By Jack McNeel -- Today correspondent
RAPID CITY, S.D. - In the summer of 2006, Don Montileaux, Oglala Lakota, won first place in his division as well as Best of Division at the Santa Fe Indian Market - perhaps the ultimate proof that he is an accomplished artist, not self-proclaimed, but acclaimed by others in the art world.
''I was so happy even to get in the show. I was schooled in Santa Fe at the Institute of American Indian Arts and went to the market and heard about the winners and how they had achieved greatness from that point. I have a lot of friends who have continued, like Earl Biss and Kevin Red Star. Fritz Scholder was one of my teachers, and Allan Houser and Neil Parsons, so I really had lots of good influences.''
That was in the late 1960s.
Montileaux took a little different journey to reach his present standing. He had wanted to pursue a teaching career in art, and received his teaching degree at Black Hills State University in Spearfish. He taught art for three and a half years on the Cheyenne River Reservation.
''It was kind of a nice thing. The first year I was on the western side of the reservation and then was stationed in Cherry Creek teaching kindergarten through fifth grade because that's as far as the school went. It was fun.''
He began working at Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City as the building foreman in 1977 and retired in 2000 as assistant manager. During those years, he continued producing art and experimenting with different forms of art, but none really satisfied what he wanted to do untill he got into ledger art.
''That satisfied every need I had as an artist,'' he said.
Montileaux credits Herman Red Elk, a hide painter, as his true mentor.
''He taught me all the skills you need to be a hide painter - the taking of the hide, curing of the hide, removal of the hair. I knew all the stories. I knew all the symbols, but every time I'd go to an art show, Herman would win. It was his media, not my media.
''I researched and [in] about 1860 when buffalo were pretty much all gone from the Plains, my Lakota people didn't have a written language and we turned to another source. That was the old accounting books and ledgers and journals that were discarded by storekeepers. They picked those up and started putting those same symbols I'd learned from Herman onto paper using inks, colored pencils and crayons.
''That became a skill I started developing and marketing, and I've had great success with ledger art.''
He gives credit to the institute for teaching the things other than art that students need to enter the art world, such as social skills and how to market their work.
He now exhibits in a number of notable galleries, including Prairie Edge in Rapid City; Tribal Expressions in Chicago; Indian Uprising Gallery in Bozeman, Mont.; Spirit in the Wind Gallery in Golden, Colo.; Prairie Star Gallery in Sioux Falls; and others.
His show schedule started in February in Sioux Falls and then continued on to Phoenix at the Heard Museum in March. He had a show at the Eiteljorg Indian Art Market in Indianapolis June 23 - 24. Montileaux will also have a show at the Santa Fe Indian Art Market in August.
''It's great!'' he said. ''This is what I've wanted since I was 5 years old.''
He said he will remain a ledger artist ''because it's a very good educational tool for the young kids. It's also a very good educational tool for the Anglo, the ones that don't understand where we were during this period between 1860 and 1910, very turbulent years for my people.''
Despite that, he feels an artist must continue to experiment and grow.
''I want to see if I can take that to a different plateau,'' he said. ''I'd like to sculpt. I don't know how to burn steel, but I'm learning.''