BILLINGS — Ben Pease is an artist and Indigenous creative.
"I'm Apsaalooka," Pease said. "I'm Crow Northern Cheyenne from here in Montana. My clans are Big Lodge and child of Big Lodge. My Apsaalooka name, my Crow name, is Steals the Guns from Two Enemy Camps.”
As an Indigenous person, Pease says creativity is a part of his existence.
"We create things for everyday life, and they just happen to be beautiful," Pease said. "We create things for ceremony, for celebration, and they just happen to be beautiful.”
Growing up on the reservation, Pease says he was taught never to talk about himself. However, he realizes the need to speak up for his people.
"It's a powerful thing to realize that, 'Hey, there is freedom and being an artist, I guess to know that you do have a voice and you can speak with that voice.'”
As a Native American, Pease says he experiences a lot of side eyes and racism.
“The struggles that Indigenous peoples have faced in our tribal communities, it's immeasurable," Pease said. "It stems all the way from our peoples being in food deserts, to clean water, to underrepresented health care, addiction, drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, abuse.”
According to Pease, many Native communities have closed their borders during the pandemic. However, that, unfortunately, hasn't stopped Indigenous populations from being among the hardest hit by COVID-19 deaths.
"In the Crow community, especially in the northern Cheyenne community, we were hit hard," Pease said. "We lost so many elders scores and scores of elders that were those keepers of knowledge.”
Pease says artists bring ideas, ideas bring more people, and people bring change.
"I would hope I'm able to channel some of these struggles in my art. I just don't know if that's for me to decide.”
Pointing to one of his works in Stapleton Gallery, Pease explained the message behind it.
"There's an arrow for each state in the contiguous U.S., it's talking about cultural adaptation being able to move forward in the face of adversity, being able to grow and change and shift.”
In terms of Indigenous acceptance, Pease says he believes society is moving in the right direction.
“I do believe it's better now than it's ever been in history," Pease said. "At least I hope it to be. I think that different institutions at different levels are starting to embrace diversity and normalize it and celebrate it. And that's great. You know, let people tell their own stories instead of telling them for them.”
Jeremiah Young is the Owner of Stapleton Gallery and has been showing Pease's works for five years.
“Not every gallery is trying to do this, but we are," Young said. "We're trying to tell the story of a place, and you literally cannot tell the story of this place without including the Indigenous voice that hasn't always figured into the West. But it should have, and it is now thanks to artists like Ben.”
“I just want to applaud other Indigenous artists, artists who also happen to be Indigenous, because we're here and we have a voice and we're making space for ourselves, you know, making this thing that we're doing normal, you know, expressing our existence and that's beautiful and powerful and its own thing so if you’re able to find the work of an Indigenous artist, support them,” Pease said.