Art away from Hollywood is where his heart is

Times Staff Writer

Each day he lives in different worlds. As an actor, Michael Horse says, he lives according to the ways of Hollywood, where values and rules speak to different truths and different lies.

As a person, the heart of Native American culture beats within him even as he lives in the city where late at night, beneath stars he cannot see, he walks to a shed in his backyard and creates art with handmade tools, some of them 100 years old.

Most people know his face or his voice from film and television. He was Deputy Tommy “Hawk” Hill on the TV series “Twin Peaks”; and Andrew One Sky in “North of 60.” He gave voice to Little Creek’s friend in the film “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” and Sam Rainwater in “The Wild Thornberrys Movie.”

But those who know his heart know him through his art, which will be included in the Southwest Museum’s 13th annual Intertribal Marketplace this weekend.


“For years I kept the two separate, Michael Horse the artist and Michael Horse the actor,” he says. “I like the acting, but I’m an artist, that’s my identity.

“When people say, ‘Who are you?’ I’m a sculptor and a painter,” he adds. “That’s how I define myself. The acting is fun, and I hope to leave behind a couple things in my life of dramatic integrity and art.”

But becoming an actor was never his goal. He was working as a wrangler in the late 1970s when a director saw him and hired him for stunts.

“I was a bad rodeo rider and started doing some stunts and found out the first time I actually fell off a horse I got a check,” he says. In the 1981 film “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” he portrayed Tonto.


It is art, however, that lives within him. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution and the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. He has curated and served as artist-in-residence at the Southwest Museum, where his work is part of the permanent collection.

“I was taught that you can’t be a healthy individual without art, music or nature in your life,” he says. “All my art is tied into inner cultural experience. It has to do with music or ceremonies or nature, even the funny ones.”

Horse, 53, is of Zuni, Yaqui and Mescalero Apache descent and was born on a Yaqui reservation near Tucson, where he lived without running water or electricity. His mother was a potter, one of many artists he has learned from.

“Growing up in a traditional environment, I was taught the importance of art,” he says, “how it’s connected to the soul, how it makes a human being. This made me understand and cherish American art forms.”


Pam Hannah, special projects manager at the Southwest Museum, says that Horse’s work demonstrates remarkable range in media and subject matter.

“He has a foot in both worlds, traditional Indian and contemporary American culture. His art reflects those two worlds.... As American Indian people, artists honor the past, draw from it, but you don’t live in the past.”

As Native American artists seek acceptance in contemporary circles, Hannah says, art takes on a different role. “Indian people traditionally live in beauty. There was no word for art,” she says. “You made things of beauty for everyday life. You lived and walked in beauty and created things to surround yourself with beauty. You didn’t make art merely to stick it on a wall, so America Indian art has extended from traditional pieces to art pieces.”

Horse’s work centers on sculpture, jewelry and, more recently, ledger art, which evolved from “winter counter” drawings on hides, used to document specific years by associating them with significant events such as meteor showers or battles.


“We started painting on scrap paper, and it’s called ledger art because most of it was done on the old ledger paper that they used to record transactions between the government and the reservation,” Horse says. “From about 1830 to about 1940, any piece of scrap paper was used. It was done in crayon, colored pencil and pen and ink and watercolor like I use.”

Horse searches for historic papers. He has drawn a buffalo hunt scene on a land grant signed by President James Buchanan, a warrior representing veterans on a World War I victory poster, a traditional wedding scene on a 1904 marriage certificate.

“People say, ‘I don’t like things about battle or hunting,’ but that’s not what they are about,” Horse says. “They’re about bravery and freedom or things that were happening like being put on trains or being on the reservation. It’s the same feeling that the blues have. It’s a very truthful art form.”

Some of his ledger art is humorous, like one titled “When Poodles Ran Free in Beverly Hills,” or another with characters -- Little Beaver and Stupid Elk.


“Humor is an important part of Indian cultures,” he says. “I once had an elder tell me that you can tell a lot about a culture by finding out what they find holy and what they find funny.”

As he takes on the role of elder, Horse finds himself spending more time with young people, teaching them traditional ways of dealing with contemporary issues.

“The whole gang thing is kind of tribal,” he says. “We’re trying to make them understand that being a traditional person and being a warrior is not the gang way of life. It’s accepting responsibility, respecting elders, respecting culture, respecting women, taking care of your children.”

Art as well as laughter is a way of connecting with the young, Horse says. It’s a way to help them live each day in different worlds, to feel in one’s chest a heartbeat from long ago.


More than 100 Native American artists and performers will participate in the marketplace. There will be music and dancing as well as a children’s craft fair with storytelling. This year’s guest artist is Jimmy “Ca Win” Calabaza, considered one of the finest turquoise artists in the country.

On Saturday, Lee Marmon will present a slide lecture featuring images from his book, “The Pueblo Imagination: Landscape and Memory in the Photography of Lee Marmon.”


Intertribal Marketplace


Where: Southwest Museum, 234 Museum Drive, L.A.

When: Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Members-only preview Friday, 6-9 p.m.

Cost: General admission, $8; seniors and students $6; children under 6, free.

Lecture: Saturday, 2 p.m., Lee Marmon slide lecture featuring images from his book, “The Pueblo Imagination: Landscape and Memory in the Photography of Lee Marmon.”


Info: (323) 221-2164


Duane Noriyuki can be contacted at