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Artist tells story with buffalo hides

Since 1995 artist, Fern Cloud has used buffalo hides to tell the stories of the lives and heritage of the Native America people. Through her creativity and her talents as a painter she records the history and heritage of the Sioux tribe.

“When I became interested in learning the art of hide painting I study under the mentorship of Frank Shorty. He is a wonderfully talented artist and I spent a great deal of time learning about the art form of hide painting. Before I became interested in hide painting I was designing clothing that was traditional of the Sioux heritage and when Frank Shorty saw some of the pieces I had designed he encouraged me to try hide painting. I had done a vest that he really liked and saw my talent so through his mentoring and encouragement I decided to try it and fell in love with it. He watched me as I painted my first commissioned piece. It was very helpful to have an artist of his experience by my side for the process.

I have always used buffalo hides, some artists may use deer or other hides but I only use buffalo and it has to be tanned in an all natural way. I only purchase the buffalo hides I paint from one man, Larry Beltiz, from Hot Springs, S.D. The reason I only use the hides Larry tans is because I know he tans all his hides using the brain tanning method. That is a method which the brain of the buffalo is used in the tanning process and there is just no comparison to any other method,” said Cloud.

Some hides are tanned with chemicals, hides that are tanned with chemicals do not absorb the paints the way brain tanned hides do. Brain tanning allows the colors to sink into the hide where as chemical treated hides will not let the paints penetrate and the paint just sits on top of the hide until it dries, similar to; painting a wall.

“Some hide painters that use chemically treated hides may also use chemically produced paints. I only use paints that are extracted from various types of plants, barks or berries. The paints extracted from natural things are pure and as natural as the brain tanned hide, just the way our ancestors would have done it.” This process is important to Cloud.

“I am painting to tell a story and or a part of our history so why wouldn’t I use the same method our ancestries used,” she said. “The brush I use is also a natural tool; it is made from a piece of bone taken from the buffalo’s collar bone which is a huge massive bone to begin with, just massive.” The buffalo is a large, impressive animal and played a large role in the lives of all Native American people.

“The hides were used as teepee liners and robes,” she said. “I think painting may have come about in a couple ways. First of all they wanted a way to record what was happening in their lives and secondly it may have happened because the women of the tribes wanted to bring some color into their teepees so they began painting on the hides to brighten things up. I feel it is very appropriate that the hide and other parts of the buffalo should be used to tell all the wonderful stories. It increases the value and integrity of the piece. That seems to be something that people who commission an art piece feel is important and I certainly do. Working with these natural things to create a piece makes me feel as though my ancestors are there approving of what I am doing and that makes it a very spiritual thing for me,” said Cloud.

One of Cloud’s hide paintings hangs in a hospital in Rapid City, S.D.; others hang in colleges or other institution. Some are commissioned privately other are not. Cloud currently has two people, a man from Washington D.C. and a lady professor from another region, are waiting for commissioned hides to be created. A commissioned piece may take three to five months to complete. It needs to be done in stages allowing for drying in between paintings. If the tribe that is to be replicated on the hide is not Sioux, Cloud may spend several weeks researching the tribe so the story is as close to their heritage as possible. Art that is authentic is a better investment. Cloud commissioned one piece for the whole curriculum for the Minnesota Educational Department which is a very historical and spiritual piece.

“Typically a story is being told through hide painting and would start with winter and tell of happenings and events throughout a whole year. You will see horses and buffalo throughout the story, similar to hieroglyphics found on a wall of a cave. I use very traditional tools like the buffalo bone. Ancestors might have also used small red willow branches which were whittled to a fine point like a tooth pick to get into small places.

Cloud is currently mentoring her daughter so she also knows the art of hide painting. She has also worked with grade school students at Lakeview School in Cottonwood.

“I have enjoyed that very much because a child’s mind is so open and they are very creative in their art, they are so fun to be with. When I work with them I usually have them use a small hide like a rabbit hide. I will let them use different things for painting tools too, chop sticks or other things they might think off. It is not a fast art project but I think it is important to allow children enough time for their creativity to surface.”

Like any art, said Cloud, there is a process that must be followed.

“I always begin the story in the middle of the hide and work my way out. The natural paints are a powder so I have to wet them and you have to be very careful your hand doesn’t brush over them or you will have a smudge. If you want a deep color it may require layers,” she said. “Once they are dry I coat them with buffalo bone glue, it is a sealer which is made from the bones and cannot be applied until the paint is totally dry, it is a process and cannot be rushed, it just takes time. Hides are white in the beginning but will darken with age but that takes many years, it is just a natural happening that takes place.” Cloud is a Pastor with the Upper Sioux community near Granite Falls, Minn. and can be reached at

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