The Northern Michigan JournalPREVIOUSNEXT

Lois Beardslee
Daughter of the Earth
by Jim Rink

Lois Beardslee rummages through some boxes and bags in a corner of her Maple City home. She is surrounded by her art--contemporary Native American prints, lithographs, oil paintings, baskets, bead-work, quill-work, and audio cassette tapes--all reflecting ancient Woodland legends and lore.

"Here, look at this," she exclaims, holding up two small stones that look and feel like chalk. "Red and yellow ochre. One time we were planting cherry trees and I found just enough yellow ochre to do a painting."

The fine, powdery stone, she explains, is mixed with water and sealed with acrylic to form the paint pigment which she uses for her Red Ochre People motif. This motif is characterized by two-dimensional "stick figures" similar to ancient rock drawings found throughout North America.

"Red Ochre People are a culture I have created to fill the gap between past and present," says Beardslee. "They are comprised of my family, friends, ancestors, oral tradition and the unknown artists who left petroglyphs, pictographs and texts on skin and bark."

Beardslee is good at filling the gaps--she feels a strong responsibility in her role as a cultural emissary for Native Americans. Whether she's telling stories on paper or in person, the imagery she creates is the essence of life in the Ojibwe and Lacandon tribes into which she was born. Make no mistake--the myths and the legends she distills are for our benefit. Long part of an oral tradition, the spirit world of the past has been kept alive through a well organized underground. Only recently have these cultural icons resurfaced, as a soothing balm for troubled and restless times.

Beardslee has had her own share of troubles, and the gaps here are a little bit wider. Born into a family of nine siblings, her mother died when she was 10; her father at 15. But she has no complaints.

"I grew up around here, came from a rural background," she says. "We hunted, fished, farmed. I grew up in a privileged era--I remember ducks being piled on the table, each of us having our own duck for dinner. It was a time of plenty--a lifestyle that's disappearing."

Now she's back in the art corner, sifting through more boxes. She brings out a basket with an intricate quill design. "This is by Yvonne Walker-Keshick," she says. "She's one of the Sisters of the Great Lakes. There are 22 of us between the ages of 18 and 81. We were hand-picked by tribal leaders and elders from five states and Canada."

Funded by W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the one-year project is titled: "Native American Women: Transcending Boundaries for Future Generations." The project provides for a series of three four-day workshops for the 22 Native American women artists participating.

"There is a need to develop role models and mentors among Native American artists for future generations to look and learn from," says Jan Reed, project administrator and director of the Nokomis Learning Center in Okemos.

Beardslee is such a role model. She has been an artist for more than 20 years and has work in public and private collections worldwide. She has attended Northwestern Michigan College, Oberlin College, and received her master's degree in the History of Native American Art at the University of New Mexico. She is a certified teacher.

In 1992, she combined her teaching skills and her love for Native American culture by recording some of the oral traditions on tape. The end result (so far) is Leelanau Earth Stories, Earth Stories, Too and More Earth Stories. "I'm a real talker," she says with a smirk. "I decided to use it as an asset. The kids really love the Native American stories. So, I went to the recording studio--the stories are all memorized, not written down. A lot of the stories are true events that really happened."

Courtesy of her extended family--Auntie Connie and Uncle Leonard, among others--the stories were handed down over the years. Many of the stories are used to explain natural phenomenon, such as Northern Lights. Her voice is strong and sure--and filled with lively intonation:

The northern lights are the pathways or the campfires to the each of the people from the different clans pass through, they take something that is important to them and they throw it into the fire. That makes the the people from the Sturgeon Clan pass by, they take their tails and fins and throw water on the fire...the flames hiss and crackle. That's why the northern lights appear to pulse and move.

Other stories are based on everyday events, such as Betty at Pow Wow:

"I saw you on TV," she (Betty) said. "You are a celebrity. You are a famous person. Her sons began to drum; she danced off on their voices. As she turned and her hair spun around, the fringe on her buckskin dress swirled out around her with the beads and the quills shimmering in the sunlight, and I thought, "Oh Betty--you are the celebrity, for surely you are famous among the spirits. They know you well. Surely you are blessed because you have your family, your friends and your culture."

Beardslee is proud of her culture, but it has not always been a blessing. In the not-too-distant past, ethnic stereotypes have loomed large.

"Once, I was going to substitute teach in a local school," she recalls. "I was mistaken for a Native American parent and escorted out."

On another occasion, she was told by a school administrator not to stray too far from her home room without proper notification.

"You're being paid to be in that art room," he said. "If you want to leave, you're going to have to tell my secretary where you're going." After school, two miles down the road, Beardslee burst into tears.

Now, she shrugs it off. "That happens sometimes. People jump on what's available.

"Harry Belafonte was performing at a well-known theater at the height of his career, but he was not allowed to use the main entrance--he was forced to go in through the back door. When I was younger, I received no respect due to my outside appearance. When I went back as a celebrity, I was treated with much more respect.

"Through the arts, I do come in through the back door. People don't burn crosses on front lawns anymore, but we carry stereotypes in our minds. This can be changed through the arts. We can use the arts to change people's perceptions."

Beardslee's audience might do well to take a lesson from the Woodland spirit Mani Boozho. He often takes human form in his attempt to teach things to man. "We learn through his mistakes," she says. "Every town would give him different manifestations; none of the characters are purely evil. I kind of wait until he talks to me before I begin painting--I try to be careful; you have to balance one character with another on the canvas."

Another of Beardslee's Native American motifs, in addition to the Red Ochre People, is that of the "shawl dancers." This motif appears in her work as wavy lines with intricate designs, attached to the face of a woman. To the untrained eye, it looks like the waves of a large sea.

"Women are traditionally keepers of the water," she explains. "There's a certain duality to my work. Often, you don't know if you're looking at sky or water. It's a visual illusion. I like to create a little confusion in the viewer's mind; force the eye to confront something that may be uncomfortable."

From the art corner, she fishes for and finds a dry fungus known as skwatoggin. She scrapes out some of the fleshy, soft fungus onto a plate and lights it with a match. It glows bright red and sends a trail of smoke into the air.

"This is used in pipe ceremonies or as a fire starter," she says, as she produces some sweet grass tobacco, mixed with commercial tobacco and cedar. "There's only one place in northern Michigan where sweet grass's been subdivided."

On the way out the door to resume the day's chores (she and her husband John own a cherry farm), Beardslee pauses to pluck an eagle feather from a glass jar. Aftersome discussion about the proper way to obtain an eagle feather (you don't shoot them) and the proper way to harvest porcupine quills (wait until the animal has been dead three days), she offers some parting words:

"I follow the eagle. He leads me to the best fishing spots. They say only a warrior can pick up an eagle feather...God knows I've earned that title."

The Northern Michigan JournalPREVIOUSNEXT

mail to nmj
copyright 1996 manitou publishing company
all rights reserved

NMJ Land - NMJ Views - NMJ Community - NMJ Living

NMJ Home Page

webdesign by leelanau communications

northern michigan journal advertisers