A Dine’ with family roots deep in the soil of the Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico, Ambrose Peshlakai took his first drink of beer at the age of four sitting on the front steps of his grandfather’s house. Today he is a respected elder and award-winning artist, and has been in recovery for more than 25 years.
Following the Red Road and finding the Creator, who he believed was lost to him, were fuzzy things he knew he should pursue, but he found himself instead turning to drinking and drugs.
Peshlakai grew up in Albuquerque, his was the only Native American family he remembers amongst Hispanic and white families and classmates. By the time he graduated from high school in 1972, he was either drinking or looking for his next drink.
He eventually moved to Denver where, between bouts of drinking and using, he attended an engineering college and was able to complete two certificate programs. He was a natural artist with no ambition in that direction until he took up technical illustration and commercial architectural drafting; where he learned how to air brush, use pencil, pen, pastels and oils. He also dabbled in sculpting, hoping to design log and adobe homes and sculpt stone fireplace mantels.
While in Denver, he made a friend who was in and out of recovery and attending AA meetings. Deciding maybe he did need help, he checked himself into a four-month treatment program in 1989 at the Eagle Lodge, where he found himself surrounded by other Native American men also struggling with dependence issues. It was there he was re-introduced to his culture, sweat lodge ceremonies, drumming and dancing – and his art. “Back then my thinking was I had a roof over my head, I didn’t really realize the drinking was a problem until I started going to group sessions and one on one counseling. I started choking up and admitted that maybe I did have a problem with drinking and using. The disease was very strong,” he said.
Peshlakai worked as a certified addictions counselor for over 16 years, and brings his message of a clean life with him everywhere he goes. Some of his sculptures reflect his freedom in recovery, such as the eagle residing in a museum in Wisconsin. He has also completed three sculptures depicting domestic violence and its effect on families and communities, females with blank faces, with the fourth sculpture in the series still in the design phase.
Today Peshlakai’s life revolves around his art and his 22-year old son, and traveling between Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.) where he has made his home the past two decades, and New Mexico where he goes to learn more about sculpting and art. He said he realized it was himself, not the Creator, who was lost. “Since I have been sober I find my art in a lot of ways is related to my recovery. I look at the talent and gifts I had that I was not really aware of until I got away from the drinking and using and had a clearer picture of reality. Art has made me take a look at my heritage and the richness of it, and that I am sober. This is where I am at, and this is my purpose and mission. And I am satisfied with it,” he said.
Peshlakai is spending the spring and summer months concentrating on his latest art creations – making pendants using crushed turquois and gold inlay and slender stone sculptures of alabaster and soapstone measuring between two and three feet in height.
He also enjoys creating feather fans with special meanings – mostly to honor veterans and the code talkers of WWII. One of his feather fan designs named “The Shield,” caught on as an emblem among programs for Native vets in Michigan in 2011. He created The Shield while remembering his code talker uncle, binding together two feathers and painting an American flag on them. He then wove a beadwork handle with a motif from the West Point Academy shield. The Shield is also being used as a logo by the U.S. Department of Justice at Lewis-McChord Army-Air Force Base in Washington. A picture of his design can also be found on a brochure for Access to Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment program for Native veterans and active-duty military personnel offering services in Michigan’s U.P. The Shield can be purchased by visiting online at: http://honorfeather.com.
Peshlakai is currently taking classes at the Poeh Cultural Center and Museum in Santa Fe in stone sculpting and silver-smithing, and plans on selling his artwork this summer at the Santa Fe Indian Market. “If I went back to using or drinking, I’d stop doing my artwork,” he said. “I would no longer have permission to make art.”
He says he is going through an abstract phase and is happy doing less detailed work. “I look back at our ancestors and the work they did and I like it,” he said. For his artists signature he uses a handprint, similar to how warriors used to mark their horses to show ownership.
In addition to adorning colleges and museums throughout the country, his sculptures and artwork can also be found in Russia, Jamaica, Ireland and Canada. Three of his paintings were purchased by Crystal Gayle, her sister Peggy Sue and, according to Peshlakai, road manager Darryl while on display during one of her concerts at Kewadin Casino in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
“I still see people suffering from alcohol and drug abuse, the problems are bigger today I believe. I see it first hand, across the country. I am trying to share that message – that there is help out there if they reach out and ask for it,” he said.