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Dave Hagstrom

Dave Hagstrom was born in 1947 in northwestern Wyoming not far from where he now lives which is 60 miles from the east entrance of Yellowstone Park and 15 miles from Montana. He was a taxidermist and tanner for many of his teen and adult years and has worked as a hunting guide in Wyoming and Tanzania. While Dave makes a living at creating these historically accurate artifact replicas, he is also a painter in acrylics and sculptor in bronze plus a Northern Traditional powwow dancer. He and his wife spend a good deal of time with friends and extended family on the Crow rez in Montana dancing, hunting and attending sweats.

RV: Your work is pretty incredible. How did you become so fluent in writing, painting and taxidermy and where did you acquire your skills?  

Dave: It started by taking a correspondence course in taxidermy at 12 years of age and then going to work for a local shop when I was 13. I’ve worked at it for several years but do very little anymore, however, it has been an incredible aid in my wildlife painting and sculpting. Tanning, well it was part of taxidermy or at least as far as the commercial tanning goes. Brain tanning was learned by reading whatever I could find, talking to other tanners and lots of hard work, patience and practice.


RV: I understand that you compete at the pow-wows? Did you teach yourself to dance? When I spoke with Stan Bearpaw we were speaking about dance regalia. Stan said that he wasn't out there to be all shiny. I'm not sure if it was Stan or someone else that said that the reason they wear the shiny regalia is to get the judges attention? I like the traditional look myself.

Dave: Yeah, the flashy thing does catch the judge's eyes but I think most of them can see past that. I'm not that good of a dancer and don't dance anything very fancy, just the basic steps and so I guess that I taught myself that however it seems like it was something that came naturally. I haven't danced near as much as I want to but I hope to change that starting this year. Traveling to distant powwows is not a cheap deal unless they are close. Money is always an issue. A good Crow friend, Walter Eugene Old Elk told me once that dancing in the sacred powwow circle when done in the right way is nearly as powerful as Sun Dance. He's done a lot of both. I enjoy everything about powwow but traditional is my favorite. It's what I do but, sure do like to watch those Grass Dancers almost as much!


I haven't competed, I just like to dance. The biggest majority of them do compete however, and some make some good money at it. I just like to be out there in the Sacred Circle. I also very much enjoy standing by the drum groups when it's their turn to sing. There is only one local powwow in Cody with maybe a couple hundred dancers counting all the way from tiny tots to the Elder dancers. Alot of Crows show up since it's close. There are other powwows in Wyoming such as on the Wind River rez (Shoshoni and Arapaho) which has some good ones and then the big one in August on the Crow rez in Montana called Crow Fair. You can type in Crow Fair and check some of it out on the internet. There are hundreds of them in this Rocky Mountain region. Yeah, I watch other dancers and always try to improve. I’ve been working on a new bustle now and need to hurry it up a bit for Crow Fair.

I've had no training in painting or sculpting. Never ending practice and observation is a must. One day a major breakthrough came when I realized that it was not important if a given painting didn't turn out well, it was merely a stepping stone, I learned from it and then moved on. Sometimes this way is applied to other areas of life. Grandfather has blessed me with the ability to paint and sculpt but a few years ago I realized that what was probably more important was the blessing of being able to see and feel the beauty of our surroundings as a painting in my mind and heart. I feel it is a more valuable gift then the actual art and wish that everyone whether an artist or not could see in that way and I’ve found this blessing grows with time.

I began making artifact replicas in the mid 1970's and dance regalia about 5 years ago when I started doing a little dancing as a Northern Traditional dancer. Like painting, the ability develops from a deep appreciation and intense interest and desire to learn all you can about these things. I've also had lots and lots of study and observation in books and museums plus of course constant practice. I try to create artifact replicas from a standpoint of practicality meaning that sometimes we do use these things so not only should they look good and be historically accurate but in most cases they should be useable whether they are actually used or not. No matter what I accomplish, nothing I’ve ever done or made would have been even remotely possible without Grandfather's guidance....in the end, that's where it all comes from so I can take credit for very little.


I try to be honest and open in writing (and painting) and do it in a simple way. Some writers, poets, etc. make things so confusing that I can't really understand what they're trying to say and sometimes feel they are trying to impress others with big words and being vague or maybe I’m just too simple minded to understand. It's really nice to hear your very kind compliments. Don't know why but I received the feeling last week that there are only just so many of those writings in me and I don't think there are that many actually. Guess time will tell. They come mostly a long time apart and if I try too hard to work on one, it don't sound like me anymore.


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RV: I'm not familiar with brain tanning? Could you please explain that process?

Dave: Brain tanning is the old way of tanning hides used by the People and still a preferred way of tanning today. The brains from the animal are used to tan the skin. This is a very basic description but the brains are mashed up in water to form a paste which is either rubbed into the hide several times or today many of us brain tanners soak the skin in a tub of water and brains when tanning one with the hair off. When tanning one with the hair on, the brain mash is rubbed into the flesh side of the hide or skin. The skin is worked almost constantly for 5 to 8 hours until it is dry and soft. This process is often repeated three or four times in order to get the quality and softness needed. Then in most cases the hide is smoked using rotten bark on a smoldering fire or various other things to control the color.


RV: What's the purpose of the smoke? What is the purpose of the fire pit? Does that stain the leather?

Dave: When you tan a hide with brains it puts oils in the skin. When the skin is drying it is stretched and pulled in every direction until it is dry and as I mentioned before, that can take from 5 to 8 hours depending on the humidity and temperature of the air. A breeze will hasten the drying. Anyway, all that pulling and stretching pulls the fibers of the skin apart which is what creates the softness and fluffiness of brain tan. If this hide would now get wet, it would dry stiff, almost like it was when it was just rawhide. The smoke gets inside these open fibers and somehow keeps them apart and allows the skin to remain soft after being wet. Sometimes the smoked hide will dry a little stiff but with just a small amount of working with the hands it softens right up.


RV: You really know your craft. That is very interesting; I never realized how much went into the craft.  I think people aren't really appreciative as to what knowledge is needed in order to create traditional crafts. I think people have been accustomed to synthetics and mass production.  I think that would really give a behind the scenes imagery and appreciation for what you do.

Dave: You are right about what people are used to. It sometimes amazes me how far removed many are from the Earth and the basic knowledge of making anything by hand. To me it's like they live in another world but suppose they'd think the same about me. How many people from the city or smaller towns for that matter, set directly on the ground and just dig their fingers into the Earth or lay down and smell the damp Earth after it rains or spend thirty minutes watching a night hawk fly around catching insects? How many would even consider using part of an animal and a tree to make something useable? It actually scares me to see how far away our society is from basic survival knowledge in this country, not only physical survival but mental, spiritual and emotional survival. If every person who was able would spend just 15 minutes every morning with a quiet mind and a quiet heart in a quiet place...can you imagine how that might change things? How many people drive to work looking right into a sunrise and never even see it?


RV: You seem to have mastered each facet of your artistic endeavors. Do you feel that you’ve reached the summit of your skills/gifts? Which artistic endeavor do you get the most satisfaction from, the Native craft work or painting?

Dave: Thank you for the compliment but I’m not sure that I’ve mastered anything really.....better at things then what I was years ago but maybe mastering something comes when you have gone so far that you can't learn anymore and I’m not there yet and probably never will be. It would come somewhere between the artifact replicas and painting but at this point I’d say more the Native art and craft replicas. Some of my best customers, who have since become good friends are well known western artists and it's immensely gratifying to see something I’ve created in someone else's art so in that way, I get enjoyment from both the crafts and their art as well.

RV: I really enjoy the painting of the Eagle that you did, what is it called and where do you attribute the source of your inspiration?

Dave: It's called Medicine Eagle and now belongs to the Irma Hotel in Cody Wyoming. With regards to inspiration I have found that it's best not to wonder too much or analyze why these things happen or where they come from but to simply accept them. I've been fascinated with golden eagles since childhood and one of my  first paintings as a youngster was of  a golden eagle and after all these years finally another was painted. This particular eagle was under the care of a person licensed to keep wounded birds and the landscape comes from an area about 3 miles north of our home.  Still have the option of making prints from the original and may do that. Don't know that something specifically inspired me to paint this piece, just felt like I needed to do it. A year or so before the painting I was granted a vivid dream of a golden eagle and maybe that's where some of it comes from.



What do your writings mean to you? Where do your words resonate from?

To me, the pieces I write are like painting with words. The best ones come easily but I still like to pick and choose the words and phrases as I would colors for painting. As with paintings, if I try too hard they don't work so mostly I  just let the words come and then fine tune it all afterwards. Each one is pretty much set in my mind before starting to write. I don't really know where it all comes from, some of it maybe comes from past experiences? It's just there inside my heart and mind and I feel that I’m supposed to write those words. Like all things, it originates from our Creator.


I would imagine there are around twenty pieces I’ve written in the last year and to date, I think "Buffalo Skull" is my favorite as it feels very familiar to me for a reason that I can't really explain. Rez Winter came quickly in an effort to hopefully create awareness for the hardships on many reservations during the winter. Writing it was emotional in a different way. While I could have easily died a couple times due to cold weather, I’ve never come even close to what some of the people have had to endure during winter, so it wasn't written out of any personal experiences. I just know that things like this do happen. Eventually, when there are maybe 25 or 30 poems, prose and writings I might try publishing them and illustrate each one with a small pen & ink drawing. Click this link to read some of Dave’s work.


RV: What have you learned about yourself while walking on the Red Road?   

Dave: That I am full of faults and have come to recognize many however; I think the first step in overcoming them is to become aware of them. Also that life is happier when you can be of help to others in some way, not just our human brothers and sisters but any and all of Our Relations. Still there are many times when my selfishness overcomes but now even when that happens I am usually aware of it however often I don't do what I should to correct it.  It is a tough way to go sometimes because being  human, I often want to do just what I want to do and not what Grandfather wants me to do. I've veered off many times, sometimes saying that it's too hard and that I will quit but, in the end I cannot do anything else but keep traveling it.


RV: Can you share your philosophy on life with readers? What makes you happy?

Dave: My philosophy on life is to follow the path that Grandfather has set before me to the best of my ability and believe me when I say that it's difficult for me to do at times. We all have to find our own path that he has designed for us and decide what it means but to do it in a good way and stay on it is not easy. I would not be telling the truth if I said that I did all these things everyday myself and maybe it sounds over simplified but I would ask others to try to live in a simple manner as a philosophy of life. Watch the sunrises and sunsets often if you can. Touch Mother Earth often and try your best to walk on her with respect for all things. Spend 15-30 minutes a day in a quiet place with a quiet mind....wonderful things will come to you. Be very careful with words, they have much power over others and ourselves as well. When you talk to yourself, talk in a positive way, think in a positive way. Grandfather wants us to be happy; He wants us to enjoy our life....do it.


Many things make me happy...my life is full of blessings and it would be impossible to name them all. My family and best friends make me happy. I love watching Jan get excited about things such as when she is out picking herbs and healing plants. Ceremony makes me happy. Grandfather's incredible Creation makes me happy. Sitting on a rock in a beautiful place saying nothing and thinking nothing does too. Thunder does, a horse's sweet breath on my face makes me happy. The song of a meadowlark or bugling bull elk makes me smile. You see....this could go on and on and I’m so very thankful that it does. Realizing finally that I am part of everything Grandfather has created brings much happiness.


RV: What are you most grateful for?

Dave: Don't know that it's possible to limit what I’m most grateful for to only one thing. Maybe it's the spiritual growth I’ve found over the past few years which keeps growing. That alone has probably done the most for me because it relates to everything else in a better way, family, friends, Mother Earth and so on. It has affected how I relate to other human beings, and all of Our Relations. It's changed my art, my way of thinking, how I live my life...everything. I've made some wonderful new friends because of it and I see nearly all things in a different light. I'm very grateful for our adopted Grandmother Franzez and Grandfather R.D. who have guided me as Elders in so many ways. I am grateful that Jan stayed with me during some of my darkest days as an alcoholic when I was a sorry mess. I'm grateful for someone to love and those who love me.


RV: You mentioned that you have hunted buffalo with the Crow people...can you describe it? Is this where you get some of your buffalo hides and skulls? How long did it take to cut the buffalo up?

Dave: We just got back from a fall buffalo hunt on the rez. Here are a few shots of last year's hunt.

Dewey Bull Tail hosts about 10 college students from New York each year at Crow Fair and they go out on this hunt with them. That's why there are so many people around.  


I could have taken the hide and skull from this buffalo hunt but didn't. I get my hides and skulls from a local guy who mounts and sells a lot of heads (taxidermy). Use the feet for bags and toes for dangles, hide for robes and rawhide, bladders for water carriers. When that buffalo was shot last summer Dewey and I started gutting him right away and pulled all the insides onto a plastic tarp and pulled it about 20 feet away where good friends Patsy White and Carol Bull Tail started working on them They took everything from the insides except the spleen....even the lungs. By the time we were done all that was left was some bones, spleen and some blood.


There were a lot of people along at the time. If plans work we'll go on another one in the same place yet this year and will take a few more photos. We worked on the buffalo probably two hours but all college students wanted to help skin so it took a little longer then it would have normally. I was very proud of everyone of them. That was completely taking him down to pieces light enough to pick up plus all the work the ladies did on the entrails. When we got back to the house there was still more work to be done and then the next day, Jan, Carol Bull Tail and Patsy cut it up into small enough to wrap and freeze.


RV: That's pretty country brother. Thanks for sharing this with me. It helps putting all the names with the faces too. When did you say this shot was taken? I'm sure that the students have really appreciated the experience.  How often does everyone get together with the students to do this? Do you show the students what you've made from the parts of the buffalo also?

Dave: Yes, it's very nice. It's the far northern end of the Bighorn Mountains. This was last summer during Crow Fair.


Yeah, the kids had a great time....something they've never seen or will probably ever experience again. Most had never even heard a rifle fire before. The next day there was a sweat for them too. It happens once a year during Crow Fair. We talked about some things made from buffalo but I think Dewey, Wales and I are going to discuss it more with them next time. Wales is Dewey's brother. The family usually hunts buffalo twice a year but the students only come once.

RV: I understand from speaking with Denny Karchner that you were asked to make some arrows for the HBO series, Deadwood. Can you tell us more about how this came about?

Dave: Well, there isn't too much to tell however at that time we found out first hand that the film industry runs high on the...oh yeah, we need it yesterday scale. Christopher Pollack, nephew of director Sydney Pollack (Jeremiah Johnson) was looking at our old website and called us up one day. He runs a prop house in California and asked if we could produce about 20 arrows for HBO's mini-series Deadwood. He called on Thursday afternoon, we live in northern Wyoming and of course he wanted them in CA on Monday as they were shooting that part of the film then. Not wanting to back down I said sure, no problem. I hung up, looked at Jan and said, "now what are we gonna to do?" So, we both jumped in and began work immediately and fortunately we had almost enough materials on hand so we did pull it off but it was a bit of a panic for awhile.


Would you like to share any final words with us?

How about one of my writings called Sense of Spirit?


Thank you Great Grandfather for the sight in my eyes so that I might see the Eagle as she passes through the golden-orange sunset at the end of the day.


Thank you Great Grandfather for the sounds in my ears so that I might hear the whistle of the bull Elk in Fall and the sweet song of the Meadowlark.


Thank you Great Grandfather for my sense of smell so that I might better understand the Sage and Sweet grass People of the Plant Nation.


Thank you Great Grandfather for my sense of taste so that I might enjoy the good food and clean water that you have provided for us.


Thank you Great Grandfather for the sense of touch in my fingers so that I might feel the warm Sun on my pony's skin and the softness of my woman's hair.


Thank you Great Grandfather for the blessing of sensing the Unseen and Untouched Spirit that surrounds us each and every day.


I would like to thank Dave for his time towards this interview. This interview has spanned over some time now. In that time I’ve learned much from my new friend and am honored to have learned as well as share Dave’s philosophies, creativity and gifts as an artist. Please visit Dave’s website by clicking here:  Buffalo Heart Studio


RV: What was a factor in you and your wife joining up and sharing in each other’s creativity?

Dave: Probably, when we realized that we could work together at making a living.  While it's not a high paying thing by any means, it gives us a certain amount of freedom that others haven't found. We've been married for 30 years and we spend the majority of our days together so we don't get on each other's nerves....too often. Jan is very good at many things in many areas such as beading, sewing and she sometimes paints the painted rawhide items we make.  Jan is a practicing herbal healer and an award winning baker to name a couple more. She is practical where I’m often the dreamer and so we work together well that way.


RV: Does it bother you to part with a finished item after you have put so much of yourself in it? Is the connection that you feel to your work equal to the feeling you get when you sell one of your works?

Dave: Sometimes it's a little disturbing when a piece leaves for its new home but it  doesn't last too long especially when knowing when it's going to a good place. I'd say the feeling is probably equal but not the same. I'm always in total amazement and really humbled when someone parts with hard earned money to buy something I’ve made, painted or sculpted.


RV: I can understand how that must be a medium for you to fall in. You feel accomplished but at the same time it has to feel as if you parted with yourself at the same time. Do you hear follow-up from your customers on how well they appreciate the work that you've done? I'm trying to put myself in your place but there isn't much of a comparison because I could never come close to your gift.

Dave: I do hear follow-ups often from the craft work and sometimes from the paintings. I sold a painting of two buffalo to a local lady and every time without fail, when we see her she has good things to say about it and that always makes me feel good.