BUSBY, Mont. - When Seidel Standing Elk was sent to school, he didn't speak English, only the Northern Cheyenne tongue. His first months at school were culturally traumatic. But as much as he wanted to run away and forget about getting "educated," he knew he couldn't.
By the second grade he was both intimidated and bored. One day, while practicing his ABCs, he imagined the letters he was supposed to be drawing turning into horses, grazing, trotting and galloping across the grass lands.
So enchanted was he with the scenes in his mind, that he picked up the pencil his teacher had given him and began to draw the horses he saw.
Sketching the imagined scenes took him away from the dreary classrooms to a place of freedom and heart. His drawings also got him noticed by his teachers and classmates. Their constant admiration and praise went a long way toward making the young boy feel more comfortable. At times he could almost imagine he was fitting in - almost.
But his art sustained him, giving him the strength to persevere. By the end of high school, most of his friends assumed he would graduate and go to the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, N.M. He did. But not for long.
Burned-out with school and, to a certain extent even his own art, Standing Elk decided to work for a while and get some direction and perspective on life. For eight years he worked at anything he could turn his hands to - washing dishes, working for the National Park Service in Yellowstone National Park - in general checking out what life had to offer.
And he checked it out hard.
"You see your uncles or relatives just drunk up town and it seemed, when I was growing up in that atmosphere, like it was normal," Standing Elk says. "And when I got out of high school, it just kind of led right into that.
"Once I figured out drinking and doing drugs wasn't normal, I made a commitment ... . I figured out I could live without it. I didn't want to live like that anymore."
Eight years, one marriage and one child later, his drinking days were finally behind him. Sober and contemplative, Standing Elk decided to go back to school.
"I really had great teachers growing up," he says. "I was very fortunate because they were really understanding. They would listen and they would tell me things.
"Those teachers gave me so much when I was growing up, doing my art, that I thought, 'How about if I try to give something back and see if I can be an art teacher.'"
To pay for his tuition at the Cascade Community College in Portland, Standing Elk went back to drawing. Working in pencil and acrylics, he produced black and white images of nature and the American Indian scenes and images that came to him.
"I would go into this big BIA building over in Portland, Ore., and then I would go from floor to floor selling them, $10 here, $16 there, and people would buy them," he says. "It was a really nice break for me."
It was while he was at school that he made his major breakthrough as an artist.
Unprepared for class one day, Standing Elk was horrified when the teacher asked every student to stand up and show the assigned work they had produced for class.
Standing Elk pulled out an outline sketch of a buffalo walking straight against a backdrop of hills and layers of pine forest. While the students were called in alphabetical order to show their work, he rapidly finished the piece with colored pencils.
When it came his turn, he told the story of the buffalo and how it had come to him because he had been missing the reservation and the mountains of Montana. The picture was strong and received high praise.
"Right then and there I thought, 'Hey, I can do this. I can really do this now. That moment, it was a turnaround for me. I knew, like even if the pressure's there, I can still do it."
After his graduation, Standing Elk knew it was time to return to his homeland. He wanted to contribute to his people in the best way he could and made a commitment to do whatever work he was called to do back on the reservation.
As it turned out, it wasn't his art but his upbringing in a traditional family, speaking the Northern Cheyenne language, that turned out to be his gift to his people.
"Most of our language is gone now," he says. "Before I got there, I promised myself wherever I work back on the reservation, I'm going to work 110 percent. It didn't matter what the payment was. I had an idea of helping my people somehow and this job fit just right."
For the last nine years Standing Elk has been teaching language classes at the reservation elementary and high schools. His total immersion in his culture allowed his art to flower. Working mostly in acrylics and watercolors, his subjects reflect the values, visions and oral legends told to him by the elders. His works have been exhibited throughout Montana and Idaho and as far away as Georgia.
Ever one to "go with the flow," Standing Elk says his life has been increasingly rich since he kicked the booze and drugs and returned to the reservation.
His skill in the Cheyenne language has taken him to some unexpected places, including a speaking role in the TV series, "The Return of Lonesome Dove." That part led to another role as a medicine man in "Last of the Dog Men" and another speaking role in a History Channel documentary on General Custer's battle at the Little Big Horn.
Now, he says, more acting roles are on the horizon. His artwork is bringing his people's culture to life. And being able to teach the young people of his tribe their traditions and language is an ongoing reward.
"I'm so into life right now, I don't even count my years," he says. "I'm so much into life right now I just go from day to day. It's really rewarding."