Native Arts | Michael Horse

 Love Flute by Michael Horse
Love Flute by Michael Horse

By Dottie Indyke

Michael Horse, the actor who played the imperturbable Deputy Hawk on the groundbreaking television series Twin Peaks, is also Michael Horse, the fiddler and bass player who toured the country with bluegrass and country bands in his gallivanting youth. And he’s Michael Horse, the devoted Yaqui, Zuni, and Mescalero Apache who once opened up powwows with his gourd dancing. He’s also Michael Horse, the painter, sculptor, and jeweler, whose artwork was the focus of a 30-year retrospective at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles a few years ago.

If forced to choose among these assorted identities, Horse will tell you he’s first and foremost a visual artist. Known for his contemporary and traditional jewelry—which has been shown at venues ranging from the Smithsonian Institution to Bonwit Teller department stores—Horse has lately focused on his own brand of ledger painting, a genre with a proud past.

“After the Indian wars, Native people weren’t allowed to have weapons, hunt, leave our reservations, or do our ceremonies,” Horse says. “A lot of ledger art was done when we were incarcerated. Soldiers would bring paper for us to draw on. That’s why ledger art is so strong—it’s the blues.”

Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans depicted their lives on whatever scraps of writing paper were available, whether brown wrapping paper, pages of the Bible, or maps. When Horse paints his naive-style narratives in watercolor and pen and ink on sheet music and legal documents, he’s simply joining a long line of Native storytellers. One difference is his satirical bent, which is expressed in trains painted on antique railroad forms, battles portrayed on 19th-century military papers, and horse thievery on old arrest records.

Horse was born in a small town south of Tucson, AZ, to a family of artists and moved to Los Angeles when he was 10. His was a melting-pot neighborhood where Hispanics, Koreans, and Natives mingled easily.

Plagued by learning problems and restless to explore the world, he dropped out of school in 10th grade and hung out for years in San Francisco during the era of cultural re-awakening for urban Indians. He traveled cross-country and throughout Europe, then attended Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts for all of three weeks. In his twenties, while working on a ranch, he was offered the role of Tonto in a 1980 remake of The Lone Ranger.

“I told the agent that I was an activist and that Tonto is not the most flattering of roles,” Horse says. Eventually he acquiesced, determining that being paid to fall off his horse was an improvement over falling off for free.

He went on to star in Twin Peaks and then in the popular North of 60, a Canadian series about the Diné people living above the 60th parallel in which he played a psychotherapist from the United States. Many film roles have come his way, and he met his wife, actress and artist Sandra Horse, on a movie. Among the couple’s shared talents is cartoon voice-overs. “It’s my favorite thing to do in the whole world,” Horse says. “You never get depressed doing cartoons. I do Superman, Batman, Captain Planet, elders, young kids, warriors, animals. I also did voices for Spirit, the new DreamWorks film about a young Indian boy.”

When he shoots on location, Horse takes his paintbox with him. In between jobs, he feels grateful for the focus his art provides. “Art keeps me sane and grounded,” he says. “I have actor friends who are like caged cats when they’re not working.”

He still makes jewelry—gold and silver kachinas, rings, buckles, and pendants are his signature pieces. Once an exhibitor at the Gallup and Santa Fe Indian markets, he is a Lifetime Achievement designate and artist-in-residence at the Southwest Museum, where he encourages inner-city Indian youth to develop their artistic abilities and lead productive lives. He has his own film production company to address what he views as the lamentable lack of serious roles for Native people.

It’s a full life for this Renaissance man—one he hopes will be productive for some time. “There are a couple of film things I’d like to do, some directing, there are a lot of Native stories that people haven’t seen,” he says. “I’d like to break some ground with that before I retire. Every day to me is art. I live in this incredible miracle of life. I never run out of ideas. I just run out of time.”

Horse’s work may be seen at Kiva Fine Arts, Santa Fe, NM; Turquoise Tortoise Gallery, Sedona, AZ; Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, CA; and Four Winds Gallery, Sydney, Australia.

Featured in February 2002