A view of Kitson through a tear in a tipi on display in the North Dakota Heritage Center. Kitson mended the tear using traditional methods.
Repairing A Lodge
Standing Rock Woman Fixes Tipi
By Dakota Wind
BISMARCK, N.D. – The North Dakota Heritage Center has opened two of its galleries this spring to thousands of visitors from locals to visitors from overseas. The galleries hum and echo with the conversation of hundreds of visitors in an hour. Students in summer school ask questions and look at exhibits with quiet determination if they’re working on an on-site activity.
The Early Peoples gallery features a strong language component in its exhibit design. Part of this design are two displays that receive the most attention: the cyclorama of Yellow Earth Village, which is a huge panoramic painting of a what is known by locals as “Double Ditch,” and a full-size genuine brain-tanned bison hide thipȟéstola (a thípi, or tipi). Visitors, especially young ones want to enter the lodge as soon as they lay eyes upon it.
The thípi was made in 1990 for the State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND) by Larry Belitz, an enrolled member of the Oglála Lakȟóta on the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The SHSND at one time shone big lamps within the lodge to give it a beautiful glow, but the glow dried it out according to Mr. Mark Halverson, Curator of Collections and Research, “The lamps served only to dry the hide,” which has made it as brittle as paper.
A view of the lodge looking up from the inside.
Because of its brittle condition, and its popularity with the crowd, the thípi began to tear in a few places. Despite closing the thípi off to visitors and displaying signage discouraging visitors to not touch the display, the lodge developed a tear along a seam, possibly due to young visitors who can’t read, or by foreign visitors unable to read English, or by belligerent excited visitors who can’t keep their paws off the lodge. In any event, it took only one tear.
Repair work on the tear was inevitable. The tear grew daily before it could be mended and it drew attention like bears to honey. Each swipe tore at the seam, until a gaping hole developed. It was awful to see.
Enter: D. Joyce Kitson.
Kitson prepares a patch and welts using brain-tanned bison hide, and bison sinew.
Kitson is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Her traditional Lakȟóta name is Pȟehíŋ Šá Wiŋ (Red Hair Woman), a name carried by her grandmother Matilda Vaulters-Good Iron. Kitson is a master quillworker with works at the National Museum of The American Indian, the North Dakota Heritage Center, and various collections, private and public, here in state and abroad. She also practices the traditional methods of brain-tanning hides, and collecting natural earth pigments.
Kitson is quick to acknowledge who she learned the traditional crafts from. She learned how to tan bison hides from her maternal uŋčí (grandmother) Alice Wears Horns-Vaulters, and uŋčí Zona Lones Arrow. Kitson learned two quillwork methods, one using bird quills in which the feather shaft has been stripped, and the other method involving porcupine quills. Quillwork, Kitson learned from Naomi Black Hawk, Mary Elk, and Alice Blue Legs-New Holy.
Kitson offers formal classes through Sitting Bull College about tanning and smoking hides. She also works through the North Dakota Council on The Arts too, and apprentices two to three learners each year. Her apprentices not only learn how to quill and/or tan, but she requires them to create personal objects for themselves such as awl and quill cases.
Kitson carefully places the patch and welt. The welt will help to preserve the seam where she joins the patch.
“I’m a lifelong learner, as much as I’m a teacher,” says Kitson. She recalled her first teaching experience when she was just sixteen years old at the Fargo-Moorhead Native American Center. Kitson had forty students who she taught the tanning tradition. She is also a mother of five, and taught her children as well.
I don’t press her for details but Kitson acknowledges that she lived a hard life, and enthusiastically professes her faith in God. She freely goes back and forth between reverently calling God “God” and the Lakȟóta address of “Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka." She sees both as one and the same.
Her faith permeates her crafts. “The work shouldn’t be laborious,” she says between drawing sinew through her mouth and fingers, “It should be an honor to work on these hides.” According to Kitson it takes six to eight hours to tan a hide depending upon how big the hide is and whether or not she has assistance.
After prepared the sinew and placing the welt and patch, Kitson begins a whip stitch.
Kitson lives a clean life, “To honor my ancestors, to honor the Authority,” she says. She believes whole-heartedly that if one honors one’s ancestors and the Creator that one, in turn, will be honored and blessed. Right now, Kitson shares, we must honor our youth.
As Kitson works on the thipȟéstola I ask her if she has any stories, “lore” one might say, associated with it. She believes that Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka sends her dreams and visions, sometimes regarding people she should pray for, sometimes a pattern to create with quillwork.
Then Kitson revisited my thipȟéstola query and said, “A thípi is a spiritual covering. It is spiritual protection.” She then shared that once she was walking up Mathó Pahá (Bear Butte), the sky serving as lodge in this story, when she was gifted with a vision about the butte as a pregnant woman about to give birth. The trees and animals upon it signified the birth of the Seventh Generation, and that all the life born thereafter would be gifted with dreams.
Almost done with the patch. Upon assessment of the lodge, there will need to be two more patches, one on the back and another on the top of the entry.
In a related story about the lodge, Kitson shared, her mother had a dream a long time ago about being within a thipȟéstola. “The sky opened up like a book,” she said, “and water poured down.” Her iná (mother) dashed within the lodge and attempted to close the thiyópa (the thípi door) with a safety pin to keep the waters out. Her iná prayed about this dream and received the revelation that the water was the Holy Spirit, and that the people were not yet ready for the Word.
Kitson finished patching the thipȟéstola. The hide visibly delicate in various places, the SHSND can anticipate future repair work on it as long as the lodge is on display and within reach of the general public’s paws.
Kitson shared one more thing as she repaired the lodge, “I would like to create one.”