Blackfeet artist draws on tradition for Eighth Generation blanket design
By Kristen Inbody
Reprinted with permission from the Great Falls Tribune
Blackfeet artist John Isaiah Pepion drew on tradition, a modern edge and the beauty of the Montana sky for his design for a new wool blanket that's part of an entrepreneurship-for-artists project.
His "Lightning Horse" wool blanket is produced by Eighth Generation of Seattle, the first Native-owned company to produce wool blankets.
Pepion is part of the company's Inspired Natives Project, which aims to provide economic opportunities and business education for Native artists.
"The whole thing is the art is from inspired Natives. It's not Native-inspired and actually pays the artists for the artwork," Pepion said. "Nowadays there's a lot of cultural appropriation, people taking our designs and making money off of them. They're not asking us or getting input."
Pepion, who lives on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, is the only Plains Indian in the four-year program, which he began in the spring.
"It's a huge responsibly but an honor as well to represent the Plains and the Blackfeet," he said.
His design pays tribute to Plains Indian horse culture. Pepion said that was important to him for his first blanket.
"It's still such a major part of our lives on the Plains today," he said. "The Plains Indian horse culture is alive and well."
With the loss of the buffalo, artists turned from hides to ledger paper. Pictographic art has been in his family for hundreds of years, and Pepion continues the ledger art tradition, with his own modern twists. That's reflected in the design, too.
"With my style, I get put into ledger art, but I call it Plains Indian Graphic Art," he said. "I paint on tipis, buffalo skulls, canvas, whatever I can get my hands on."
Evolutionary Art: Ledger artists advance artform
For the blanket, he portrayed the stylized horses as the Piikani band (part of the Blackfeet Confederacy) sometimes painted them before going on a hunt, on a raid or into battle. Circles above their eyes were to make the horses see better. Lightning bolts were to make them run faster. The ledger background includes his signature.
The blanket has a two-sided design. It's made with New Zealand wool, covers a Queen bed and costs $215. The company donates 5 percent of sales to the Inspired Natives grant for emerging arts entrepreneurs.
Pepion also designed a cotton throw blanket with a buffalo design and Blackfeet symbols. Above the buffalo on the red, yellow and black blanket is a cross representing the morning star, which was an important part of creation stories and ceremonies. In Blackfoot mythology, Morning Star was the son of the Sun and Moon. An arrow across the buffalo stands for the lifeline/sacred breath of the buffalo. Circles stand for stars.
Morning Stars show up again in the jewelry he's producing.
Through the project, Pepion has turned his personal website, johnisaiahpepion.com, into an e-commerce site. He's designed jewelry and cellphone cases to sell through the site.
"The goal is in four years to be a successful entrepreneur and help my community," he said. "I have the talent and the drive, but I wasn't getting the business part. A lot of artists don't want to do that side, and I didn't either but I have to."
The program has helped him think through alternative business ideas. He had focused on a traditional gallery show model. But it's tough to have it all ride on an art show.
"I was always up late worrying about the next art show," he said.
And there's the thrill of having a wool blanket with his design. Wool blankets are a common gift for graduation, birthday, Christmas and notable accomplishments.
"They're gifted a lot in Indian country. Coming from a Native company, it's huge. It means a lot more," Pepion said.
"It's been a great response, especially from my family and friends," he said. "I'm hoping to reach more people. I've been enjoying the response."
Eighth Generation: Challenging stereotypes
Pepion called Eighth Generation founder Louie Gong an inspiration and said he's constantly pushing him forward.
Gong, who grew up with his Nooksack grandparents, is a self-taught artist who got his break doing custom shoes that incorporated Coast Salish artistic traditions.
Gong said he started Eighth Generation without a business loan or a grand plan. The company's name references the traditional value of considering the impact of a decision on the next seven generations. The eighth generation recognizes the impact of those who came before, and it's a lucky number in China (Gong has Nooksack, Chinese, French and Scottish ancestry).
"I started with one artist, then two, then three," he said.
Pepion is No. 6, and Gong said he first noticed Pepion through work he saw online. He was struck by how much personality Pepion's ledger art has.
"He was a great match not only because of the fact he's in a region we knew was important to expand to but also he had the artistic chops and ability to engage the community," Gong said.
"We don't operate with money as the only currency. Community engagement is also an important currency for Eighth Generation," Gong said. "We want John to take the information and opportunities and amplify them."
Pepion travels and teaches about art as a way of healing and works with troubled youth on his own. Soon he'll be in Calgary, Alberta giving a presentation on ledger art.
Gong said business knowledge and capital are rare in Native communities. That makes the role of the artist/entrepreneur even more important in spreading the stories of how to succeed.
"We're not just working with the goal of paying our bills and creating opportunities for our children but also have the health and wellness of the broader community in mind when we make decisions," he said.
Most of the products are made in the United States, many in the Seattle studio. Others are important.
"We're part of the global economy," Gong said. "People always assume our aunties and grandmas are weaving the blankets in tipis behind our store. Eighth Generation is to say our people are highly ambitious entrepreneurs who will make great business partners. We're working to expand people's idea of contemporary Native people."
Eighth Generation has done 50 blankets in three years in business. That includes wool blankets, a smaller made-in-the-USA wool blanket and cotton throws. It also includes private label projects for tribes, organizations and companies.
Eighth Generation has a shop at Pike Place Market in Seattle and is online at eighthgeneration.com. Stepping into the store isn't like stepping into a traditional store focused on Native products, Gong said. The music is energetic. The floor is bright blue. Everything is contemporary.
"We're challenging stereotypes with the understanding that's not the best way to make a sale but with the overarching belief in currencies besides money," Gong said. "If we plant a seed that informs their interactions with Native people in the future, then we're happy."