BILLINGS — An edgy Apsaalooke bead artist’s work is featured on the October cover of British Vogue, with Montana-born Blackfeet actress Lily Gladstone wearing his necklace, right next to movie co-star Leonardo DiCacprio.
“They sent it back to me like two weeks later and everything was wrapped in, like Vogue has their own packing tape it just says Vogue on it in black and white,” says Elias Not Afraid, Apsaalooke bead artist.
The cover shoot was for the new movie Killers of the Flower Moon and it’s famous co-stars, but the blockbuster fashion is what has one Montana designer feeling pride for his work and his Apsaalooke heritage.
“Their editor-in-chief for British Vogue tagged me in a post as well, and I was just like holy sh*t,” says Not Afraid.
It's a Crow-style dentalium breastplate with a modern twist, turned into a necklace and hand-beaded by Elias Not Afraid, who started beading in Lodge Grass, Montana when he was just 12.
“It was during the winter. It was a really bad winter. We couldn’t do anything outside. We were living in my great-grandmother's house and she had a lot of her old stuff there, a lot of it was beading stuff. I found a pair of her leggings and I always wondered how she did it, so I just kind of took it apart. I would take one row of beads out and kind of reverse engineer it and see how she did it,” says Not Afraid.
He kept practicing until he got the intricate two-needle applique method perfected, and he hasn’t put down the beadwork since, creating traditional and non-traditional Apsaalooke designs.
“Growing up in Lodge Grass out in the Wolf Mountains, we’re just surrounded by nature. There’s a lot of flowers. A lot of that is a lot of my inspiration,” says Not Afraid.
Not Afraid’s work also has a taboo edge that’s caught the attention of major museums like the MET, which purchased his beaded cradleboard to put on permanent display.
“There are some taboos with Crow beadwork, like you’re not supposed to use black because that’s supposed to signify mourning and death,” explains Not Afraid. “You’re not supposed to bead snakes, you’re not supposed to do skulls, anything like that. You’re just supposed to keep it traditional.”
Despite some negative feedback from more traditional tribal elders, he continues to do his beadwork, his way, and it’s paying off as art museums and even the NFL pick up his pieces for tens of thousands of dollars.
“They told us the only thing we had to have in there was the logo and Super Bowl 57, so I just started sketching all these different designs,” says Not Afraid. “I did 15 different ledger designs and then narrowed it down to 5 and then let them pick. It was a really insane experience.”
An experience he hopes inspires other indigenous artists to make it big too.
“I don't want to just take this information and keep to myself. I want to share it with people,” says Not Afraid. “If you need help, just ask.”
Not Afraid recommends buying direct from native designers. You can find a list of designers via Triia, known as the Etsy of indigenous designers. He also recommends Beyond Buckskin, which compiles a list of native designers.