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Martin St. John

Crow Creek Tribe
(b. 1967)

Martin St. John was born in Fort Yates, North Dakota in September 1967. He is an enrolled member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and currently resides within the Crow Creek Community north of Chamberlain, South Dakota. He pursues his art career full-time.

Although Martin has had no formal art training, he has been drawing since age five. In 1995, he started pursuing various avenues of expression including handpainted drums and intricately beaded dreamcatchers. He also makes beaded jewelry, such as chokers and earrings. He would eventually like to study art in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

When crafting an ornamental drum, St. John says he strives for balance. To demonstrate what he means by balance, he removed the small drumstick from the top of a wall hanging and held up the drum. It looked unfinished. He put the drumstick through the loop again and held it up. The ornamental drum was finished balanced.

St. John is not articulate about the connection between the works he creates and his life …“I can’t really put it in words,” he said. But, the connection can be seen both in the cultural roots obvious in his designs and in his attitude toward his work and family.

St. John has been making dreamcatchers, ornamental drums, jewelry and beaded amulet bags for several years. He made the first drum because he was curious. His uncle, who was making ornamental drums, had some purple leather. St. John asked to use the leather for a drum because he wanted to see what it would look like. Now, he sells his work across the state. Locally, both Akta Lakota Museum in Chamberlain and the Prehistoric Indian Village in Mitchell carry his work.

Martin said his work is based on American Indian designs but is not traditional. Instead, he interprets traditional designs using materials he finds or is given. By adapting designs, his work is actually culturally consistent because American Indians have historically incorporated new materials. “When beads came along, it changed the way Native Americans designed their regalia,” he said.

The materials themselves influence St. John’s creative process. He buys leather piece by piece so he can coordinate colors in his wall hangings. He considers other elements as well. “The beads themselves influence me a lot,” he said.

One of his designs is a wall hanging which combines an ornamental drum with a dreamcatcher. While he enjoys creating drums and dreamcatchers, chokers and earrings, St. John also believes it is important for him and for other American Indians to make these items.

“You see a lot of people exploiting the Native American culture. They’re not Native American, but they are doing it.” St. John said. “For me — someone needs to do it that’s Native American.”

Although he was raised on reservations in South Dakota first the Standing Rock and then the Crow Creek St. John said he has much to learn about the culture, including the Lakota language. While he was growing up, his family was more concerned with paying bills than dancing at powwows. “We had to work to survive. We didn’t have time,” he said.

Still, he does know the legends he learned from his grandparents. St. John can explain why geese have red eyes and why rabbits have fuzzy tails. He knows the drums he makes represent the heartbeat of Mother Earth, and he can point out the spider which is hidden in the dreamcatcher.

Martin is the oldest of four children raised by a single parent. He describes his mother, Eunice St. John, as a very strong woman, one who was always working. He takes pride in the way he was able to help his mother when he was younger. “Being the oldest, I’d help my mother a lot …I was the one who took care of things,” he said. He helped his brothers with homework, read to them and drew pictures with them. Because of the bond between members of his family, St. John was deeply affected by his brother’s death in 1991. His brother was only 21.

St. John said he realized then people cannot be taken for granted. He also realized the importance of making choices. “Rather than waiting for something to happen, you have to make something happen, walk in the right direction,” he said.


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