Cloth dolls pass along traditions -- and help smooth life’s rough edges
April 23, 2021

Cloth dolls pass along traditions -- and help smooth life’s rough edges

I want to emphasize the belief that we are part of the Pte Oyate (Bufalo Nation.) I want to share an open pride in my heritage.

Gene Swallow (Oglala Sioux) is a fiber arts sculptor and doll maker. Gene’s dolls and fabric sculptures range from playthings to works of art meant for display. He uses fleece, soft faux camel-hair, or light denim. His dolls are made from patterns and are stuffed with poly-fill. He uses brand new quality fabrics and materials for the dolls that are meant to be held and played with by our younger relatives. For his higher end fabric sculptures, Gene has a preference for natural fibers like wool, linen, or cotton, and opts for reclaiming and up-cycling vintage fabrics . Other materials used in his works include leather, embroidery floss, beads, wool roving for hair, and glass beads for eyes. Gene is a 2021 First Peoples Fund Artists in Business Leadership Fellow.

Gene Swallow’s soft cloth dolls pass along traditions -- and help smooth life’s rough edges.

For as long as he can remember, Gene Swallow has been creative. “I was always really artsy, crafty,” he said. “I would see some art work and say to my friends, ‘I could do that.’ And then finally one of them called me out on it and challenged me” to prove it.

So three years ago he hauled out an old sewing machine and some fabric his mother Susanna Swallow had given him and made his first cloth doll. On a whim, he entered it into the prestigious annual art show at the Red Cloud School in his home Oglala Lakota Nation. 

The piece was so good the school’s Heritage Center bought it for its permanent collection. A whole new world opened up for the single parent of twin 17-year-old boys and Gene began producing a string of high-end art pieces that were meant to be collector’s items and displayed. “I made great sales and commissions,” he said. “But I heard from younger people or families on tighter budgets who would say they would have to save up to afford a piece. So I started doing affordable baby dolls and youth dolls that were not only accessible, but were durable enough to be held and played with.”

Gene made three types of dolls -- an infant, a child and a teen -- from quality materials that were readily available and inexpensive that allowed him to balance production cost and time with a reasonable price for customers.

Now he’s ready for another turn of the wheel. 

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1. Gene Swallow and his two twin boys. 2. Gene Swallow at an art market, with his fabric sculptures and dolls. 3 & 4. Cloth dolls by Gene Swallow. Photos provided by the artist.

Gene was honored with a First People’s Fund Artist in Business Leadership Fellow grant this year and has a goal of bringing his dolls to a wider audience -- and using them to help pass along Lakota traditions, language and culture.

“I made the prototypes,” he said, of the appealing yet simple dolls that he now hopes one day are produced by a string of sewers he engages in the community. “I want a consistent brand,” he said, for the dolls he calls “visually beautiful but meant to be hugged.” He wants his soft cloth, culturally inspired dolls to “facilitate language growth, compassion and caregiving, and a sense of identity in Lakota children.” He plans to market them under the “Good Relative” brand.

Which is consistent with major themes of his life that include helping disadvantaged youth and celebrating -- and renewing -- his Oglala Lakota culture.

Gene works as a paraprofessional in the Rapid City, S.D., school district and sometimes helps out kids who have ended up in in-school suspension. “I try to get to know them and encourage them to get back to class,” he said. Usually by tapping into that student’s culture. Many students at his school are Lakota and so he often leans on his heritage to reach out and try to help those kids. “I’m not a fluent Lakota speaker,” he said, “but I try to bring language into my day, every day.”

Gene wants his dolls to honor and bolster Lakota traditions as well. “The dolls will be, first of all, a comforting presence in our young relative’s lives but secondly, the dolls will be a physical representation of  Lakota kinship terms, parts of the body, and descriptive terms based off of whether they’re a boy or girl or if they’re a toddler or a teen,” he said. “My dolls are based on culture and stories and I hope they radiate some sort of educational and emotional identity. I want there to be a conversation on why they have braids or why I decided to incorporate bison horns on all of them. I want to emphasize the belief that we are part of the Pte Oyate (Bufalo Nation). I want to share an open pride in my heritage.”

He’s planning to develop a booklet or a companion web presence to go with the dolls that can pass on these language terms and traditions. And always with an eye toward helping the less fortunate.

Twelve years ago he adopted twin five-year-old boys out of foster care. He remembers that first day with them as if it were yesterday.

“When they first arrived they came with a plastic Wal-Mart bag with underwear and some plastic Happy Meal toys,” said Swallow. “It was so impersonal.” 

Gene envisioned a way to bring more humanity into the lives of children in child protective custody.

“I want to somehow see my dolls in the system,” he said. “I want the kids to have something that is more identity oriented.”
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