Charlene Holy Bear, Lakota Doll Artist, Goes for Authenticity and Beauty

Updated Nov. 5, 2012 — Charlene Holy Bear’s art is balanced at the intersection of tradition, historical accuracy, and purely artistic expression, without ever veering completely into any of those camps. Holy Bear (Standing Rock Sioux) is one of the more than 180 artists who participated in the 2012 American Indian Arts Marketplace, at the Autry November 3 and 4. She makes dolls with buckskin, clay, fabric, wire and clay that represent Great Plains men and women in everyday and ceremonial dress.

Charlene Holy Bear with one of her creations (Photo courtesy Charlene Holy Bear)

It would be inaccurate to call Holy Bear’s art traditional, though doll making isn’t exactly unknown among the Plains tribes. In the Southwest, too, the Hopi are known for their Katsina dolls, which communicate values and express beliefs. Holy Bear’s dolls are not exactly that.

Holy Bear’s doll titled “In Grandmother’s Time” places her people in history, in this case in the 1920s, when some Lakota living in urban areas might have begun to assimilate (Photo courtesy Charlene Holy Bear)

“It’s not a traditional art form,” Holy Bear told me this week. “It’s just me being creative.”

What makes Holy Bear’s Lakota dolls different is that they are full of historical context. There are dolls that represent ceremonial dress in incredible detail, down to the beading and the jingles on a dress. But more recently, she has become interested in making dolls that place the Lakota in a specific decade or year, or that reflect how some Plains tribes gradually assimilated. They may, for example, have elements of Anglo dress mixed in with the traditional attire.

A case in point: one of Holy Bear’s dolls, titled “In Grandmother’s Day,” shows a Lakota woman, dancing, in a fringed jingle dress. But her short hair, cloche hat and beaded high heels show this is no traditional Sioux girl, but one who was paying attention to the fashions of the 1920s and adapting to them in her own particular way.

“The story behind her is that I saw these beaded high heels somewhere and I started wondering, what kind of woman would wear beaded high heels?” Holy Bear said. “I was thinking of what kind of identity she would have. She could be someone who might have been sent off to boarding school. She is wearing a dress from 1918, so it’s not new. It’s more that post-​Victorian sensibility. She has cut her hair, so you know she’s influenced by what’s going on around her, maybe by women achieving the right to vote. It’s more of an urban Indian concept.”

Another doll she says she has had to research extensively, and is based on real people in history, is her Black Hills Rodeo Indian Princess, unofficially dubbed the Native American Cowgirl. That is not as much of an oxymoron as it appears. Holy Bear says Native American women who were good riders on occasion disguised themselves as men to enter the rodeo circuit. Later, they found a place performing in Wild West shows. She researched people like Linda One-​Spot and Princess Redbird, both of whom performed in the shows and adjusted their onstage personae to reflect what people expected to see.

Holy Bear with her prize winner at the 2012 American Indian Arts Marketplace (Photo by Robyn Hetrick)

Holy Bear says the Cowgirl’s costume, with a wide studded belt and fancy lace-​up boots, reflects the glitter and glamour of those shows, and how they romanticized the fast-​disappearing Western frontier.

Evidently, Holy Bear’s tapped into something special with the Cowgirl. On Saturday, she told me this sculpture, which she has taken to several shows, has really captured the public’s imagination. And on Friday, she also received the Jackie Autry Purchase Award, which means the museum purchased it in honor of Jackie Autry, to add to its collection.

Which also meant that Holy Bear would not be taking the Cowgirl with her when the Marketplace wrapped up on Sunday.

“Yes, I am going to miss her a little bit,” Holy Bear said as she looked at the sculpture, on display in her booth. “That’s why I’m glad I get a little more time to be with her during the Marketplace!”

In the end, Holy Bear says, her dolls delve into who she is.

“It’s an exploration of identity, mostly my identity,” she said. “What kind of style do I have, what do I want to say in being a doll artist. What makes me Native American within the setting I’m in. Where am I in history. How can I convey that. It’s all in there.”

Beaded high heel detail (Courtesy Charlene Holy Bear)

Holy Bear says she made her first doll when she was five years old, and she learned from her sister, Rhonda Holy Bear, who had her own studio at their home in South Dakota. Charlene had been sneaking into the studio to play with the dolls when Rhonda wasn’t around. So Rhonda “sat me down and taught me to make my own.” At seven, she entered a doll in a competition at the Santa Fe Indian Market and won a second-​place ribbon.

“It was the first doll that I made that won a prize,” she said. “It sold at the market and I used the money to buy my first horse and saddle.”

That doll is now part of the collection of the Foundation for the Preservation of American Indian Arts and Cultures, also known as the Father Peter Powell collection. Holy Bear also has dolls in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. and at the Mitchell Museum in Chicago.

Holy Bear says making her dolls, which are wire armature covered with tanned and painted buckskin, involves a lot of research and many kinds of artistry. She draws (she has a background in art history and fine arts from studies at the University of New Mexico), she paints, she works with ceramics, she does beadwork.

“Sometimes I am called a beader,” she said. “Yeah, I’m a beader, and that is a Lakota craft, but I also can sculpt a a face. You have a lot of skill sets. I used to draw and draw hands to try to get them right, to see how the opposable thumb is used.”

And there is one more thing that the dolls have: a realistic sense of movement, and a real pride in culture.

“Originally, I’d say the idea was that these dolls were toys, but they also became an art form,” she said. “A lot of material culture that the Plains Indians made, they made to be beautiful. An elder once told me we were born naked. That animals were born beautiful, with fur and feathers and color. But the reason we decorated our material culture was that we are born naked. We are trying to be beautiful like they are. What we’re given instead is our mind and our hands, and we can make beautiful things with them. Mothers create beautiful things for their children. A lot of it is about legacy.”

This article is filed under:

Autry Events · Behind-the-Scenes · Conversations

About the author

Tessie Borden is a former newspaper journalist. She writes about the arts in light of the cultural and political history of the Americas, the American West and California.