Native Arts | Rhonda Holy Bear

Rhonda Holy Bear

By Dottie Indyke

A Lakota doll maker creates artworks that show iconic views of her culture

Dolls are among the most collected objects in the world, coveted for their miniature clothing and accessories, for their way of linking us to other cultures, and, perhaps most of all, as icons for human beings. No one knows this better than Rhonda Holy Bear, whose dolls represent courageous people from the past, whether chiefs, warriors, or her Lakota relatives whose lives were ravaged by alcoholism. Making dolls is Holy Bear’s way of restoring her ancestors’ dignity and thereby healing herself.

Among her driving forces is her late grandmother, Angeline, who encouraged her to sew. Both women were raised in extreme poverty and forced to subsist with very little. In Angeline’s case, her single childhood doll had been sold to an insistent tourist. Rhonda constructed her first doll from $10 worth of scrounged supplies—a wire hanger, a pillowcase stuffed with cotton balls, and a chamois car rag as a stand-in for tanned buckskin. Now her pieces sell for as much as $100,000; are crafted from fine materials such as silk thread, porcupine quills, and century-old Venetian glass beads; and are modeled on historic clothing that Holy Bear painstakingly researches.

Although her work requires a legion of skills, from weaving and sewing to beading and jewelrymaking, what sets her apart is her carving. Each doll body and its lifelike hands and feet are cut from bass wood, then sanded and painted in a red-oxide hue similar to pipestone. For Holy Bear, the wood, garnered from the root of a tree, and the red oxide, similar to the color of blood, symbolize life. “I spend a lot of time trying to put feeling into the doll’s face,” she says. “I want to bring character, strength, and peaceful qualities.”

Some of her dolls’ clothing replicates the dress of the Ghost Dance era at the turn of the 20th century, when the Plains Indians were forced onto reservations, their buffalo depleted, and their tribes devastated by illness. As Holy Bear relates it, praying for resurrection, a Paiute leader dreamt that the Earth would roll up, taking with it all that the Europeans had brought. Indians would be lifted into the heavens and, when the Earth settled, life would be happy again. From that period came beautiful articles of clothing decorated with spiritual symbols. Holy Bear makes these pieces using all-natural paint applied to brain-tanned buckskin. “We were a people in touch with the spirit world,” she remarks, “and our clothing reflected how we saw the world. We adorned ourselves with all our beliefs.”

Holy Bear, who is now 45 and living in Las Vegas, NV, was born in LaPlante, SD, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux. Descended from Sundance chiefs and performers in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows, Holy Bear grew up singing, dancing, and making art. From the depression and chaos around her, she escaped into a fantasy world that fueled her creativity. But when she was 5, reality intervened: To avoid starvation she was sent by her family to boarding school, a place she refers to today as “kids’ jail.”

As soon as she could, she moved to Chicago. She was accepted at the prestigious Art Institute but lacked the tuition to attend. Instead, she made weekly trips to the Field Museum on days when admission was free to study Native clothing. Eventually she was granted access to the museum’s archives.

“While I was in the museum, it dawned on me that my people once had a kind of dignity, and somewhere along the line that got lost,” she contends. “I was a very angry young teenager. But the more I researched, the more my anger started to go away.”

In 1985, Holy Bear received the first fellowship ever granted to a doll maker by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA), sponsors of Santa Fe’s Indian Market, and took home first- and second-place ribbons in the Plains-style dolls category. The Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe purchased her pieces for their permanent collection, and articles about her began to appear in prestigious books and magazines. This year, at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market, she won the best of division award for a doll inspired by the Plains Ghost Dancers: it wears a brain-tanned buckskin dress decorated with authentic mineral pigments, moccasins and leggings beaded with tiny Venetian seed beads, and a real Catlinite pipe.

“My dolls reflect my personal journey,” Holy Bear says. “They have to add to my people’s culture, not just mimic it. They have to awaken people.”

Holy Bear’s work is shown at Santa Fe Indian Market, Santa Fe, NM, and the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market, Phoenix, AZ.

Featured in “Native Arts” October 2005