By: Mikhail Sundust
Tribal Affiliation: Akimel O’otham and Pee Posh
Major: Master of Public Administration
Dr. Leo Killsback
American Indian Studies, Assistant Professor
Dr. Leo Killsback started making traditional artwork as a freshman at Montana State University (MSU) because it reminded him of home.
“Home was about 200 miles away, but in Montana, it might as well have been 1,000 miles,” he said. Killsback is Cheyenne from the Northern Cheyenne tribal nation and grew up in the tiny reservation town of Busby, Montana. Moving from the reservation to Bozeman, a college town, was challenging.
“Culture shock is the appropriate word,” he said. “When I went to college for the first time I felt a need to reconnect because I felt like I wasn’t really prepared for what the world had out there.”
Killsback graduated from MSU in 2003. He acquired a master’s degree and a doctorate in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona in 2005 and 2010 respectively. Today he is a busy father, husband, researcher and assistant professor at Arizona State University in American Indian Studies (AIS), but as an undergraduate student at MSU, he was just learning to navigate college life while remaining connected to his culture.
Killsback learned to bead primarily from his grandmother, but when she passed away during his undergraduate years, he said it left a void in his community. “There needed to be more people who could create these beautiful works of art that everybody in our tribal nation deserves to have.”
Killsback makes a point of creating items with cultural and spiritual significance. For example, he makes fans, pipe bags, war bonnets, and other regalia. As an experienced consultant in the repatriation of Indigenous cultural items, he reminds people that many traditional Native American artifacts found behind glass in museums are not just pretty relics of a bygone era; they are sacred and ceremonial items that people still use today.
“Our cultural practices are ongoing. People continue to use their sacred sites,” he said. “People still make and use…clothing, baskets, pottery, (and) jewelry…for ceremonies, dances, and celebrations.” More importantly, he added, aesthetic beauty should always be secondary to spiritual beauty. “They are beautiful works of art, but they also have cultural meaning behind them.”
The substance of the myriad cultures of Indigenous peoples is not wholly contained by the artifacts and remnants of our ancestors. It is in the way we communicate, govern and endure. It is in our relationships and values.
It can be difficult for Native college students today to learn their language and cultural practices, but “our values are something that can be transferred,” he said. “Our culture, then, is not just the material culture.”
The same values our ancestors held, we hold. And the same values that helped our relatives to endure hardships – whether centuries ago or just one generation ago – are the same values that will help today’s Native college students endure the challenges they face. Making ceremonial objects was Killsback’s way of finding his contribution to the survival of his culture.
“What really shaped my life is that I was taught to never forget where I came from, to never be ashamed of who I was, and to hold on to what kept me motivated,” he said. “There was a transition period when pursuing my education was no longer an individual goal,” he said, but something he did for the betterment of his people.
Finally, he said, at the surface level, the act of making traditional art is just a great relaxing activity. It allows him to clear his mind and exercise his creativity. “I think it really helps alleviate stress and exercises different parts of the mind so...you don’t seek quick solutions for short-term problems.” When it comes to beadwork, he said, “you learn that there are no shortcuts. You really learn about patience.” Even now, as a busy academic professional, he will spend an evening beading to take his mind off research and return rejuvenated the next day. He has beaded moccasins for his two children and made jewelry for his wife, AIS assistant professor Cheryl Bennett.
Killsback’s practice of making traditional art connects him to his people, culture and values. That connection is something he hopes every Indigenous person will find, in their own way.