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Canku Ota
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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Diné Artist's Design Becoming a Symbol for Native America Veterans
by Cindy Yurth - Tséyi' Bureau Navajo Times
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.

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