Mitchell ZephierSicangu Oyate Lakota
When Mitchell Zephier creates his unique pieces of art-quality jewelry, he begins with the gifts of the earth: silver, copper, stone. He embellishes his work with vestiges of earth’s creatures: creamy bone, polished black buffalo horn, pale Mother-of-Pearl shell.
He cuts the shapes of his pieces from the flat sheets of metal and lays them together layer on layer colors and textures showing through where the designs are cut outlining birds and animals and mystery.
He signs them PVH, the initials of his Lakota name, Pretty Voice Hawk. “I wanted to create a style recognizable as Lakota Sioux metalwork. It is important for people to understand I consider my jewelry a new tradition. Our tradition includes feather work, quill work and pipe carving, but jewelry is virtually unknown.”
His success is notable. His international recognition is gratifying. But, that is only half of Zephier’s story. What he is creating behind the scenes is something large, a permanent gift to his people.
Zephier’s voice is quiet but eloquent as he speaks of his art and his dream. He sits still, his eyes looking at the wall of his narrow workshop as if seeing more than the neat drawers filled with the stone and metal wire, glue and polish that are his tools. “I started working in metal in Rochester, NY,” Zephier recalls, “with an Indian friend, Frank Standing High. He had Vanishing Crafts there and was also a high school art teacher.”
Standing High was a major influence on the Zephier. Zephier learned the basics of metal working without using a lot of tools. “Frank also did bead and quill work. He was an excellent artist in several different media. I liked the immediacy of metal. Within a few hours’ time, you can create something from nothing. Other Native American craft forms are more involved.”
He stayed four months with a cousin who had married a Zuni woman in New Mexico. She taught him to make her style of jewelry, using the techniques of soldering, stone cutting, polishing, and working with sterling silver. She tried to get him to stay and work with them. “It was the 1970s,” Zephier says remembering earlier times. “Southwestern Indian jewelry was at its height of popularity. Even then, I had in mind doing something different, something my own.”
Returning to South Dakota, he worked with Mark St. Pierre in a series of Native American Summer Institutes at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, teaching jewelry classes. “Mark really encouraged me, and I kind of solidified the direction I wanted to pursue. I haven’t really strayed from that too far.”
His jewelry style is based on Northern Plains Indian cultural symbolism and cultural values. Bravery, generosity, respect for motherhood and the elderly are expressed in his designs.
“One of the fascinating things about this jewelry, many times it is just decorative and functions as jewelry; but more often than not, it transcends being just jewelry. Then it conveys a legend or cultural concept,” he said. It is a way of sharing his culture, he says, mentioning that his give-away horse pin.
“Why a give-away horse?” he asks with a smile, like a good teacher about to reveal a new level of understanding. “One of the four cardinal virtues is generosity. The horse embodies the Lakota concept of generosity. It is considered a gift from Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit. The name for the horse is Shunka Wakan, sacred or mystery dog."
The horse was considered the ultimate gift; often given to honor a son who had killed his first buffalo or a man who had done a brave deed.
To remember someone who had died, a give-away horse made beautiful with a buffalo robe and feathers in its mane might be given to an elderly widow. “This is an important philosophy to me," Zephier said. "I consider the jewelry a gift from Mother Earth. The stone and metal is from the earth, and it is our responsibility to use it wisely and well to create things of beauty. In that way, we’re honoring the gifts of the earth.”
But, the jewelry does more than honor the gifts of the earth, Zephier says the jewelry also carries the Native American design out into everyday life. In the past, Indian people were forced to eliminate all signs of their culture. “By working with the jewelry, it gives us purpose and self-satisfaction. We make the jewelry, polish it, and see it. Indian people need something to uplift them. The jewelry does this for us.”
Over the years, other Sioux jewelers have opened shops of their own. Zephier said he trained most of them. Now, these young men are training their own apprentices. In a historical context, 20 or 30 years down the road, this could blossom into a whole range of creativity and employment.
People ask why he has sacrificed his beautiful one-of-a-kind pieces to a production line. “Why, they ask, do you take on the problems?”
His answer: “I am attempting two things. One is light jewelry manufacturing. The second is my original work. I hope to establish a gallery,” Zephier says focusing his attention on the future for a moment. “I am searching for a location now—Eagle Visions Gallery. I hope to promote other Native American artists.”
In the meantime, he works at the long bench, where little drawers hold pieces of Wyoming jade, Badlands agate, buffalo bone, and bits of pipestone. Use of the sacred pipestone in objects for sale is controversial. But, Zephier argues they use only the fragments and dust left over when pipe carvers have done their work. “We use only what is too small to use otherwise,” Zephier says, defending the use of the sacred stone. “We don’t waste anything. We make good use of the gifts of the earth.”
*Article and information provided by artist as published in the Summer 1991 issue of Inside the Black Hills.
Zephier's artwork is available through the Akta Lakota Museum online gallery.