By Patricia Buschette
Walter “Super” LaBatte placed his hands on his chest. “Creating something beautiful makes you feel good inside,” he said.
An artist in every sense of the word, Super fashions beaded moccasins, drums, beaded vests, dances in pow wows, prepares a delicious traditional Dakotah soup, and preserves the lessons of Dakotah legends.
Super lives near Granite Falls in an area called Pejuhutazizi Kapi, or “the place where they dig for yellow medicine,” that has, for thousands of years, been the homeland of the Dakotah Nation. He does not know how many moccasins he has made, but is certain that it is in the hundreds. The beading process is time-consuming and precise. The first pair of moccasins he fashioned, was a gift. His cousin’s son had died in a motorcycle accident. “I gave him the moccasins for him to bury his son.”
A recovering alcoholic, Super began to dance in pow wows in 1986. He needed ceremonial clothing, and didn’t have the $1,000 to buy it, so made a pair of moccasins using commercially tanned leather. The hide was tough, and when he was done, his hands were cut and sore. He brought one of the first pairs of moccasins to show his father. His father, Walter LaBatte, Sr. became emotional seeing the moccasins his son had crafted, and said, “I thought this was a lost art.” He gave them to his father.
Counseled to use Indian tanned buckskin, he asked his father if he knew how it was done. “Sure, I know,” Walter LaBatte, Sr. responded. “I used to help my mother.” Tradition was restored as Super learned to make Indian buckskin, a leather soft as cloth. This process makes use of a paste made with pig brain that is rubbed directly unto the hide, softening it without chemicals.
Super says he does not use the vocabulary of professionals to describe the process of color choices in his designs. “I choose a background color and then colors that will stand out.” Is he happy with his efforts? He is. “Each time I complete a pair, I think these moccasins are my best yet,” said, not so much with pride, but with an appreciation for his creativity. More recently, he has photographed moccasins as they are completed.
The first drum Super made was intended to be the repair of a damaged drum. He thought he could make one easier. Using the skills that he learned in geometry and wood working classes, he fashioned a drum. He has used cow, elk, moose and buffalo hides in construction and has crafted many since then. A large drum is used at pow wows while the smaller ones are used in ceremonies such as sweat lodges, or simply as art. He hopes his drums last a lifetime. He calls the construction of a drum, a “soul fulfilling endeavor.”
“Just take care of it, keep it in a warm place and occasionally let it sit in the sun,” he counseled.
His talent extends to the kitchen as he cooks Pas’dayapi, an Indian corn soup he learned to love at his parents’ table. The translation of Pas’dayapi is “making the kernels bald.” The Indian corn he uses must first be put through a process called “lying.” Lye is an acid found in hardwood ashes. This is what the traditional Indians used as it was abundant from their campfires.
This lying process softens the outer shell and allows the two black eyes found on each kernel of corn to be washed off after cooking. The remaining corn is packaged and frozen and is ready for additions such as beef roast, short ribs, turnips, rutabaga and onion.
Among his many talents, in addition to English, Super speaks Dakotah and German. He was in ninth grade when he knew that he would be going to college and planned his course of study. That included German, a choice in anticipation of the college language requirement.
German came easy for him, as some German “guttural” sounds are consistent with those of the Dakotah language. Despite less than enthusiastic support from his high school German instructor, Super did well and continued his German studies at Macalester College in St. Paul. Instructors were shocked at how fluently he spoke. “I realized when speaking, that I was thinking in German,” he said with some pleasure at the insight.
It was in the 1990s that Super joined an Indian dance group performing in Europe. The group had been told that everyone in Germany spoke English, and finding that not to be the case, Super’s knowledge of German served him well. At times, he found himself the center of attention. While touring in Cologne, he heard a group of boys exclaim, “There’s an Indian,” and he engaged in conversation with them. A bus driver told him he didn’t recognize his accent and wanted to know where he was from. Super realized that the driver was having trouble correlating an Indian appearance with fluent German.
Super has returned to Europe since then with his friend Karen Odden. They have no immediate plans for travel although they are hoping to make a trip next year. Ask them about a favorite place to visit and both he and Karen enthusiastically respond, “Vienna!”
“It is a beautiful city,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind living there. I had no idea I would enjoy Mozart and Strauss concerts as much as I do.”
In the meantime, Super continues his artwork. He finds satisfaction and peace in creativity, especially in light of the challenges of the world. He believes that the artwork he creates is not a lost art and has taught young people the skills that he learned both in his home and those he continues to develop in his adult life.
While Super beautifully preserves Dakotah art and culture in the work of his hands, he has also shared with the world the stories told to him by his parents. Some of the often-told stories around the family circle, are the stories of the trickster Iktomi. “Many of the Dakotah legends, include a lesson, he explained.
A legend now widely told is the story of Maya Bdeg’a the story of a pet pelican that saved a Dakotah village from attack. It was Walter’s storytelling gift and the creativity of the Postcards crew of Pioneer Public Television that won Emmys in 2019, one for the pelican story, and one for the story of his life, simply titled, “Super.”
Now retired from his career as a construction worker, as Super looks back over his life, he says with obvious satisfaction. “This is the happiest time of my life.”