Jackie Yellowhair: Beads and Feathers for 'Spiritual Uplift'

A profile of artist Jackie Yellowhair, Kiowa and Apache

For Kiowa and Apache artist Jackie Yellowhair, life and art have always been intertwined.

From his childhood home in the Buzzard Creek area between Anadarko and Fort Cobb in southwest Oklahoma, Yellowhair, 38, started learning the basics of loom beadwork at age 7.

“My mom was the one who advised me on the loom work when I started,” Yellowhair said about his mother, Lela Yellowhair. “She was doing beadwork all the time. We were sitting there watching TV, and I would start focusing my attention on her. Of course, all of her work was perfect to me. Every bead was straight. She wouldn’t use lop-sided beads. Attention to detail is what interested me.”

At age 9, Yellowhair’s father, Asau Yellowhair, had him attaching feathers to the sides of drums, thereby gaining knowledge of working with feathers. A year later, Yellowhair gained an interest in the intricacy of gourd stitch beadwork from watching one of his uncles, Jerry Redbone.

“My dad, later on, taught me how to do that gourd stitch,” said Yellowhair, “how to get started on it. I started making my designs immediately.”

Yet it was in his teenage years—when he started attending Native American Church meetings in which Peyote is a sacrament—that necessity combined his skills into making feather fans used for prayer.

“I wanted to have my own fan when I went to Peyote meetings,” Yellowhair said. “It was very basic. I went to meetings for four or five years. I was waiting around, hoping somebody might give me a fan. It never happened. I said, ‘I guess the only way to have a fan is to make your own.’”

Since then, Yellowhair has made fans and many other items for those in the Native American Church, as well as those who participate in powwows or handgames—the traditional Plains Indian game of chance.

When making his fans, Yellowhair has a particular process before he begins. First, he makes sure his household chores are done and his work area is clean. Then he prays to the Creator.

“When I start anything, I say a prayer in my mind,” said Yellowhair. “Sometimes I’ll light sweetgrass. Sometimes I’ll smoke a cigarette—tobacco. Say that prayer about what I’m going to do and make sure everything is clean around my area. Everything’s got to be just right. When you can say that prayer and get started, you know it’s going to come about. Because of my belief, when you say a prayer, if you live right and do right in your mind and in your heart, you know that prayer’s going somewhere. You’re not just saying words.”

The inspiration for his designs and colors come from many sources. One source of his inspiration is the work of his older brothers—Jeff, who is both a painter and fan maker; Leland, who is also a beadwork artist; and Anthony, who is a sculptor. Within their work, he studies the contrast of light and dark within brother Jeff’s paintings or the shades of pink and white within the alabaster carved by his brother Anthony.

“I heard an old man one time say—‘God gave me four colors to use on these feathers.’ To me, in my mind, when I heard him say that, I said ‘God gave me all the colors to use,’” Yellowhair explained about his use of color. “I can use any color. I could only use two colors and make a whole design or a whole project. Three colors, four colors, whatever it is. I could use twenty colors too. I don’t have a favorite color. I’ll use anything, whatever I’ve got, whatever is available.”

Yellowhair sees his work as coming from an extended Kiowa tradition in which a high standard of quality craftsmanship has already been set in place by those before him. He would like to see his work continue that tradition.

“I like to think of my work as being—I hate to brag or anything—as being ‘top shelf,’” Yellowhair said. “It’s not going to fall apart when you use it. I try to take pride in knowing that I’m Kiowa and that our Kiowa people are looked around this area from other tribes as the ones who are the best—the best bead workers and the best feather workers. I’m trying to carry that on, the way that other people perceive our Kiowa people—from powwow regalia to [Peyote] meeting regalia to handgame regalia. I try to maintain that mindset.”

For the first time, Yellowhair’s artwork will be exhibited in a solo exhibition October 20-December 1 at the Southern Plains Indian Museum (715 E. Central in Anadarko, OK). Not only will Yellowhair’s fans be on display, but also hand drums and handgame scoring sticks made by the artist. The opening will also feature a handgame demonstration.

“I’m hoping that if they want to see it, they’re going to get uplifted spiritually,” Yellowhair said about the upcoming show. “It’s going to awaken that spirit. Open your mind. You might want to see a fan. You might want to pray. You might want to go to a powwow. You might see a drum and a song might come to you. You might remember something from your grandpa’s time. Hopefully, that will spiritually uplift somebody, that we’re alive in this day and age. Our people survived through generations of heartache, turmoil and hardship. As a people, we’re still here, and these different spiritual ways that we have are still here and still going. They haven’t changed; us as people have changed. Seeing a little bit of my work might bring them back to some spirituality from our people of long ago.”