Long before Donel Keeler saw his art staring back at him from the bumpers of automobiles, he saw it hanging in Morrill Hall and earning prizes at Native art shows.
Colorful scenes of buffalo and antelope and Indian hunters — created in the ledger art style — black and white shield paintings bordered with tipis and Native symbolism.
Keeler lives in Omaha. He’s 67 and has stage 4 liver cancer.
He had already been diagnosed with the disease in 2016, the year he drove to Lincoln for the annual Standing Bear breakfast, carrying greeting cards depicting his artwork and sharing them with the state’s five tribal leaders.
Judi gaiashkibos was there.
Two years later, the state Legislature passed a bill approving a license plate to honor Nebraska’s First People.
And gaiashkibos — the executive director of the Nebraska Commission of Indian Affairs — and others who were involved in selecting the artwork thought of Keeler.
“We had a relationship with Donel and we had some of his art,” gaiashkibos said this week. “And he was willing to share some of it with us.”
So with Keeler’s blessing, the state designed prototypes from his portfolio.
In the end, they picked a simple design, incorporating art from two of Keeler’s pieces. A blue and gold backdrop with an eagle feather in one corner, a brave on horseback in another and a leaping buffalo in the center.
Tatanka, the buffalo, is such an iconic image, gaiashkibos said. And it’s one that is embraced by all the Plains’ tribes.
More than 150 years ago, as white settlers descended on the Plains, they began a wholesale slaughter of buffalo, aided by politicians and the U.S. Army. The intent was clear, gaiashkibos said.
“You kill the buffalo, you kill the Indian.”
The Native American Cultural Awareness History plate has a different kind of message, she said.
“We were here and we’re still here.”
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The artist is Crow Creek Dakota and Northern Ponca.
He’s part French and English, too.
He’s at home in North Omaha on Thursday, after a morning visit to his oncologist.
Since his diagnosis five years ago, Keeler has had radiation and chemotherapy, and now the doctor is trying oral chemo. Something new.
“I feel better at times. There are days I feel real good.”
But there’s a fog, too. Chemo brain, they call it. And he’s tired, not inspired to create.
“I want to paint, but I can’t bring myself to get it done.”
Keeler was born on the Winnebago Reservation, but he spent most of his growing-up years in Omaha.
His family moved around a lot, he says. There were dark times.
“I have PTSD from things that happened to me. Painting is my release from that anxiety.”
And art has been part of his story since he was small.
He’d watch amazed as his grandfather sketched bucking broncos and cowboys on rubber kickballs on visits to his small farm near Bloomfield.
“I loved the way he reached into his pocket and pulled out a pen and started to draw.”
The boy drew, too, pictures of battleships on the chalkboard of his Indian boarding school and football players on the sides of cereal boxes at home.
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He went to the library to study his people’s history. He soaked in his culture and traditions and incorporated them into his art.
He went to Central High, kicked out time after time for refusing to cut his hair.
He displayed his art at the Omaha Indian Center and at Indian art shows in South Dakota and on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
“There was this lady that took notice of me,” he says. “She sponsored me for art classes at Joslyn.”
In the years that followed, his work continued to earn the praise of art show judges. And he sold his work. Packing up his car and driving to powwows, selling prints and postcards, along with his original pieces.
But never enough to make a living. “I wasn’t productive enough,” he says.
When that phone call came from gaiashkibos two years ago, asking about using his art on the state’s new license plate, he was delighted.
“This was all a surprise for me. This is like Jed Clampett striking oil.”
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For $40, Nebraska drivers can have a First People’s plate with a personalized five-letter message; or pay just $5 for a random numeric one. All proceeds from the numeric plates go into the Native American Scholarship and Leadership Fund, as does $30 of the $40 fee.
More than 1,350 plates have been registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles since sales began in January 2018, said Betty Johnson, administrator of driver and vehicle records.
And that means nearly $20,000 for young scholars, gaiashkibos said.
“Every plate purchased helps Native American students go to college and that gives them a voice and makes them visible.”
The license plate money joins funds raised through the Standing Bear breakfast and the sale of maquettes of the Chief Standing Bear statue on Centennial Mall. The fund is close to being endowed, gaiashkibos said. “This is just going to solidify it forever. Long after I’m gone from the Indian Commission, we know we’re still helping Indian students go to college.”
The plates are an important piece.
When they became available 18 months ago, commission staff started a daily competition: Who could spot one?
“Sometimes we’d go two weeks before we’d see one,” said gaiashkibos, whose plate reads NCIA1.
Now someone spots one nearly every day. Including the director.
“Every time I see a plate, I get so happy.”
The plates are beautiful and the message is as important, she says. “It acknowledges we’re on the homelands of the First People.”
And she wants to share another message.
“We want everyone to know it’s not just for Indian people, it’s for all people to purchase. It’s a point of pride for all Nebraska.”
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Keeler drives a tiny red Kia Soul.
It’s just big enough to haul his artwork around in the back. It has Nebraska’s First People plates.
“I have people coming up to me and saying, ‘I got your license plates.’ I go to powwows and I see them everywhere.”
And he had a ready answer when the DMV asked what five letters he wanted.
It’s a good feeling, he said.
“It’s an honor. That’s what it is.”