A Lakota storyteller on ledger paper: "Along the Way"

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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KEVN) Sometimes Art is history.
Sometimes Art preserves history.
And sometimes it does both: as in the case of a highly acclaimed local artist.

He's helped revive an old Oglala Lakota storytelling style, that was prevalent for about 50 years starting in the mid 1800's.
It's called "Ledger Art", and it was originally done, for more than just beauty.

70 year old Donald Montileaux says he's wanted to be an artist since he was 5 years old. He started doing ledger art part time, roughly 4 decades ago. Then after retiring from his career at the Civic Center 18 years ago, he began doing ledger art full time.

"These are probably like 3 different colors of green in this horse right here and then again 3 different colors of reds and the blues. I don't use just one color. I use multiple colors," says ledger artist Donald Montileaux as he shows us one of his partially completed drawings.

But far more than a century ago, this art was born of necessity.

"About 1860, the buffalo were pretty much diminished from the plains, and my people, Lakota people had no written language as did all the plains tribes," Montileaux says.

In lieu of a written language they would draw pictures on animal hides.

"To share our culture we did images. We drew pictures and in order to keep those ceremonies and that culture alive, we had to learn how to barter with traders and soldiers for their used accounting books, our ledger books," he says.

Montileaux now known for his ledger art, was taught how to do Buffalo hide drawings by one of his main mentors.

"And so he taught me how to kill a buffalo, process a buffalo, tan a buffalo hide, go out find the earth pigments, get the rabbit skin glue, boil it all together use the bone brushes and put all these images on a hide a lot of work," Montileaux explains.

When Montileaux learned about ledger art, he says there were hardly any ledger artists left. But he realized he could transition his own drawing skills to ledger paper, just like his ancestors did. He played a role in the resurgence of ledger art, and is now highly acclaimed for what has become, his specialty.

"And I use multiple layers of color too so I really start building up the color and after I get it built up to like 6 or 7 layers of color then I start blending all that color together and that's what really makes these colors pop," he explains about his style.

Back in the day, these pictures were a means of preserving history. And the fact that it's back, is in itself, a victory for the culture.

"As an artist, I guess you're creative. You're not following the rules, you're bending the rules, you're breaking the rules and they say never ever to use your finger to blend," Donald Montileaux says.
"But I blend that with the oil of my fingers will blend that color and it makes it just really glisten."

A key part of ledger art is using authentic very old ledger paper.

"I mean this paper right here, this is already what, 140 years, 130 years old, this piece of paper and it's still as pliable as the day it was done," he says of the paper in front of him.

The historic old paper is part of the charm.

"I don't want to cheat that ledger from showing. I wanna have that ledger show, so I leave raw spots, I'll leave raw spots in my drawing that shows the true form of that ledger itself," he says.

Montileaux is a story teller.

"Actually these guys are stealing horses, and they've got their bows for defensive things, the other guys just hauling down the road and," as he describes a picture.

His work is drawn with precision, imagination, and passion.

"And that horse knows exactly what that rider's doing because of his knees and his body movement and that's why he's so able to turn around and shoot an accurate shot with his bow at the pursuing enemy," Montileaux says as he tells the story of another drawing he's done.

Born on the Pine Ridge Reservation, little did he know his dream of being an artist would help revive a part of his people's heritage.

"Like right now, I'm in my heaven, because I'm in my studio, and I'm drawing, and I'm creating something beautiful, and that to me is life," Donald says.

Montileaux will be one of the artists on display at this Saturday's 6th annual Native POP event in Main Street Square. Native POP is a cultural celebration. It's free and family friendly. The art market is this Saturday from 9 am to 6 pm. A concert follows from 6 pm to 8 pm.

If you've met someone cool "Along the Way" please call us or e-mail me at stevel@blackhillsfox.com to let us know.