A FEW years ago, Cecilia FireThunder decided she'd seen enough old-fashioned Plains Indian dolls. Though they reflect the artwork of a certain period, she wanted a doll that portrayed the beauty of the women dancers she sees each summer at pow-wow. FireThunder fashioned a doll that was tall and dignified, its oval face tilted slightly upwards in pride. She added more of the beadwork, porcupine quillwork, and shell designs that adorn traditional Plains costumes. Her innovation caught on. At recent shows, including one this fall at Washington's Renwick Gallery, FireThunder received enough orders to keep her sewing for two years.
In the public mind, Indian art has long meant Hopi pottery, Navajo rugs, or squashblossom jewelry. ``When people think of the word `Indian,' they think of the Plains,'' says Rae Johnson, a Rosebud Sioux woman who founded a highly successful tribal art show in South Dakota. ``But when they think of 'Indian art,' they think of the Southwest.''
But now that is changing. Kevin Red Star, a prominent Crow Indian painter, left his Montana reservation when he was 16 to study and paint in New Mexico. ``When I first started out 20 years ago, art was looked down upon,'' Red Star said. ``I had to leave for that exposure.'' Improved circumstances for Plains artists - and the security of an international reputation - have brought Red Star back home.
In the past two years, tribal art shows across the midwest have attracted collectors from both coasts and Europe. ``It's a very good value for the dollar,'' said George Dudley an avid Plains art collector from New York City. In two years, he has amassed almost 1,000 pieces.
Current sales of Plains Indian art say more about its inherent worth than about marketing efforts. Though Plains Indian art has been produced uninterrupted since ancient times, it exists in a region that has few tourists and fewer dollars. Nine of the poorest countires in the United States are in South Dakota; eight of those are on reservations.
``It's the most uncommercialized of all native American arts because people still make it for friends and relatives,'' said Ray Hillenbrand, owner of Prairie Edge, a Plains Indian art business with stores in Rapid City and Sante Fe.
Plains art is vivid and sharp, unlike the softer colors and muted images of the Southwest. Crow designs are made to be seen at a distance - blocky and bold, often outlined in white or black, explained Red Star.
Arthur Amiolle, one of the best-known of contemporary Lakota artists, says this art has an ``uncompromising'' quality. ``There is an element of individuality .., a fidelity to one's tradition.'' According to Amiotte, contemporary Sioux art is unique in reflecting every artistic period of Sioux culture - from the pictographs of nomadic society to primitive paintings of early European contact to today's abstract paintings and sculpture. This heady variety of media and styles is congruent with Native American philosophy, which doesn't distinguish between ``arts'' and ``crafts.''
``Art as understood by Americans had no counterpart in the thought systems of Native Americans,'' said JoAllyn Archambault, director of American Indian programs at the Smithsonian Instituion in Washington. ``Art was not the production of a few unique individuals; art was made by everybody.''
The Brule Sioux Arts and Crafts Cooperative on South Dakota's Rosebud Reservation demonstrates the astounding variety and growing popularity of Lakota art. When the cooperative began in 1986, it received mostly beadwork from its 125 reservation artists. Now, it sells everything from silver, bone, and horsehair jewelry to large ``perfleche'' bags - tanned and painted leather like those that were once strapped to horses for moving camp.
Though they've always existed, many of the more traditional forms are experiencing a revival because of the growing art market. The cooperative has sold over $80,000 worth of artwork so far this year - almost double its projected income. When that much money suddenly flowed into the reservation's impoverished economy, people saw that their artwork could count for more than just ``gas money,' said cooperative manager Jerry Kills In Water.
The quality and variety of the art has improved as more people realize they can make a living on it. Kills In Water said a healthy competition is developing. ``Artists come in to see if their work is selling. If not, they go home and make changes.''
Kills In Water has slowly raised prices as he discovers what buyers are willing to spend. Last fall a collector from Wyoming walked in the store and asked to see all the ``big stuff.'' Within a few minutes he had $2,000 less in his pocket, having bought every piece Kills In Water showed him.
The cooperative has also sold through the Smithsonian. Last year's catalog featured beaded baby moccasins for $75 a pair - about $30 more than they bring at home.
A group of Lakota painters and sculptors has also tried to position itself better as art buyers' money migrates north. The Dream Catcher's Artists Guild includes prominent artists from California, Washington, Texas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. They organized two years ago to provide mutual support and serve as a contact point for galleries interested in arranging shows of Northern Plains art.
``We had to undersell our paintings, before Northern Plains art was in the limelight,'' said guild painter Don Montileaux, who fashions stylized images of the pictographic drawings that once illustrated winter counts, ledger books, and the insides of tipis. ``Southwest [artists] got triple or quadruple our price.''
Montileaux also keeps fidelity to the past by carrying on the Lakota tradition of collaborative art. Many of his mixed-media paintings include the quilled medicine wheels and other items of a local quillworker.
Montileaux's artistic reinterpretation of traditional forms characterizes much of the best contemporary Plains art. It is this mixing of old and new that keeps George Dudley coming back on yearly collecting excursions.
Dudley grew up in Georgia and was befriended early on by an Indian woman who ran the nearby museum. From childhood on, Dudley danced in pow-wows and learned bead and quill work. In the exclusive outfits of today's pow-wows, he sees the finest examples of an evolving tradition.
``Many non-Indians think Indians walk around in mocassins and loin-cloths praying to the Great Spirit all the time,'' Dudley said. ``They have this romantic idea of Indians as being something out of Edward Curtis prints.
``It's totally untrue. Indians have adapted to the modern world very well. ... And their art reflects that. They're not relying on imitating themselves. They're creating things for now.''
For more information on Plains Indian art, call the Dream Catcher's Artists' World at (605) 225-7097, the South Dakota Arts Council at (605) 339-6646, or the Brule Sioux Arts and Crafts Cooperative at (605) 747-2361.