Llewellyn Long WolfLakota
Not all Oglala Lakota tradition remains on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Llewellyn Long Wolf took his family’s intricate talent of horse hair braiding with him when he moved to Rapid City from his small hometown of Oglala.
“I learned this from my dad ‘cause he learned it from his dad,” Long Wolf said.
The family tradition of braiding became a passion for Long Wolf when his father, Antonio, made him a piece for his hair. Long Wolf wanted another, but his father wouldn’t make it for him. So, the son asked his father to teach him to make his own.
From the horse tails he buys, Long Wolf washes, cuts and sometimes dyes the pieces brilliant colors. Then, he braids elegant jewelry like earrings and bracelets, as well as hatbands, hair ties and bolo ties.
It took him about a year to master the braiding techniques, Long Wolf said, and learning the designs passed through generations. The principle is simple; “the thicker the horse hair, the less you use. The smaller the horse hair, the more you use.”
The horse hair is anchored with a string while it is braided.
Quality of workmanship shows or actually doesn’t show through the pieces.
“Imitation stuff is loose, real loose. You can see between it,” Long Wolf said.
Competition from cheap and cheaply made, foreign look-alikes threatens Long Wolf’s work just as it does the work of other Native American artists.
“There’s other stuff, Mexican-made,” he said, “They can get that for real cheap.” The high-quality Lakota hair braiders have thinned to about four, Long Wolf said.
Long Wolf’s wife, Carla said her husband’s craft is handed down. It’s talked about. It’s special. Long Wolf, who sometimes works as an auto mechanic, finds it difficult at times to make a living from his art.
“He’s not getting the price for his hours,” Carla said. It might take a couple of hours for one bracelet. The horse hair is also difficult to find and expensive to purchase, particularly the natural white he prefers to use. “I like to use the real white, not the ones that are half black,” he said.
He sells most of his work to Akta Lakota Museum in Chamberlain or the Sioux Trading Post in Rapid City, SD. Summer tourist months prove a boom for artists like Long Wolf. But, winter is cold financially as well as in temperature.
Long Wolf is glad the tradition was passed down to him before his father’s passing in 1991. “It was my turn to learn. All the others learned ahead of me … all of the others left it, and I’m still going,” he said.