were extras; their filmographies are equally impressive. Eddie was in over 60 films, Dawn, in ten.
To help support the family Dawn took a job with Walt Disney Productions doing her art. She was placed in the ink and paint department and learned how to color cells.
This was quite an unknown for an Indian woman of the time. “I just packed up my portfolio and went and applied,” she said.
Little Sky said she didn’t realize every artist around was trying to get a job at Disney. They were intrigued by an Indian artist and they hired me,” she modestly said.
She inked cells for 3-4 years all the while beaded and doing quillwork for outfits in film. Being lonesome in Hollywood, Little Sky said they got acquainted with other Indians and formed clubs and had powwows in the California Area – which also kept her busy making regalia.
Photo: Dawn’s husband, prominent actor, Eddie Little Sky, in a “still” from his movie portfolio. Photo courtesy of Dawn Little Sky, from her collection.
The Little Skys spent close to twenty years [1959-1975] in California. When Disneyland opened its gates in 1956, she and her husband went to work there. She was a narrator hired to explain dances she also performed. Dawn danced traditional in the Indian Village, along with other tribes who had relocated to the Los Angeles area during the work relocation era.
Both she and her husband made numerous movies and were principal character actors on a variety of television shows including: “Rawhide,” “A Man called Mushy,” “Gunsmoke,” a movie “Cimarron” in the early ‘60s and later, “Billy Two Hats,” “The Apple Dumpling Gang,” and “Duel at Diablo.” Some may recognize her for her role as Grandma Moore in the 1994 movie: “Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee.” They both were featured prominently in many of their films and shows.
“I really enjoyed that very much – making movies. It’s an interesting way of life,” said Little Sky of those years.
She met many of the screen stars of the era: Glen Ford, Robert Mitchum. She said they were friends with Robert’s brother, John Mitchum, also an actor. They also both knew Jay Silverheels, the Six Nations actor who had been among the first Indians in film in the late 1930s.
Movies starring Indian people in that day was in its infancy: “They thought all Indians were stoic and said, ‘ugh!” said Little Sky.
Though typecast in his Lone Ranger role as “Tonto,” Silverheels’ career spanned over sixty years and he starred in more than a hundred films and shows.
Little Sky said she really liked actress Sophia Loren – “she was really nice,” and liked working with German actress, Maria Schell.
Though they spent many years in Los Angeles, Little Sky said they both never felt it was home. They still said home was South Dakota, and they would go back and forth to spend time with family in Yellow Bear Canyon, south of Kyle, where she now lives.
Little Sky worked for Western Costuming and did all the work for John Wayne’s costume in the 1960 film, “The Alamo.” Wayne played Col. Davy Crockett.
She also had a booth at different art festivals and county fairs in California.
“I made a living off it when I wanted to,” she said. At that time she was doing a lot of pastels, portraitures of Indian children, warriors and maidens. “My best seller was an Indian medicine man,” she said. Even then her work was highly sought after. She remembers one customer who followed her around at the various shows and bought up everything she ever drew.
She could do a drawing in ten minutes. She also gave much work away to family – children.
She and Eddie also traveled extensively with rodeo cowboy and World Champion Trick Rider, Casey Tibbs’ American Wild West Show & Rodeo. They went twice to Japan; also toured most of Europe. They performed their dances before the then Crown Prince of Japan and also Prince Albert of Monoco.
Photo: Dawn Little Sky in her fully beaded regalia, on horseback in Japan [circa 1973] as part of World Champion Trick Rider, Casey Tibb’s Wild West Show
The call back home
In 1975 she, her husband, Eddie and kids moved back to South Dakota. They lived in Eagle Butte for awhile as her mother was getting up in age and Dawn wanted to be near her. The kids were older and she said they were “phasing out the Hollywood era” and wanted to move back home.
Little Sky says she has also raised two grandchildren. When she came back to the reservation she became involved in teaching art to children in both grade school and middle school. She found out that she enjoyed teaching. She started in the Eagle Butte Program supplement to Educational Curriculum. Little Sky would tell Indian stories, developing an art project to go with them. She taught youth how to bead, sketch on charcoal – about composition.
“They didn’t know about composition,” she said adding, “I thought that was really great.”
In the 1980’s she went to work in Kyle at Little Wound School as an art instructor for K-8th graders. For ten years she said she “had her hands full.”
Little Sky retired after her husband passed away in 1997 but as she didn’t want to stay at home; she went back to teaching. “It helped me deal with my grief,” she said. “You can’t be sad around kids. They really cheer you up.”
She has since spawned several generations of traditional artists with this encouragement. She still has students who come up to her and say:
“You taught me how to bead,” and “You were the first to teach me how to do quillwork – now my wife is making a living doing it.”
Little Sky says it’s through these arts, song and dance, ‘It’s the main way we retain our Lakota culture.”
She said when you are doing these traditional arts it requires research. One must ask – why did we use these different colors? or find out what certain signs mean.
She heats her quills with a certain eye bolt which has an antler handle; a tool hand-crafted for her by her husband.
Not wanting to divulge her trade secrets, she said over the years that some people use a bone, and that her grandmother used her teeth. “Pulling the quills with your teeth – you have to be very careful,” said Little Sky. She said her grandmother also had very long fingernails and used them also to flatten the quills.
In 2001, Little Sky retired for the second time. She said she likes her afternoon naps. Currently working mostly in her home, she is enjoying working with acrylics; painting mostly dancers – fancy shawl. She also does hide painting – wintercounts.
Dawn also was one of five artists who demonstrated her work at the Agate Fossil Beds national Monument in Nebraska. Her wintercount, “The Running Water Winter Count” on display there is acrylic on elk hide. It symbolizes the creation of earth, and took eight months to research and paint.
In Jan. 2005 Little Sky traveled to Pierre to receive the 15th Annual Living Treasure Award from The South Dakota Arts Council in recognition of her mastery of traditional Lakota arts and a lifetime of achievement. Governor Mike Rounds presented her a Pendleton blanket at a special dinner at the Ramkota River Centre.
Brother C.M. Simon, SJ, of the Red Cloud Heritage Center, Pine Ridge shared these comments when she received the award, “Dawn has dedicated her life to the preservation and teaching of Lakota Arts,” said Brother C. M. Simon, SJ, of the Red Cloud Heritage Center, Pine Ridge. “Dawn is an accomplished artist. Her tribal artistry includes bead and quillwork and hide painting winter counts.”
At the 2006 20th Annual He Sapa Wacipi Sunday evening Oct. 8, her granddaughter, Chanda Pendon, a traditional dancer, hosted a Golden Age Special on her behalf. Her daughter, the former Miss Indian World, Prairie Rose, came from Canada. All three of her sons were there to help, as well as all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“My great-grandchildren are now coming into the arena,” said Little Sky. “It’s really great, fun to watch.”
Her favorite, most enjoyable part of the powwow are the drums. She has known many of the singers when they were children, and has seen them grow and form their drums. Her late husband, Eddie used to make drums and would sing for his sons, when they danced. Her son, John Little Sky is a singer with Eagle Mountain.
“I was the first female eyapaha in Anaheim Park, California. We used to 49 all night in those days, “said Little Sky adding, “They were very tame back then. We had all our children and just naturally gravitated together with other Indian families.”
Her children are now hounding her to begin recording excerpts of her life to include in a book. She has lived such a groundbreaking, creative life: first woman eyapaha in Los Angeles, first Indian woman to color cells at Disney, one of the early Indian actors in the movie industry, traveling and dancing the world in the Wild West Shows, becoming a master at the Lakota arts of quill and beadwork, as well as masterful artist with pastels, charcoal, in contemporary forms.
Though she holds some memories close to her heart; those which may be painful to relive; Little Sky’s life has been one of great adventure, courage and creativity. It is clear that she is an inspiration to indigenous women and men everywhere.
“I’ve been very fortunate; been involved in artwork most of my life.”