Brian Bird

Artist creates authentic dance regalia

By Pamela Green

Reprinted with permission from
Saskatchewan Sage - October 1997 - pg. 9

Brian BirdWhen Brian Bird started dancing at the age of 14, he had no idea that 10 years later he would be creating some of the finest powwow regalia ever seen.

His first humble attempts involved using duct tape, turkey feathers and cloth. But this began a journey of discovering his culture where eventually he would be making authentic Plains - style clothing with smoked moose hide, buckskin and dyed porcupine quills.

"The use of natural materials and old style dancing is dying out, and we appear to be losing touch with the past in our methods of hand-crafting dancing regalia," says Bird. " We weren't meant to wear cloth, glass beads and plastic. Seeing us the way we are today, we seem to look like Hollywood Indians."

It's worth every effort to bring back the old ways, he said.

His process of creating museum-quality regalia begins with a thorough knowledge of ancient hide tanning methods, which involves using brain tissue. The work also includes curing, smoking and finishing with naturally dyed quill work.

Bird, who was born in Little Red River, lived in the Yukon with his parents, Eva Bird and Peter Capustin, until he was eight. He was then sent to Prince Albert to attend residential school for eight years.

Attending school in Price Albert resulted in severe culture shock and depression.

"They wouldn't let us speak Cree, and the priests and the supervisor told us that Native dancing was like a cult - something negative, evil and sinful," he said.

Bird credits an Elder from the Red Pheasant First Nation, Peter Dunston, and his brother Clinton for inspiring his desire to learn the old ways.

After 10 years of studying the art of hand made regalia, he decided not to compete as a dancer anymore, but rather use his skills as a hide - tanner and quill worker to help keep his culture alive.

Determined to be totally authentic, he studied how to harvest, process, dye and weave porcupine quills, and learned how to recreate some of the old Cree designs from Elders on his reserve.

Bird learned that about half of the colors come from berries such as the thorny buffalo, which makes a bright orange-red, cedar, which makes a nice blue, and blueberries, which take about a week for the soft purpilish color to set.

Bark, ashes, sage, mint and red willow are also part of some traditional medicines that help create the natural colors that enhanced the look of leather.

"It's hard for people who don't understand the amount of time, work commitment involved to recognize the value of traditional regalia," said Bird. "One of the reasons that I just gave my own personal outfit to my nephew is that he goes to more pow wows than I do, and can hopefully inspire more people to preserve the old knowledge and skills."

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