Stephen V. Banks explains how cowrie shells were a valued commodity in the days of the Mountain Men in the Wind River Mountains.

By Bob Bahr

Dubois, Wyoming is a unique place, with ancient Native American migratory and trade paths intersecting, nearby passes over the Absoraka Mountains and Wind River Mountains urging passage, and the Wind River itself offering water, food, relatively temperate weather. But it’s easy to grow up in Dubois without getting the full story on the town’s roots, its past and present.

The Boys & Girls Club of Dubois, with funding from the Susan Kathleen Black Foundation, recently ran a program designed to educate and involve Dubois kids in their local heritage. Called PLACE, it focused on People, Land, and Community Education, using art as its vehicle. Artist and educator Traci Jo Isaly organized the weeklong program, with key logistics and organization coming from B&G Club officers Jeda Lise and Jill Judd.

Tory Taylor explains how you can figure out the age of a ram by counting the rings on its horns.

SKB stalwart Tom Lucas was one of the instructors. His rigorous approach to drawing served as a good complement to Isaly’s more exploratory class, which used figures made of wire, clay and found materials to explore concepts discussed during the week. Special guests the first two days provided lectures and demonstrations on an expert level—it’s hard to imagine finding anyone more knowledgeable about fur trappers and traders in the historic Wind River Valley than presenter Stephen V. Banks. Tory Taylor, a veteran of more than a decade of archaeological and anthropological digs in the Winds—and an expert guide—discussed the life and culture of the Sheep Eaters, and explained the mysterious origins of the petroglyphs dotting nearby Torrey Canyon. Tory’s wife Meredith has walked the Winds and sustained herself with local plants and other natural foods in the area, and her expertise rounded out the discussion of life in the Winds and away from contemporary trappings.

Traci Jo Islay guides the students in making mandalas, a warm-up exercise the kids did every day at PLACE, held at Headwaters.

Many of the attributes of the Wind River Mountains and the Wind River Valley are best understood after gaining an understanding of the geological forces that formed them. For this subject, the B&G Club of Dubois brought in Johanna Thompson, a fifth generation Dubois native with a background in geology and geophysics. Thompson brought the roughly dozen kids to Ring Lake, in the Whiskey Basin, and offered a spellbinding primer on the geological forces that created the Winds, the canyon, and nearby Absaroka Mountains, and the multiple kinds of rock clearly visible in the Whiskey Basin area. The participants learned how buckling in the earth’s crust, glaciers, and volcanic activity created the different rocks found in the area, and they left with some understanding of how to read the landscape in a geological sense.

Tom Lucas instructs the participants at the Boys & Girls Club of Dubois event in how to draw a headdress.

The role of Native Americans in the area was central to every part of the program. Banks pointed out in clear language that the European trappers and explorers could not have made it without the knowledge and help of local tribes. “The mountain men did not see the Indians as the enemy,” Banks asserted. “Their chances of survival would have be almost none it they hadn’t associated with them.” The truth is, although whites and the Shoshoni occupants of the Wind River Valley share a tumultuous history, much of it was cooperative. The intersection of the cultures was demonstrated by the yearly rendezvouses, gatherings in the summer in one of the region’s valleys, during which fur traders, trappers, mountain men, and Native Americans exchanged furs, beads, whiskey, punches, and stories.

Banks shows how mountain men started a fire using a scorched piece of cloth, shredded bark and grass, steel, and flint.

Banks explained how beaver pelts drove the exploration of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, with a craze for beaver fur hats nearly exterminating the creatures in vast swaths of the west. He demonstrated how the trappers set beaver traps, made fires, set up camp, and loaded and fired their flintlock rifles. Then, as suddenly as the industry exploded, earning traders a living worth the dangers and hardship of trapping in mountainous grizzly country, the beaver pelt trade collapsed due to increased scarcity of the critters and the vagaries of hat fashion. The mountain man heyday was 1820-1842, and what came next was timber, farming, and ranching—including the lucrative dude ranch business.

Lunch at Ring Lake

Lucas explained his past, how he grew up on his grandad’s farm on a reservation in Montana, then delved even deeper in Native American culture, and how he’s now recognized as one of the foremost craftsmen of Native American beadwork, bows, pipes, knives, and other historically accurate items made from traditional materials using traditional techniques. “From earliest memory I had a real fascination for Native American culture,” Lucas told us. “Even in my very young days I was fascinated with the culture. It wasn’t like I planned this. It was just something that was in me. I wanted to learn how to make all the things they made–saddles, pipes, headdresses, drums, bows, moccasins. As I went along I was able to understand more and more of their culture, and they thought enough of me that they shared a lot of legends and their stories. At one point right after high school, I lived with a Native American family, and there was a very, very good beadworker in the family. That’s how I learned about beadworking. I always had the ability to watch people do things, and if I were interested, I could go home and do it. It might take me two or three times to get it. Now I feel like I preserve a part of their history through my still-life paintings of Native American objects. And because I know how to make these objects, it helps me understand how they should really look in the painting.”

Banks shows how trappers and mountain men set traps for beaver using a steel trap, a chain, a stake, and castoreum smeared at the end of a stick on the bank.

Lucas was clear in his instructions when the kids were in his drawing class. He explained when to be loose with big shapes, and when to get detailed. His advice ranged from the micro (how to hold the pencil, for example) to the macro (getting the overall shape and pose of a still-life object). The other half of each of the three days working in the studio belonged to Isaly, who is well known for making totemic figures out of recycled materials—and handbags as well. “Tom was very disciplined, and it was a contrast with my class, which was more explorative,” Isaly says. “With me, they were invited to explore outside the parameters of rules. If they wanted to do certain things that were beyond the ability they had or beyond the normal limits of what materials I had for them, I allowed it. That age group—adolescents–is very creative and has the capacity and the dexterity to do what they envision.”

Two figures created by students at PLACE

Isaly was pleased to see that the students brought some of what they learned from the featured speakers into their artwork, as she urged them to. She pointed out that kids don’t always seem to be listening, but the information and atmosphere is indeed seeping into their psyche. “I gave them a bit of information at the beginning, told them ‘You don’t have to make a figure that is human. It can be part human, part reptile, or insect, or any animal or critter out there that you have an interest in or that you consider to be a totem animal.’ We went into that a bit and I encouraged them to incorporate these ideas into their figure.” One student, Dre, picked up on this train of thought. His figure had elements of a fox and an eagle, along with a Native American tomahawk.

The students displayed their drawings, mandalas, figures, and artist statements at a reception held at the end of the week.

“The figure that they created didn’t necessarily reflect an exact subject of one of the talks, but an interpretation that had an element of what they learned in those first two days,” says Isaly. “Some went right into what they learned. All of them put some element of what they learned into their figures. The most surprising thing for me was that they did fulfill that part of the assignment. They did capture some little thing from the talks that stuck with them. All of them went into this complete immersion. I have found over time that this is what the figure-making process does. You get so enamored; you get captured by it. A lot of them didn’t want to leave at the end of class.”

Caleb Sabatka served as an assistant at PLACE, and made this striking figure during the week.

The program ran July 24-29, 2017, with the students wrapping up their art projects on Friday. On Saturday evening, they displayed their work at a reception at Headwaters Arts & Conference Center, and a big chunk of Dubois turned out to sip refreshments, munch nibbles, and admire the work done by the kids over the past week. Isaly encouraged the students to stand near their figures and drawings and present a professional face to the potential collectors in the gallery. The mood was cheerful, with the gathered parents and townsfolk seemingly surprised at the caliber of the artwork. Several Dubois residents expressed amazement that an art reception like this could pull people out on a beautiful summer evening. One piece was quietly sold; plans were made for future projects. The kids variously talked to curious adults, ran around in a pack, munched on cheese, salami, and fruit, and smiled in somewhat embarrassed pride. The organizers beamed.

An artist statement

In the end, Isaly sounded gratified. “I think that each and every one of our young participants got the message about PLACE—people, land and community education,” she told us. “The way that the program was set up–covering the people and the land, and then the community education part unfolding as we did the reception, inviting parents and the public to come see the work and share in what was experienced the five days before–that to me was a beautiful thing.”

a mandala

A beautiful thing with roots. Lucas embodies art that expresses roots and culture. The kids involved in the PLACE program got a taste of that. “I do some of these paintings because I feel led to do them,” Lucas says. “I tell a part of the story, I preserve some of the culture. I’m maybe a historian using visual art.” Ω

The reception on Saturday evening brought in a surprisingly big and boisterous crowd at Headwaters.