Lakota Artist Seeks To Not Just Pass On Traditional Drum Making Methods, But Also To Strengthen The Mind And Spirit Of Youth

During his childhood, Warren "Guss" Yellow Hair (Oglala Lakota) was reprimanded in school for drawing. That same passion that used to get him in trouble has since developed in to a successful career as a Native Plains artist.

It was originally Yellow Hair's uncles—one a musician and the other a carver and painter—who inspired him to pursue art.

"It was great to have them as mentors and role models," he said.

Yellow Hair, who is an adjunct professor for Oglala Lakota College in South Dakota and teaches Lakota language and traditional Northern Plains art classes, is a recipient of a 2015 First Peoples Fund Cultural Capital Fellowship. The fellowship has made it possible for Yellow Hair to organize and lead art therapy courses for youth ages 12 to 17, including hands-on lessons on drum making. He learned the form from his cousin about 15 years ago.

"I love to learn, and be around learning," he said. "When we were working on a project together years ago, the little ones would surround us. I would talk to them, incorporating Lakota phrases and it turned in to an after-school program."

The courses provide students hands-on lessons in preparing raw materials to make hand drums, including scraping and de-hairing the hides using traditional Lakota methods. He also teaches the students the traditional meanings of the colors used, and the songs. The students get to keep their own drum at the end of the process.

Yellow Hair is also using the fellowship to host traditional camping workshops for drum making. Youth will camp outside for three to four days and be immersed in the traditional Native spirituality, healing and survival methods. Two more camps, one in June and one in August, will be held this year with the help of the Cultural Capital Fellowship.

"It strengthens the mind, heart and body," he said. "With the high rate of suicide, it helps to build a rapport with these students. Once they feel comfortable and safe, they're able to share of themselves. The kids just blossom. It's a chance to grow and be proud of our culture."

He has also used some of the funding from the fellowship to purchase a computer and market the camps. He has utilized First Peoples Fund Native Artist Professional Development Training to become more "savvy" about how social media and technology can advance his career and art.

Yellow Hair said working with First Peoples Fund has been exciting, and meaningful. His relationship with the organization led him to an engagement with The Gymnasium, an arts organization located in Minneapolis, for an event held in Sioux Falls, South Dakota a few years ago. He also performed for Queen Elizabeth II of England during her Diamond Jubilee in June 2012 and was the featured Indian artist at the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in July 2012.

"I'm overwhelmed and just really happy to receive the Cultural Capital Fellowship," he said. "You get one-on-one treatment with First Peoples Fund staff. They support me, and are just wonderful to be around."