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
"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 Honaghanii (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
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.
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.