Whether a traditional Cheyenne courting flute or a bamboo fly-rod, the work created by the most recently endorsed Montana Circle of American Masters reflects its Montana connections and helps to deepen an awareness of what it means to be Montanan.
In December, the Montana Arts Council added to its distinguished roll of Montana’s Circle of American Masters (MCAM) in the Visual Folk and Traditional Arts by endorsing a bamboo fly-rod maker, a leather artist, a creator of traditional Cheyenne flutes, a Crow beadworker, and a bowyer. These five artists join the roll call of other Montana folk and traditional artists whom the program has honored.
Jay Old Mouse, of Lame Deer, is considered by the Northern Cheyenne people to be the designated keeper and maker of the Cheyenne courting flute. The Cheyenne courting flute was handed down to him through the lineage of known keepers, from Turkey Legs in the late 1800s, to Grover Wolf Voice, then to his grandfather Black Bear and now to Old Mouse. The honor and the flute-making skills were bestowed on him when he was in his early 20s by his grandfather with a long list of cultural protocols to follow.
Old Mouse was a certified carpenter at the time he became the keeper and to this day, he uses the historical methods and protocols in making and playing the flute. The courting flute was originally used by a male suitor to attract a mate. It is also used in prayer, as a source of social entertainment, to honor individuals at events like funerals and birthdays, and as a tool to alleviate suffering. Old Mouse follows his grandfather’s teachings and plays when asked at funerals, graduations, in schools, in church and at weddings.
Because of his commitment to the protocols handed down to him and to providing comfort to his community through his performances, Old Mouse is highly regarded in his community. He is also concerned about teaching both natives and non-natives about the significance of the Cheyenne courting flute.
To teach about the flute, he has presented at Cheyenne Frontier Days,
the National Folk Festival in Butte, the Cheyenne Immersion Camp, American Indian Heritage day at Miles City Community College, the American Indian Housing Initiative at Penn State, and for 20 years for the Cheyenne Trailriders international guests.
Birdie Real Bird, who is a member of the Crow tribe from Garryowen, was raised on the reservation in a traditional family. Known throughout Montana for her exquisite beading projects and dolls, she comes from a long line of beading artists and learned to bead watching those elders work on projects. As she grew up, she began beading more complex projects under the tutelage of her grandmother.
While Real Bird was growing up, she and her grandmother sold beadwork medallions to the wives of the employees at the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Indian Health Services to get gas money; and in college, she made and sold beaded jewelry. She uses correct Crow traditional designs and colors in her work, but when she travels she looks for examples of Plains Indian beadwork in museum collections. Her dolls, which reflect everyday dress styles worn by her mother Lucy Real Bird, are in numerous collections, including the Smithsonian Museum.
A retired middle school teacher, Real Bird now devotes most of her time to beading and teaching traditional Crow culture. She speaks at reservation schools where she shares information about traditional dress, tells stories, teaches language, native games and beading. In her work, she explains the significance of cradleboards and dolls to Crow culture, helping students realize the connections between the Crow, Yellowstone Park and their own community.
She also works with the Montana Historical Museum, OPI, and the Montana Arts Council and has demonstrated beading at events like the National Folk Festival in Butte.
In addition, artists endorsed for the Montana Circle of American Masters this winter are Glenn Brackett of Butte, who is widely considered to be one of the preeminent bamboo flyfishing rod builders of the current era; leather artist Howard Knight of Stevensville, who has collaborated with bootmaker Lisa Sorrell and other many other artisans; and Jim Rempp, a Missoula bowyer whose bows are coveted by both archers for use and collectors for display.
The Montana Circle of American Masters is a Montana Arts Council program designed to honor Montana’s rich heritage and to showcase the present day vitality of the folk arts.
For inclusion in this program, an individual must be a practicing visual folk artist and have a valid Montana address. Any Montanan who knows an eligible artist and wants to recommend him or her for inclusion in the Circle of American Masters is encouraged to visit the MAC website (www.art.mt.gov) and download the guidelines and nomination form.