Amidst family loss, Cheyenne River Sioux artist finds life in sculpting

Brendon Albers’ (Cheyenne River Sioux) art career began with a tragedy four years ago. “My brother got stomach cancer,” said Albers. “I moved to the Sioux Falls area [in South Dakota] and I started doing ceremonies to heal him.”

Albers’ brother passed away a year after his diagnosis, but the reintroduction to the Lakota belief system, culture and traditions stayed with him. “I wouldn’t have become a sun dancer or picked up the Lakota values again if it weren’t for my brother,” he said. “It took desperate measures, but a lot of good came from it.”

He found familiarity and comfort in sculpting rocks and stones by hammer and chisel, a traditional method rarely used today. While his brother was sick, Albers stayed close by his side at the hospital. For 25 days, he spent time between sculpting and caring for his ailing brother. The result was a $2800 piece that the family later sold and used as funding to travel to honoring ceremonies for his brother, Tanner, after his death. 

When Albers sold a sculpture to Little Wound High School, he realized he was at a turning point. “I decided then that I wanted to do this for a living,” he said.

Albers recently received an Artist in Business Leadership Fellowship from First Peoples Fund and plans to use the funding and support to expand his new business. 

“It bugs me to get rid of originals,” he said with a laugh. Investing in a casting machine would help him make replicas of his original work, allowing him to work more efficiently and increase his sales.

He is also working to expand his social media presence and is in the process of building a website. And, he recently completed work on a large alabaster stone carving of the spiritual holders of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Women (Pte Ska Win). In Lakota tradition, she taught the Lakota people the seven sacred rituals and gave them their “chanupa,” or sacred pipe. It is now on display at the Sandy Swallow Gallery in Hill City, South Dakota.

“It’s really exciting,” he said. “I feel so grateful. I’ve come a long way in a year.”

It was in a bus that Albers had his first studio. He now shares studio space with his father on a 10-acre piece of property “in the middle of nowhere. It’s perfect,” he said. “I’m building a pond before winter.” 

Albers has also discovered a love of teaching. Last year he visited a high school art class. “There were guys who were athletes in there, and at first they thought art was ‘girly,’” he said, noting that they were singing a different tune by the end of the presentation. “They saw that you can be rugged and still create beautiful things.” 

Helping students understand that art can be more than a hobby, and see it as a potential career path, is one of Albers’ passions now. “I want to reach out to kids who didn’t realize that art was an option,” he said.

His dream is to someday have a studio that is open to students or artists just beginning who are looking for a free place to get started. “There’s a lot of us in Indian Country looking for something for the kids,” he said. “If they want to come and dance or sing Lakota, I’ll find someone to teach them. Singing, dancing, painting… any art form.” 

Following your culture shouldn’t be hard, he said. “They shouldn’t have to pay or get discouraged when they can’t find it,” he said.

He hopes First Peoples Fund will be right beside him through the process, he said. “They’re fantastic,” he said. “They’re so family-oriented, so open and trusting. It’s like I was adopted in to a family.” 

Brendon Albers is a 2015 Artists in Business Leadership Fellow.