The total population of individuals who identify themselves as American Indian or Alaska Natives is just 0.9 percent of the U.S. population.
The number of individuals who identify themselves as American Indian or Alaska Natives in combination with other races is just 1.7 percent of the population.
Yet in recent years — and aided by news articles about protests around the Dakota Access Pipeline filling the airwaves and newspapers — a renewed attention has been given to the cultures and customs of a people often forgotten.
Efforts in Montana and Wyoming have included language immersion programs that aim to teach kids in schools on reservations the languages of their ancestors.
Efforts more locally have included efforts to include Native Americans in more events.
For example, at Fort Phil Kearny outside of Story, site superintendent Misty Stoll often invites members of regional tribes to the facility to tell the stories of battles from the Native American perspective.
Area residents, too, have organized reunions to honor former Miss Indian Americas. The first Miss Indian America pageant was held in Sheridan in 1953 as part of All American Indian Days held during Rodeo Week. The festival came about after the selection of Lucy Yellowmule in 1951 as Queen for the 1952 Sheridan WYO Rodeo. Local residents and Indian leaders then decided that a new Indian woman should be chosen each year to represent the Indian people as Miss Indian America. Sheridan hosted the pageant until 1984.
In 2016, the Sheridan community hosted Native American storytellers, artists, powwow performers and Indian Relay Race athletes. Those events, though, were special and stood out amongst the day-to-day of the Sheridan area.
While local leaders and event organizers have noted the importance of such events, others in the Native American community are working to preserve aspects of their culture every day.
Bethany Yellowtail, a 2007 graduate of Tongue River High School, now works as a fashion designer in California. She recently spent time at the protests in North Dakota against a proposed oil pipeline planned for the area.
Since moving away from the Tongue River Valley, though, she’s continued to contribute to the preservation and honor of her heritage.
Yellowtail helped Matika Wilbur, a widely-exhibited and collected photographer from the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes in Washington, on a mission to record Native American culture. Wilbur’s goal was to visit and photograph each of the tribes in America in their natural state to reveal a realistic image of contemporary Native Americans in the 21st century. “Project 562” is named for the number of existing tribes at the start of the project.
Yellowtail brought Wilbur to the Crow Reservation in Montana to photograph members of her tribe.
“Growing up, I did not have any Native role models who were present in mass media,” Yellowtail said in a 2014 interview with The Sheridan Press about why she got involved in the project. “Especially in fashion, Native culture is misappropriated season after season with fringed, feathered, beaded and buckskinned clothing and when those images are set in the minds of our youth, what does that tell them? It tells them that they must be what the image is…impoverished, oppressed, stereotyped and yet still not ‘Indian enough.’”
For Project 562, to encourage donations, Yellowtail created a line of custom clothing to be used as gifts to donators.
She continues to utilize inspiration from Native American cultures in her fashion designs.
More recently, she designed T-shirts in support of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and portions of the proceeds went directly to the tribes to support the resistance.
Her tagline on her website notes that her designs are “where tradition, beauty and culture meet authentic indigenous design.”
The B.Yellowtail Collective is her brand initiative that features art from more than 15 Native American creators primarily from the Great Plains tribal regions.
Birdie Real Bird lives on the Crow Reservation north of Sheridan. She has been endorsed as a member of the Montana Circle of American Masters by the Montana Arts Council.
She has beaded for decades and now teaches others to bead.
“It’s important to keep it because it is one of our arts,” Real Bird said of the tradition that adorns clothing and other items in Native American culture. “Our ancestors were beaders; I’m a beader now and I’d like to see my granddaughter bead. It’s been with us all these years.”
Real Bird noted that if anyone attends the Crow Fair parade, the skill and beauty of the art remains on full display. Crow Fair is held each August on the Crow Reservation in Montana. The parade includes a display of horses and art.
“There is no other parade like Crow Fair parade,” Real Bird said. “There are about 1,500 horses and people bring their beadwork out. It’s almost like a competition to see who has the best beadwork. We forget about who has the best horse, it’s more about the beadwork.
Real Bird noted that the art is important to her because it is a part of her heritage and a part of her history.
She said she used to go to an event at the Pendleton Roundup that included a pageant for Native American girls. The girls, she noted, all wore buckskin dresses with intricate beading. She used to attend the event with her mother and aunts.
She stopped going for years, but returned to the event about seven years ago.
“I was sad,” Real Bird said. “They were using yarn and plastic. It was lost. There were no more beaders.”
Now she takes time, especially in the winters, to host free beading circles. She uses the time to teach younger people the art.
If an individual can hold a needle, a thread and tack beads down, he or she can learn, Real Bird said.
But it is about more than designs.
“You have to have that passion or something about it,” she said. “Don’t look at is as labor. It’s not a hobby. If you start seeing it like that, you lose it.”
Hip-hop culture has a bad rap. Songs about drugs, violence and sex dominate the genre. While some artists have tried to change that image, Billings, Montana, rapper Supaman has taken the challenge to a different level.
He takes on topics like dead-beat dads, texting and driving, suicide and other modern issues facing people of all races.
But, he uses his Native American roots to do it.
Christian Parrish Takes the Gun, who calls himself Supaman and who grew up on the Crow Nation reservation, mixes Native American music and language with English and beats.
He started making music when he was 24 years old. He has said that rap and hip-hop appeal to Native Americans because some of the themes of poverty and social injustice are relatable.
He has said that hip-hop influenced him in a negative way when he was young and has wanted to turn that influence around. He wants kids to be proud of their Native American culture.
“It’s very important (to preserve Native American culture) because when you look at what was done to the indigenous people of this land, it was all swept under the rug,” Supaman said in a recent interview with The Sheridan Press.
He noted that the entire American system was created for non-Natives.
“We weren’t looked at as humans,” he added. “We were inhuman to the non-Natives who came over here. That’s the shame of America. America doesn’t want to put that out in the open so people need to be educated still about indigenous people and Native people.
“We’re still here, we’re thriving. We’re doctors; we’re lawyers; we’re fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers — humans,” he said.
In his music videos, Supaman dons Native American garb and has included dancers and has performed Native American dances himself.
He said showcasing his culture has been important to him. Culture draws people in to ask questions and opens doors for increased understanding.
“It shows we’re resilient as a people,” he said. “When we have that platform, that’s where we can educate and let people know the truth about Native people.”
Supaman, like Yellowtail, noted that schools, media and movies have painted a negative picture of Native Americans. As an artist, and as a Native American, he said he has the responsibility to re-educate society about who his people are.
His music and his art shows the pull Native Americans feel walking in two worlds — one of modern society and one of their own culture.
But, he said, he likes that he can bring it all together in the world of hip-hop and with a positive message.