Michael Horse | Mapping New Traditions


By Norman Koplas

“Beauty is before me, and beauty is behind me,” goes a traditional Navajo prayer. “Above and below me hovers the beautiful. I am surrounded by it. I am immersed in it.”

Those eloquent words aptly sum up the early inspirations that led Michael Horse to become an artist working in precious metals, semiprecious stones, and paints as well as establish a solid reputation as a film and television actor. And to hear him tell the story, he had no choice but to dedicate his life to aesthetic pursuits.

Ever since I was really young, art was a part of my life,” he says of his early childhood years growing up near Tucson, AZ, in a true melting-pot family that included Yaqui, Mescalero Apache, Zuni, Hispanic, and European blood. “Everyone was an artist,” he continues. His mother painted in the formal figurative style fostered in the 1920s by educator Dorothy Dunn at the Santa Fe Indian School. His aunts were Pueblo potters. His uncles taught him to handcraft silver and turquoise into Southwestern jewelry in the traditional Zuni and Mescalero styles. “I learned from my elders that you cannot be a whole, healthy individual without art,” he sums up.

Those influences remained even after his immediate family relocated to the Los Angeles area when Michael was 10. “I still was never isolated from my culture. L.A. was the biggest urban Indian community in the nation. We used to go to big powwows in Southern California. It was an intertribal culture, and I grew up with a lot of Sioux and Cheyenne and Navajo kids. We would also go home to Arizona for big ceremonies, and I became a gourd dancer,” he says, citing a traditional dance that begins many powwows. “I never lost touch with my heritage.”

It seemed only natural, then, that Horse would pursue his own artistic career. During a year at the respected Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe in 1973, he studied with such greats as stone sculptor Allan Houser, painter Fritz Scholder, and jeweler Charles Loloma. “People always say ‘Oh, what a wonderful experience it must have been,’” says Horse, echoing the responses he typically gets from people when they learn he studied under Houser in particular. “But he was a hard taskmaster. He taught me that my possibilities as an artist were endless if I worked hard enough. I learned from him the discipline of art. And I also realized that it wasn’t just about becoming a Native artist. I would be an artist.” Horse speaks that last sentence with an emphasis that all but eliminates the need to add the word “period.”

By the mid-1970s, Horse was earning a living as a jeweler and also sculpting traditional Indian images in alabaster and marble. His works sold well in such marquee venues as the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial, as well as at big Native American shows across California.


His experience and reputation also led him at the time to become a cultural advisor to the Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Los Angeles. Housed in a castlelike Mission revival-style building not far from downtown, the museum is renowned for its collection of more than a half million American Indian artifacts, of which fewer than five percent are displayed at any given time. “I became good friends with the curators and would come and speak about Native jewelry and arts and traditions,” says Horse. “And they would let me go into their archives. It’s an incredible collection. They had stuff they didn’t even know they had.”

Horse’s most valued personal discovery at the Southwest Museum was ledger art. Taking its name from the record books on which white men recorded their possessions and accounts, the art form developed in the 1860s among the Plains Indians after their forced relocation onto reservations. Lacking the buffalo hides on which they traditionally painted, they began to record scenes from their vanishing traditions on lined ledger paper.

“Imagine,” says Horse, his voice halting with emotion, “you were a free person, and your only boundaries were where the buffalo or the wind would take you. Then, suddenly, you’re confined on a reservation and told you can’t hunt, you can’t sing your traditional songs or dance your traditional dances. Ledger art to Indians was almost like blues music to black people. They were painting pictures of the old days, remembering their times of freedom.”

Inspired by what he saw and learned about ledger art, Horse began to paint his own versions of the now-classic form. “I just started doing them because I was a fan,” he says matter-of-factly. But, bringing his own training and sensibility to the paintings, he was soon creating ledger art that was contemporary in its own way while still remaining true to tradition.

From his home studio in the eastern hills above the San Francisco Bay, where he now lives, Horse frequently heads out to garage sales in search of old tin children’s watercolor boxes. “The manufacturers changed the formulas of the colors back around 1960, and those made before then are a lot more like those of traditional ledger art,” he explains. They give him the bright colors in which paintings made almost a century and a half ago portrayed braves, horses, and other Plains Indian scenes. “People say how imaginative it is that horses are those colors in ledger art,” he says. “But if you’ve been around animals your whole life, like I have, you know that you actually see highlights of purples and reds in a bay horse, and even blues and yellows in a black horse.”

The forms those images take in Horse’s paintings are in perfect harmony with tradition, too: simplified, two-dimensional renderings of their subjects, bursting with vitality. “I don’t copy them out of the books,” he says. “They just come out of my head.”

Where Horse subtly yet dramatically departs from the old ways is in the surfaces on which he paints. Staying true to form, he seeks out paper made and printed during the late 19th or early 20th centuries. But, more often than not, his background images of choice are period maps of the United States, across which his Indians ride, sometimes alone and sometimes encountering, say, a battalion of U.S. cavalry. Add such ironic titles as THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND, and Horse’s ledger art takes on a political dimension. “When I started out,” he says, “it wasn’t intentional. But I gradually realized I was putting some kind of social statement there.”

But the statement, Horse stresses, is more than just about the plight of American Indians: “I’ve learned that, whenever human beings have been interned, they’ve done art like this: at Manzanar, where Japanese-Americans were relocated during World War II; in the German concentration camps; in Southern slave quarters. Art like this is even coming out of Darfur now. They get hold of a scrap of paper and a colored pencil, and they start drawing pictures of what they want to remember.” With that realization in mind, Horse has begun talks with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, to put together a show of internment art. He’s also lecturing about ledger art at every opportunity, including appearances at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, NM; the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, WY; the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, MT; and the Autry National Center’s Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.

In short, Michael Horse, now 58 years old, is a busy man these days. He turns out, at most, about 20 of his ledger paintings a year, while he’s also beginning to make jewelry once more in a style that gently streamlines and abstracts the traditional forms he first learned in childhood from his elders.

His artistic output is occasionally limited by a plum film or television role. That has been the case since he was first approached by an agent, from whom he was renting a studio in Los Angeles back in 1980, to audition for the role of Tonto in a new film version of the classic radio and TV serial “The Legend of the Lone Ranger.” “I never meant to be an actor,” says Horse. “It was a terrible film.” Nevertheless, Horse’s charismatic good looks, warm personality, and rich voice worked well on screen. Since that first part, he has appeared in more than five dozen projects, including the movie “Passenger 57” and such television shows as “The X-Files,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Walker, Texas Ranger,” and “Twin Peaks.” One of his favorite roles was that of a therapist, Andrew One Sky, on 19 episodes of a Canadian TV series called “North of 60.” “It was a wonderful prime-time show about indigenous cultures that was just about people—people living and working and raising their families.”

That kind of down-to-earth message sums up Horse’s own approach to life as he continues to paint, make jewelry, sculpt, and occasionally act. He stays grounded, devoting his time as often as possible to speaking to young people, both Indian and non-Indian, encouraging them to stay in school and get good educations. He also serves on the board of San Francisco’s American Indian Film Festival, held each November, for which he created ledger art-style posters in 1996, 1997, and 2003. “It’s time Native actors start to break out in television and film,” he says. “Where’s the Native judge? Where’s the Native teacher?”

It’s all about providing positive role models for future generations. “Now that I’ve got gray hair,” says Horse, “I guess I get to play the elder.”

Featured in August 2008