Warriors' shield

Diné‚ artist's design becoming a symbol for Native American veterans

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE. May 26, 2011

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(Courtesy photos)

TOP: This poster using a feather design by Ambrose Peshlakai is being used in an outreach effort to Native Americans by the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization.

BOTTOM: Ambrose Peshlakai

Symbols are powerful things. The best ones capture people's imaginations and rally them to action.

For a Diné‚ artist living in Michigan, the fact that one of his designs is rapidly becoming a national symbol for Native veterans represents a high point in his career - a career that, 25 years ago, was dangerously on the skids.

"I've had stuff in a lot of Indian markets and won a lot of blue ribbons," said Ambrose Peshlakai, 56, of Baraga, Mich., who is Honagh‡anii (One Who Walks Around People Clan), born for Kinya'‡anii (Towering House Clan). "But the fact that my art is being used to help people, that's the real stamp of approval. That means I've arrived as a Native artist."

Pesklakai, a former alcohol and drug counselor, has been making his living as an artist for 13 years. He had done sculpture, painting and beadwork for years, and had recently been venturing into decorative feather fans of the type used by powwow dancers (although Peshlakai uses feathers from domestic fowl rather than eagles, since his works are strictly for art's sake and not ceremonial).

One day, thinking of his code talker uncle, Francis Thompson, Peshlakai set out to make a patriotic fan.

He bound two feathers together and painted an American flag on them, then wove a beadwork handle with a motif from the West Point Academy shield.

It was on display at the Hannahville (Mich.) Indian Community's headquarters when Richard Eubank, the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, happened to visit.

The work, which Peshlakai had titled "The Shield," immediately caught Eubank's attention. He had been trying to do more outreach to Native American veterans.

"Is there some way to reproduce it?" he asked Peshlakai. "Maybe as a poster?"

Peshlakai took the fan to a friend who had a photo studio. He photographed it and placed the image against red, white, blue and tri-colored backgrounds, then added the words "In Honor" at the bottom.

Eubank loved it, and when Peshlakai showed it to the Potawatomi tribal government, they did too. Eventually it was picked up by Tribal Umbrella, a collaboration of 12 local tribes and American Indian Health and Family Services that offers services in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

A picture of The Shield against a blue background adorns a new brochure for Access to Recovery, Tribal Umbrella's drug and alcohol treatment program for Native veterans and active-duty military personnel.

There couldn't be a more perfect way to complete a circle in Peshlakai's life. There was a time he could have used Access to Recovery himself.

Twenty-five years ago, Peshlakai was an alcoholic on the streets of Denver. He had lost everything to alcohol, yet he couldn't see he had hit bottom.

One day, Peshlakai rose early to go to a place where you could hang out and wait for the people who hired day laborers.

It was 5 a.m., but there were people already holding bottles of cheap wine or whiskey.

"I thought, 'What am I doing here with all these winos?'" recalled Peshlakai in a telephone interview from his home in Michigan. "For some reason, it didn't occur to me until that moment that I was a wino myself, even though I was having blackouts at least once a week."

Peshlakai checked himself into a treatment facility that afternoon and stayed for four months. When he got out, he knew he couldn't stay in Denver.

"Too many drinking buddies," he explained. "I had to get away from them."

A Canadian Native who had gone through treatment with him recommended Michigan's Upper Peninsula - a beautiful, heavily forested place that was completely different from the desert Southwest where Peshlakai had grown up. It sounded like a good place to start over.

Peshlakai married his girlfriend and packed up for Michigan. He has rarely looked back, even when his wife left him and their two-and-a-half-year-old son.

If you ask most single parents what life is like, they would reply, "Difficult," but Peshlakai was looking at it through the rose-colored glasses of the newly sober.

"My wife was gone," he said, "but all I could see was how lucky I was she left me this great kid to raise. He's 19 now, and still the joy of my life."

Once in a while, Peshlakai goes back to his hometown of Albuquerque. He has visited the graves of his second cousins, Del Lynn and DeShauna Peshlakai, who were, ironically, killed in a collision with a drunk driver in 2010.

"They're my angels," he said.

But, all told, he doesn't really miss the Four Corners.

"I love it up here," he said. "There's the Great Lakes, and all the trees. The people are wonderful. The tribes here have welcomed me. We don't think much about tribes up here - we're all just Indians."

Most of all, "it's the place where I've been sober, and the place my son was born."

You could say Peshlakai's career as an artist was born there too. Working as a substance abuse counselor, he made a lot of friends, and they started buying enough of his art and directing him to enough markets that he was able to quit his day job.

To see "The Shield" on that brochure is the pinnacle - so far. But Peshlakai has bigger goals.

"I'd like to sell a copy of 'The Shield' to every tribe or tribal chairman in the country," he said. "I want it to be the symbol for Native vets."

So far, he's approached six, and five have bought a poster or framed print from his Web site, www.honorfeather.com. Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly has been a tougher sell, as has the Crystal, N.M., chapter house, where he would like to see one hanging to honor Thompson.

"They say they don't have money for things like that," he said.

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