Michael Horse the Actor and Artist Are One
Twin Peaks’ Deputy Hawk turns art into a political act with ledger art.
Photo by Brian Breneman
Michael Horse, the actor best known for his role as the unflappable Deputy Hawk on the cult television series Twin Peaks, rifles excitedly through the backseat of his modest white Nissan Versa. We’re standing on the sidewalk, across the street from his wife’s Native American art shop, Gathering Tribes, on Solano Avenue in Albany. His silver mane and slab turquoise earrings contrast starkly with the black T-shirt he’s wearing that says “Oakland,” but with teepees instead of A’s. The backseat is in casual disarray, but soon he discovers what he’s looking for: a poster-sized map. Or better, a canvas. He looks at it, before flipping it around and proudly displaying it in front of him. It’s a map of the Dakota Territory, in 1882, and it bears the watermark of the Department of Interior. But this isn’t just any map. It’s been, well, modified.
Painted over it are four figures, three men and a woman, mounted on horses, charging into battle. Each character dons a headdress and carries a spear. Like the tiny stickers on a football helmet, the figures’ faces, bodies, and horses are painted with symbols that tally acts of valor in battle. They’re charging towards a territory on the map labeled “Standing Rock.”
“Isn’t that neat?” Horse asks.
Starting in the 1870s, the Plains Indians began to acquire—through raid or trade—accountants’ ledger books from neighboring white Midwestern settlements. On them, they would draw scenes of important battles and other key moments in tribal history. The practice is known as ledger art. Horse, as it happens, is one of the form’s most important contemporary practitioners.
This year, after a 25-year layover, Horse reprised his favorite role as “The Hawk” on Showtime’s reboot of Twin Peaks. Recently, he’s also appeared in other shows, including Netflix’s Hell on Wheels. For many years, Horse kept Michael Horse, the artist, and Michael Horse, the actor separate. But now, at 67, mixing legacies, it seems, is no longer much of a concern.
“I didn’t want to be known as that actor guy who does art,” Horse says.
That’s because long before he was offered his first role on the big screen as Tonto in the 1981 flop The Legend of the Lone Ranger, Horse was already an established fine artist. First, he earned acclaim as a jeweler. Then he was musician, playing “chicken scratch,” a genre he describes as a mix of “ranchero, bluegrass, and Native.” He stumbled upon ledger art while helping identify Native jewelry at a museum in New York City. His work has appeared in galleries and museums across the country, including the Smithsonian and the Heard Museum in Phoenix.
During the 1960s and ’70s, Horse was part of a movement of young Native Americans, who, fed up with the destruction of their lands and cultures, catalyzed a resurgence in Native Art. It was a mix of art and activism.
“It was an awakening for a lot us, especially urban Indians,” says Horse, whose Native roots are Sonoran Yaqui. “We had to reclaim our culture.”
Ledger art was one of the more notable art forms rediscovered during that period. Originally, ledgers were painted to confer status within the tribes of the Great Plains—which included the Cheyenne, Lakota, Sioux, Arapaho, and Kiowa, among others. Fighting bravely in battle enshrined a warrior in their tribe’s historical accounting. But soon, it also became a political act. The Lakota, most notably, understood well the power of the written word. Scrawling on the documents of their attackers was act of asserting power. They saw it as a proxy in the struggle to own their own history. It’s from that tradition that Horse’s work flows.
Perhaps most striking about the art is its transgression. Horse is constantly seeking out historical documents—maps, land grants, or ledgers, for instance—with the sole purpose of disfiguring them. “It gives me great pleasure sometimes to deface them,” he says.
My first time at Gathering Tribes, months earlier, I was mesmerized by a particular painting of Horse’s. A battle scene painted over an original land grant for a parcel on Mount Diablo. Underneath the colorful painting was a signature: Theodore Roosevelt. (Later, Horse said it wasn’t in fact signed by the president, but instead an undersecretary.)
“If you look at the language of contemporary ledger art, it’s about taking the situations of Indian-white relations and turning it back on non-native people,” says Ross Frank, a historian at the University of California San Diego. Ross curates The Plains Indian Ledger Art Project, an online catalogue that hosts digital copies of some of the greatest ledger art. He, for one, appreciates Horse’s broader appeal. “He’s been influential in bringing new audiences to ledger art who find it through his roles as an actor.”
On an afternoon in July, Horse held a showcase at Gathering Tribes. Excited fans took photos with him—hashtagged #deputyhawk—on their Instagram posts. One mentioned, with spirited admiration, gratitude for indulging them in their Twin Peaks obsession. Another fan ordered a ring. He never wanted to be an actor. Initially, he just needed money. But now that the Hawk and the Horse are one and the same, he’ll take it. “My whole life is an experiment in bizarre booking.”