There are five federally recognized Native American tribes in Idaho: Nez Perce, Kootenai, Shoshone-Bannock, Shoshone-Paiute, and Coeur d’Alene. These tribes nurture their unique artistic practices rooted in tradition and prepare the next generation to develop these skills. Learn how three tribal artists use beadwork, painting, and music to tell their tribal stories.
Each time Chantay Mejia collects beads on the tip of her needle, she connects with an ancient tradition of the Shoshone-Bannock people. Her beadwork reflects a mastery that has been developed over generations. Immaculately tanned hide peeks through, smelling sweet and slightly smokey. Adorning moccasins, vests, purses, wallets and more, Mejia’s designs are strikingly intricate and complicated. They tell stories, every bead working together. It’s clear that Mejia deftly practices an artform requiring her to blend vision with precision in every pull of the needle.
Mejia was inspired and taught by her grandparents, Vida and Willard Ballard, who are renowned bead workers and hide makers. She draws continual inspiration from the many other artists who live within her community. As an artist and knowledge keeper, Mejia knows that she is a steward of tradition. She honors this responsibility with every quick dip and stroke of her bead-filled needle.
Every day, Kit Julianto uses his knowledge as a painter, singer and educator to empower students with the tools of self-expression. After he graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he returned to Duck Valley in southwest Idaho to give back to his Shoshone-Pauite community as an art teacher and role model at Owyhee Combined School.
Julianto’s artwork, teaching and singing are inspired by the landscapes and cultural teachings of his homeland. His creative process as a painter begins with singing one of the many traditional powwow and ceremonial songs he knows. The sound of his voice rolls through the fields of sagebrush and echoes from the volcanic rocks that surround him. The world around him seems to pause, as if even the colors in the sky have been suspended by his voice.
His songs are about the land, the wildlife and the plant life in Duck Valley. They evoke the colors and textures of the plateaus, valleys and jagged mountain edges. Julianto’s painting is a translation of these sounds. The vibrant colors and complex textures of his paintings seem to suspend their subjects at the center of the canvas. The dark reds, yellows and grays look as if they could have been pulled directly from the sunset.
For Antoinette Peters, painting is about reconnecting with their culture and giving back to their community. Working with the Coeur d’Alene Cultural Department has connected Peters with the language and traditional cultural motifs that show up in their paintings. This work has also inspired and taught them to incorporate colors derived from natural dies and ashes traditionally used by the Coeur d’Alene people. Huckleberry juice is one of their favorites. Using the juice from huckleberries that grow wild across northern Idaho in the summer, they get a delicate purple that creates a perfect backdrop for the vibrant blues and greens they like to use in the foreground.
Painting has become a powerful form of both self-expression and gifting for Peters. They often use their paintings to express how they see themself as a dancer. Peters is a trailblazer as they are nonbinary and a horsetail dancer, a role traditionally reserved for men. Horsetail dancing is an exuberant artform wherein dancers wear horsetails and emulate the movements and energy of a horse. The colors and textures of their paintings capture the energy and feelings of the dance. The paintings convey and preserve the cultural tradition of dancing as well as the abundance of Coeur d’Alene lands. Peters often gives away their paintings—which reflect the community—at winter dances, understanding that doing so is akin to providing good medicine for their fellow residents.
Idaho is filled with stunning landscapes and endless possibilities for adventure and discovery.
Whenever you travel in Idaho, it is important to note that the land you are on, regardless of its current designation, has a strong connection to Native Nations. Please travel respectfully.
You can find more information about each of these tribes by visiting the tribes’ websites: Shoshone-Bannock, Coeur d’Alene, Shoshone-Paiute, Nez Perce, and Kootenai.
Read more about arts and culture in Idaho here.
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