Dakota/Diné, renowned ledger artist calls Spirit Lake Nation home.

By Shinoah Young
DL Journal Reporter

Avis Charley’s passion for art continues to grow and prosper, like the budding prairie flowers and rolling hills on her homeland of Spirit Lake Nation.

At 13-years-old, she began painting graffiti art in Long Beach, California.
She also never stopped believing that she would make it as an artist. “I love painting. Visualization is so important. It’s so important for you to have a goal.”

Now, 38, Charley is a renowned ledger artist. “I think about how my grandchildren will one day look and see my work.”

She danced traditional jingle dress at the Fort Totten Days powwow, alongside her 6-year-old daughter, Woniya. “I have a lot of personal reasons for coming home,” she sighed.

Having just come from a sun dance ceremony that day, to do the interview she told the Journal, “It’s such a rich culture and I just want to absorb and learn as much of that as I can.”

Charley credits native elders for sharing their traditional knowledge and faith. “The most important thing is staying close to the elders,” she said softly. “They’re not going to be here forever.” She said there are many elders which help her to make important  choices in the work that comes from Creator, or ‘Tunkasila’ in Dakota.

As a Dakota person, she said it was not always easy growing up in a Californian city. “I always told people ‘I’m Dakota, I’m Sioux.’” Values she said her mother, Marie Gourd, instilled in her at an early age.

After her mother’s passing in 1998, then 22, she dealt with her grief and loss by coming home to Spirit Lake Nation and working in the casino as a blackjack dealer.
“The other day I told our youth at Four Winds ‘You’ll come to a point in your life when you’ll have material things, but it won’t mean anything. It’s just stuff. Who you really are as a Dakota person is what really matters.’”

After welcoming her daughter Woniya into the world, she said “That’s when art actually came to me.” In 2011, she took studio arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico and her journey in ledger art began to shape itself.  

“I basically just express myself as a native woman,” she said amicably on honing her craft.

Charley explained that pre-colonial contact, Dakota people were able to storytell, drawing pictographs on animal hide. “Once the Europeans came, my ancestors were put on reservations or imprisoned. They no longer had access to that natural material so they used what was available to them which was discarded ledger books from the general store, along with colored pencils and crayons.”

“So they used this new material to continue expressing themselves. Those ledger books are actually in museums throughout the country and that period lasted roughly from 1860 to 1910. And so I look at those old ledgers and that’s where I draw some inspiration from.”

Charley’s art has become an international phenomena. “Being a ledger artist, the concepts and materials are pretty easy. It’s the accuracy and the research, it takes time.”

“When I do a piece I want it to be historically correct. I want it to be what our Dakota people did and used ... It has to be done right.”

Her ledger pieces have been showcased and traded in countless galleries and art shows across American and Canadian Indian Country and even overseas.

Prominent gallery shows include: Phoenix Heard Museum, Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico, Minnesota Historical Society, Los Angeles Autry Indian Arts Marketplace, and NMAI Winter Art Market in Washington D.C. (The Smithsonian).

“My message as an artist is healing,” she said teary eyed. “You realize that in the end, all that stuff doesn’t even matter anymore. It’s our culture that matters - and the language.”

“Sometimes I sit down and don’t even know what piece I’m going to do. It will just come out.”

She said smudging is the most important part of her creative and spiritual routine. “Before I start a piece, I burn sage or sweetgrass. I pray before each piece. I pray that it gives the message that it’s supposed to give.”

“I will continue letting other women know, who share the same, I guess, history with me, you know, when it comes to overcoming certain issues and overcoming trauma and hurt and just overcoming it in a healthy way - that it’s possible.”

Terrance Guardipee, an established Blackfeet ledger artist from Montana, inspired Charley. Guardipee revealed some valuable techniques to producing high-quality ledger pieces. “When I see amazing people who inspire me I always think ‘If they could do it, I can do it.’”

When it comes to the ancestors, she said her mother’s Dakota kin strongly influences her artistic talents - and from her father’s side its the Navajo/Diné nations.

“I do a lot of women and children. I guess that just comes from inside of me because I don’t have my mom anymore,” she told the Journal.  She paused as she wiped away tears. Then she explained more on that trial.

“When I see relationships between mothers and daughters. I do images of adult daughters and mothers with their gray hair. I just miss that.”
“I always get choked up about it.”

“I try to tell people: ‘Enjoy your mothers while they’re here because they’re not always going to be here.’ That’s very healing for me.

“Losing a mom to alcoholism, is something that shouldn’t have happened, but it did.”

“I dealt with it as well and I’ve overcome it,” she said, then paused again. “So art really helps me heal and I’m hoping that, you know, getting back into the powwow circle will be another tool to walking the Red Road.”

“I’m thinking of powwow dancing as another tool to walking the Red Road and being a good example for my daughter.”

“You know that saying, ‘I’m not the same but I’m by far, nowhere near where I want to be,’ That’s how I feel.”

You can follow Avis Charley on Facebook, Instagram: @avischarley, and view her work on Google. Her email is avischarley@yahoo.com.

After Fort Totten Days, Charley returned to Temecula, California to pursue ledger  artwork full time in her studio at home.