Inspired by her children, jewelry artist marries personal passion with new business

Debbie Rattling Leaf (Northern Arapaho) has a hard time calling herself an artist. While she has been creating art for more than two decades, she never seriously considered marrying her love of traditional jewelry-making with a business plan until recently.

“I’m still trying,” said Rattling Leaf, who grew up in Colorado and married a Lakota man. She now lives in Black Hawk, South Dakota. Part of her efforts to grow a business has included teaming up with First Peoples Fund, who awarded her a 2015 Artist in Business Leadership Fellowship earlier this year.

Like many artists, her penchant for creating came naturally. “I just did it because I liked doing it.”

Once she had kids, she started sewing their outfits for pow wows and eventually taught regalia-making classes. “I kept going, and new ideas came to me,” she said.

Putting those ideas on paper was the next step to turning this work into a career. Rattling Leaf plans to use the First Peoples Fund fellowship, and the professional development support it provides, to develop an art booth, design and order business cards, and develop a website. It's all new to her, she noted.

Social media is also new, and admits that it is even a little frustrating at times. She might explore other avenues to promote her work and sell art eventually, like eBay, Pinterest and Etsy. But the hardest work facing Rattling Leaf has less to do with the nuts and bolts of running a business and more to do with her mind, particularly getting used to the idea of seeing herself as a business woman. “I’m trying to change my mindset,” she said.

She traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for a First Peoples Fund training earlier this year, and was encouraged and challenged by the artists she met there. “It was eye-opening,” she recalled. “You have to think about how to spread your work around."

Another hurdle Rattling Leaf faces is keeping up with inventory. “And maybe part of that is my pricing,” she said.

When she’s not hands-on with the business, Rattling Leaf is spending time with her 16-year-old son, who is autistic. She volunteers in one of his school art classes, teaching the students to make simple pieces of jewelry. “It’s something they can enjoy and it can be their own.”

There’s a special connection she feels with her son when they work on projects together, whether it be art or gardening or spending time in nature. “It’s just joyful,” Rattling Leaf said. “He loves to do anything I do." 

She also enjoys sharing the joys of her trade with customers. Taking the time to talk with people who visit her booth has given her more confidence and also given her time to reflect on the history of her tribe, which is from the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. “There have been a few times where I’ve been challenged,” she recalled, about the authenticity of her jewelry. “It makes me sad,” she said, that she has to defend her work and explain where her stones and beads come from.

“I didn’t have all the answers, but I told them why I made it. It’s been a challenge, but it’s fun. I enjoy meeting people.”

First Peoples Fund has been “awesome,” she said, in changing the way she sees her work and business. Looking down the road, she envisions a place where she has a better grasp of the business and has found balance in her work and home life. “In a year, I hope I have it all together and understand where I’m going,” she said. “I’m still just learning.”