GRANITE FALLS, Minn. – It was July of 2019 when Fern Cloud first saw the intricately designed tablecloth during the “Hearts of Our People” exhibit at the Minnesota Institute of Art.
Made between 1900 and 1910 by an unnamed Dakota woman, the beaded tablecloth features a starburst, colorful flowers, butterflies and straight lines made with glass and brass beads on wool.
It immediately got the attention of Cloud, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Oyate tribe who is the great-great-granddaughter of Dakota Chief Little Crow. Cloud is also known by her Dakota name Akipawin, which means Branch Woman.
Not only was the tablecloth beautiful, it was made by a woman from her tribe over 100 years ago.
It is currently part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. It was in Minnesota for the special exhibit that Cloud attended.
When she saw it, Cloud knew she wanted to replicate the colorful design by creating a painted version of the pattern on a tanned buffalo hide using the tools, paint and skills that were used by the Dakota people in the past.
Thanks to a recent grant from the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council, Cloud will have the resources to do just that.
The self-taught artist has a deep love and a long history for creating art the way her ancestors did.
“I was drawn to our traditional Native American arts,” said Cloud in a telephone interview from her Upper Sioux Community near Granite Falls, where she also serves as pastor of Pejuhutazizi Dakota Presbyterian Church.
She put herself through college by designing and making her own line of women’s clothing, “Fern Cloud Native Designs," that were popular with her clients in Rapid City, South Dakota, who were looking for a unique professional style of clothing.
Around 1996, while living in South Dakota, she was commissioned to make her first painting on a buffalo hide.
It was a success and Cloud has continued her journey in native art by completing other large commissioned pieces that are made using traditional methods.
That means using a buffalo hide that is tanned by using the brains of the animal rather than chemicals.
She purchases the brain-tanned hides from a professional tanner in South Dakota.
Cloud uses only natural pigments made from items like clay, roots and berries. She mixes the powdered pigments with water to create a liquid paint that’s put into small bowls made from bones.
Willow branches and the sharp edges of bones are used to paint the design on the hide.
"I am one of the few traditional buffalo hide painters around,” she said.
Most others use acrylic paint rather than natural pigments.
“The beauty of what I do is because I use all natural materials,” said Cloud. “It’s made just like it was in the past.”
Called “antiquity art,” Cloud said the value of her work only increases.
Cloud also has an extensive background in Native American performance art and ministry, including working with a project called “Healing the Sacred Hoop” that was presented around the country and in Europe.
She also travels around west central Minnesota to do presentations for area schools.
Cloud said she intends to begin the new project soon and when it’s completed it will be exhibited publicly, especially in the Dakota community and during her presentations at schools.
Oftentimes the old, original painted hides are “tucked away in a museum” and are not accessible to Dakota families living here.
Cloud tries to fix that.
“I’m adamant for our Native American art to be out there,” said Cloud, who hopes this latest project – and the summer art classes she provides in the community – will encourage young people to start painting like their ancestors did.
“It’s all part of the passion,” she said.