Today I was reminded of a summer I spent in the Black Hills working at a fast food window. Most of the summer crowd was fast and loud, but not the guy who stood across from my window, who I knew only as “Paha Ska” (pronounced pah HAH skah).
In the daytime Paha Ska stood on the sidewalk in full Sioux chieftain’s regalia (he wasn’t really a chief, but he had a special dispensation from the council to wear the outfit.) Once I went with his helper to take the horses from where they had a trail ride concession to a pasture higher in the hills. There is nothing like riding a horse through gently sloping mountain paths with the cool smell of mountain pines in the air.
Paha Ska’s utterances could only be described as laconic. Once in a blue moon he would walk across the street and order a soft drink: “One Coke. No ice.” “Leo says I’m supposed to put ice in all the cups.” “One Coke. No ice.”
Another day when Paha Ska crossed the street for his soft drink, Leo’s snazzy red convertible was parked in front of the window. Paka Ska bent over it to write something with his finger. After my 14 hour shift was over (I was paid by the month) I went to look. “WASH”
Last summer I passed through the Black Hills for the first time in years, and missed seeing Paha Ska out on the sidewalk. Nothing lasts forever, and I wondered if he was still alive, but no one could tell me anything. But now we have this wonderful thing called the internet and we can find out this type of information with just a few clicks.
Sure enough, his obit from a Rapid City paper is reprinted in a geneology website, and now for the first time I know his real name, Orville Francis Salway (October 23, 1923-November 10, 2005). He died at the age of 82.
As a child he roamed the hills around Pine Ridge, riding the horses his father bought and sold, hunting and trapping the creeks. He attended the boarding school in Pine Ridge. He was fluent in the Lakota language, taught by his grandmother Millie and mother Winifred, and loved the stories they told of the old days, which found their way into his artwork later.
Early on he exhibited a talent for art. His first creations were cartoons drawn on grocery sacks done in pencil. In fourth grade, his teacher submitted one of his drawings of a coyote howling to the Omaha Word-Herald, and its publication birthed a career. He painted under the name “Paha Ska” (White Hills) after the buttes around the family homestead south of Allen, a name given him by Ben Black Elk.
After leaving school he worked on farms and on a buffalo ranch at Camp Crook, South Dakota which supplied meat for the war effort. He also worked in the oil fields in Wyoming and on bridge construction, as a semi-pro boxer, and, with his brother Vincent, as extras in many movies filmed in the Black Hills, such as “White Savage” and “Trials of Chief Pontiac.” He also worked as a pipe layer for the Oscar Jones Construction Co. Rapid City….
In 1956, after an auto accident, he began working in Keystone selling his artwork to the tourists at the Indians Store. Later he posed for photos in traditional Northern Plains garb with a horse. The most famous of these was a bay quarter horse mare named Kippy, who he worked with for 20 years.He continued selling his artwork and ran a trail ride concession. Quiet, sober, humble and soft-spoken, he proudly represented his people as Goodwill Ambassador of Keystone for 48 years, meeting thousands of people, selling over a quarter million prints and hundreds of original oils and hide paintings which are in private collections, museums and even palaces all over the world.
Apparently Paha Ska still has a following in the UK. You can see some of his art reproduced here.
Paha Ska means “white hills” in Oglala Lakota and may have been the original name for the Badlands, in contrast with paha sapa for the Black Hills. (Our dormitory cat was named “Sapa Weeya” or black lady).
UPDATE: Paha Ska’s daughter, Barbara Salway-Jensen, comments below that her father was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2007. His bio there offers two more tantalizing tidbits. First, he appeared in several movies filmed in the Black Hills, but doesn’t say which ones. I couldn’t name even one movie filmed in the Black Hills. Second, it says he was named Paha Ska (White Hills) by Ben Black Elk, but doesn’t say who this was or how it happened. Possibly this is the same Ben Black Elk that is the son of Oglala Sioux medicine man Black Elk of the book Black Elk Speaks. Here is the text of the South Dakota Hall of Fame biography:
DOB: October 23, 1923
POB: Pine Ridge, SD
DOD: November 10, 2005
Buried at: Cremated
Orville Francis Salway was born in a soddy on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to William and Winifred Janis Salway. He was educated at the OCS boarding school in Pine Ridge, leaving after 9th grade. He worked in the oil fields, on ranches, in construction, as a boxer traveling in shows, and played in several movies filmed in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
All his life he loved two things: horses and art. Demand for his paintings made it possible for him to breed better horses, and his artwork was sold all over the world through art shows and through being an artist in residence at Mt. Rushmore. Dressed in traditional garb and eagle feather headdress, Paha Ska (White Hills) as named by Ben Black Elk, was official greeter and goodwill ambassador for the town of Keystone for 48 years.
As a side note, I tried to find out more about the “Oglala Lakota language”. I could only find the “Lakota” language, listed in Ethnologue as well as in wikipedia. Somewhere along the line, I heard that the Sioux tribes were divided into Lakota, Dakotah, Huron, Sisseton, Yankton, and Oglala (in South Dakota at least), that some of the tribes don’t necessarily like each other (because of language differences?), and that they were discouraged very strongly from speaking native languages when they lived at the Indian boarding school at Flandreau, but I never heard what languages they speak.
“Handprint of No Return” (from comments below):
“It is of a wounded warrior who makes a last attempt after the battle to get a final message to his tribe because he knows he won’t make it. The handprint is red (his blood) and the horse will find its way back to the tribe.”
YET ANOTHER UPDATE:
Some of Paha Ska’s work is on exhibit at the Crazy Horse museum in the Black Hills. I thought I remembered a tipi painted by him outdoors on a wooden deck, and his daughter confirms in the comments below that a tipi and some of his paintings are now displayed in the museum. On the Crazy Horse monument’s website, the tipi can be seen on this page, also here. Right, a map of where most tribes are located today (clickable), available from the Crazy Horse gift shop.
A BUFFALO HUNT:
Paha Ska drawing on hide. (photo by commenter beastes; thanks beastes and Pam) Images are clickable.