“They are created with such strong spirits within them,” Okuma said. “Aesthetically, I don’t want the viewer to focus on the face. I want you to look at the overall piece.”
Okuma, 35, believes her talent was a spiritual gift. “Each piece has a little bit of my soul in them. It is almost like breathing to me. How do you explain that to anybody? I feel they are creatures meant to be here, just as we are meant to be here.”
Holy Bear, whose mother was full-blood Lakota and whose father was half Lakota and half French, says the “Maternal Journey” piece took more than two years to make.
Her figurines represent spiritual beings. “I use the elongated-line” art style to show “a spiritual reach from this world to the spiritual world. The Crow people were deeply religious people — all the Plains tribes were. They live in this world but are reaching for the spiritual world.”
Holy Bear’s art is inspired by her ancestors. “Their art was powerful. Because I come from the real people, their blood was in me,” Holy Bear says. Her great-grandmother, whose name was White Face Woman, a survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. “Her husband [Tashunka] dies at Little Bighorn. She flees with Sitting Bull to Canada. Her name shows up on the surrender roster,” says Holy Bear, whose father, Oliver Sees the Horses Leblanc, told her the story.
Holy Bear grew up on a Cheyenne River-Sioux Indian reservation in South Dakota. “If you blinked, your eye would never know all those people’s lives were there,” she said. “You could freeze to death in the winter there. There was nothing there. We got sent away to boarding school because we were starving.”
At the American Indian schools, she forgot how to speak her language, Lakota, but she learned to research her culture.
When her grandmother died, Holy Bear said she had a powerful dream. “My grandmother was the keeper of the culture in our family,” she said. In the dream, “I had a shattered back and a voice was telling me I had to pick up the pieces and put the spine back together again. I realized each piece of the spine represented our scattered culture.”
“My ancestors and their stories are connected like each vertebra of my spine. I carry their story with me in my back.”
Grand Procession: Dolls From the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection
Through Jan. 5, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW. 202-633-1000, www.nmai.si.edu.