When students at Heart Butte Elementary return to in-person learning, kindergartners will enter a magical world of Napi stories depicted on the wall of Krystee Tailfeathers’ classroom. The gigantic mural is another work done by Blackfeet artists John Isaiah Pepion and Louis Still Smoking, adding to the outdoor works they created earlier this year.
The work is appropriately displayed in a Blackfeet immersion setting, and the pictures lend themselves to stories specific to the Blackfeet people. The figure in the middle represents Napi himself, the central culture hero of Blackfeet legend. The image is based on a photo of Gene Braverock who played “The Chief” in the recent movie, “Wonder Woman.”
“The animals include a buffalo, whitetail deer, otter, crane, woodpecker, beaver, eagle and bear,” Pepion said. “I thought about Napi stories in general and picked these animals, but there could be so much more. To do all the Napi stories would take several murals, but I’m trying to convey the idea that each animal has its own story.”
Even the background is significant, with the sun and lines drawn horizontally that mimic designs found on painted tipis. The lifelines seen in each animal also copy designs found on lodges.
John began the project last September, but COVID-19 issues prevented him and Louis from really getting to work on it until just before Thanksgiving. While the time between last September and Jan. 14 when it was completed represents several months, the actual work took them around three weeks altogether to finish.
While much of his efforts at Heart Butte have been devoted to painting uplifting murals, Pepion has taken his profession one step further and as of Jan. 4 is teaching art to high school students. As an instructor, Pepion is well positioned to offer his skills and experience to younger artists.
“Being from the Pepion family, my grandpa was Webb Pepion Sr. who did oils and wood carving,” he said. His relations include such well-known talents as King Kuka and Terrance Guardipee. “I grew up with it, and my grandpa gave me tips.”
His formal training includes an associate’s degree in marketing from United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, N.D., as well as a bachelor’s degree in museum studies from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M.
While he’d planned to look into being a museum curator, when he graduated in 2008 he was undecided as to what direction his life would take.
“I had no plans,” he said. “I did odd jobs, but I was not pursuing art. I drew, but I wasn’t showing or selling. After a year or so I decided to pursue art full time, and since 2009 I’ve learned from artists, elders and programs.”
Heart Butte Superintendent Mike Tatsey offered Pepion a position teaching art while working on his certification through the University of Montana-Western. He intends to begin his studies this summer in what is a two-to-three year program. Meanwhile, he’s already teaching art to high school students online.
“I went to school in Heart Butte in seventh, eighth and part of ninth grade,” Pepion said. “I have lots of relations there so I’m glad to be part of the school and building the high school program from the ground up. My message to people who are older or younger is that it’s never too late. This is a true blessing, and I’m looking forward to it.”