With a devotion for expressing the indomitable Kootenai spirit, Ron Abraham has been quietly creating extraordinary works of art for over 30 years. His passion for showcasing Native American values shows his respect for wildlife and the distinctive scenery of the Kootenai Valley and surrounding mountains. Ron strives to incorporate authentic Kootenai symbols such as the sturgeon-shaped Kootenai canoe in his artwork.
Born on Kootenai land, Ron spent every summer with his grandparents in the mountains until age six. His grandparents only spoke Kootenai so that was the first language he learned. It wasn't until he entered school that he learned English, which he said was confusing to him and the other kids from the Kootenai Tribe.
"I was about seven years old when I first saw a sketch pad that had a bunch of scribbles on it done by my father. I looked at that pad over and over again - there were cartoon characters and caricatures that my dad had drawn. When I was in first grade, we had an art project to draw a picture, and like the other kids, I just drew a pretty picture. However, one of my classmates drew a very intricate and detailed picture of a tree. I was very impressed by that and still remember it to this day," Ron reminisced, his English punctuated with occasional words or phrases in Kootenai.
Ron's grandfather was the well-known local artist, Abe Abraham.
"If only I knew half as much as my grandfather knew," Ron chuckled. "He had a lot of different talents that he could put into his art. My uncles also did a lot of artwork. I mostly learned how to draw and paint from watching other people, seeing and analyzing their work, some TV programs and some high school art classes, which didn't really interest me at the time."
A graduate of the BFHS class of 1974, Ron didn't do much art as a young man because he was raising a family and traveling a great deal to represent the Tribe in different capacities. He also worked in the woods piling brush and then did carpentry work. Ron helped build the fish hatchery and the wildlife office, as well as set up the tanks, put up the steel buildings and built houses on the mission. When the Tribe received a contract with the Forest Service, Ron was hired as crew boss to manage thinning projects, brush piling and planting.
"In the Tribe, I've been pretty lucky to have steady work," Ron commented. "I learned a lot. It was a lot of hard work but it was also a lot of fun and I enjoyed it."
In 1976, the Tribe sent out a call for artists to design an emblem to be used by the Tribe as a unifying symbol. The contest gave Ron the motivation to begin to create works of art. He won the contest with his creation of the now-familiar Kootenai Tribe of Idaho symbol. The tribal emblem represents a war shield. The bottom half of this emblem represents Chief Three Moons of the 1800's. The upper right contains a red ribbon bearing the words "Kootenai Tribe of Idaho" loosely wrapped around a green state of Idaho on a yellow background. On the upper left half is an arrow quiver with no arrows signifying that the Kootenai are a non-treaty tribe. Behind the quiver sits the unsigned treaty. Behind the treaty is the tribal emblem on a green background. The seven feathers represent the seven bands of Kootenais that make up the tribe.
Since that time, Ron has produced many significant works of art, which are all the more powerful because of his passion for portraying the Kootenai values of respect for wildlife, his heritage and the valley and river that he loves.
His depiction of Kootenai Falls hangs in the Kootenai River Inn but was also used for T-shirts. The painting Knitla' Nam (translated from Kootenai as "The Way One Lives") was chosen as a poster to honor American Indian Heritage Month in November 2004. Among other projects, Ron has painted portraits of some of his family members and friends from his boyhood on the walls of the newly-remodeled recreation room at the Tribal Office. He is currently working on revamping the large stone mural that sits at the entrance to the Kootenai Reservation and is also in the process of creating a huge painting that will be affixed to the rock wall in the city parking lot near the entrance to the tunnel leading to the Kootenai River Inn.
Jokingly referring to himself as "semi-retired," Ron has more time to devote to his art even though he is still an alternate on the Tribal Council. He and his wife also own the Sportsman's Club in Bonners Ferry. They have five children, ages sixteen to thirty, and five grandchildren.
"When I have time, I'll pick up a brush and get something going," he said. "I enjoy doing larger works because there is more room to put in a lot of details and that is what I enjoy. When I'm not in a mind-blank, I can sit and paint for ten hours or more; time doesn't matter. I'll just automatically reach for the right brush, things will just appear to me and I paint them. The more I paint, the more things come out like the Kootenai canoe, the sweat lodge, the teepee. These symbols open up more people to understand the Kootenai culture. Sometimes people say, "Where's Ronnie?" and then they'll laugh and say, "He paints all night; he sleeps all day."
Ron has no plans to stop painting. After he finishes the painting for the city parking lot, he will start work on a large mural for the fish hatchery. Even if his projects take him several years to complete, he says that he just keeps going one piece at a time.
"Some of the things I've done in the past led me toward detailing the Kootenai canoe because it specifies the People and I do that because they are the People I know," he emphasized. "I've studied a lot of the history of my People. I like the animals, the landscapes, the river. I try to incorporate all that and people seem to enjoy it. This is my personal expression. When people see what I've done, they are awestruck, so I guess I've painted it right. I don't paint to get famous. It's about what people see, and if they enjoy it, it makes me happy."
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