SAN JUAN ISLAND, WASH. - As Doug Bison sculpts in the quiet of his home studio on San Juan Island, in Washington state's Puget Sound, the thoughts that inspire him are of a place long ago and far away.
It's a painful place - memories his grandfather locked away to be diluted by the passing of time, memories that Bison dug up as an adult after learning of his heritage.
The painful place is Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota. On Dec. 29, 1890, some 370 Lakota Sioux were massacred by the U.S. 7th Cavalry.
The massacre at Wounded Knee was the last - and most tragic - confrontation between American Indians and U.S. troops. Bison's great-grandfather, the Mniconjou Lakota chief Si Tanka (Big Foot), was among the first killed.
Big Foot's frozen corpse, half raised as though trying to warn his people of their imminent disaster, lay untouched for three days until it was unceremoniously dumped into a mass grave. George Trager's picture of Big Foot's corpse has long symbolized the tragedy of Wounded Knee.
Little Bison - Big Foot's son and Doug Bison's grandfather - survived and fled into Nebraska. He was taken in by a white rancher who put him to work on the plains and later sent him to a language school in New York. It was there that he met his future wife, a Scottish immigrant.
Little Bison lectured on American Indian history in schools and later operated a silver mine in Honduras.
"My grandfather never told my father a thing about Wounded Knee," Bison said. "He blocked it out. It was like a bad Vietnam experience."
What Bison learned about his heritage molded him into the artist he is today. After a career as a narcotics officer, as a cruise ship officer and in public relations, Bison began sculpting. He studied the history of the Mniconjou Lakota and the tragedy of Wounded Knee. He studied animal form, particularly the big game of North America. What he learned spurred an attention to authenticity and detail in depicting the American Indian people and the wildlife that was fundamental to their lives. Bison recreates this union between man and animal through the media of bronze and acrylic.
"Hawk Warrior," Bison's most famous bronze sculpture, is a depiction of a Blackfoot warrior. It won the Goodey Indian Culture Award at the National Western Art Show in Ellensburg, Wash. The award is presented for work that "best represents an accurate depiction of Indian culture." It measures 20 inches high, 25 inches wide and 15 inches deep.
"K-5," a six-foot, 550-pound sculpture of the killer whale "Sealth," graces the Ralph Munro Whale Watch Park overlooking Haro Strait - an expanse of water between San Juan Island and Canada's Vancouver Island.
"Wingflapper: In the Spirit of the Haida" is a two-sided image in bronze - one side has the profile of the golden eagle, the other side depicts the spirit of the eagle as seen in the art of the Haida, a Pacific Northwest tribe. It measures 16 inches high, 11 inches wide and seven inches deep.
"Wingflapper" takes its name from the Sioux and Blackfoot word for golden eagle. The sculpture won the Kinney Family Wildlife Award at the 30th annual National Western Art Show on May 18. The Kinney award is bestowed each year for "the work best depicting wildlife." It was also displayed for a year in the office of the speaker of Washington state's House of Representatives.
"Fresh Water Lobster," Bison's latest work, was delivered to the foundry in late December. It is a life-size bronze of a feisty North American river otter with one of her favorite delicacies, the crawfish, in her mouth. It measures 27 inches wide, 17 inches high and 18 inches deep.
Future work includes a life-size buffalo headdress in bronze, with an actual buffalo horn. Bison plans to produce bronze sculptures of a Blackfoot medicine man and a Mandan warrior, using real feathers for the headdress - believed to be the first mix of bronze and natural materials. He wants to donate one of the sculptures to the Smithsonian Institution.
'One hour can turn into five'
"While the Eagle Sleeps" softly plays upon entry to Bison's comfortable ranch-style home with a territorial view of Griffin Bay.
Bison's home is located on the shortest route between Griffin Bay and Haro Strait; the pathway connects one side of the island to the other. Lummi Indians traversed the path because of its short distance between coastlines.
Bison's home is filled with a rich tapestry of culture that the artist weaves into his work. American Indian art and photographs fill the walls.
His grandfather's headdress, jacket and beaded cuffs are on display. Books on Native history abound. Artifacts include stones once used for tanning; they are so worn the indentation of the user's finger can be seen. In Bison's home, the past is present.
As he sculpts, music plays and he gets lost in his craft. "One hour can quickly turn into five," he said.
Bison has three projects going at any time. To recreate a project in authentic detail, he studies books of photographs and will spend as many as 300 hours producing a sculpture.
"I want to perpetuate the indigenous people, the Native Americans," Bison said of his art. "They had an incredible history. If you can keep putting their lives in front of the public, they're not forgotten."
It is his attention to authenticity that will allow viewers to appreciate his art for generations to come. Like Remington, "a hundred years from now, I want people to ask, 'Is it a Bison?'"
To see examples of Bison's work, visit www.bisonisland.com/index_studio.html
Richard Walker is editor of The Journal of the San Juan Islands in Friday Harbor, Wash. His great-grandmother was a Yaqui from Sonora, Mexico.