Author Topic: Leah Yellowbird - Minnesota Artist  (Read 9564 times)

Offline Advanced Smite

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Leah Yellowbird - Minnesota Artist
« on: November 28, 2023, 06:04:29 pm »
I was contacted by an individual unable to post to NAFPS for help determining whether they should promote an upcoming event featuring Minnesota artist Leah Yellowbird. The individual felt something was “off” about Leah Yellowbird’s description of her ancestry. I made the decision to post Leah Yellowbird to NAFPS after finding evidence that she is falsely claiming Algonquin, Metis, and Anishinaabe ancestry.

Leah Yellowbird is a Minnesota-based artist that claims to be “First Nations Algonquin-Metis and Anishinaabe”. Based on publicly available information, I believe Leah Yellowbird was born Leah Kay Hanson to Edward Rudolph and Pamela Kay (Titus) Hanson in International Falls, Minnesota. Other names Leah has gone by include Leah Rancourt, Leah Cowlishaw, Leah Rancourt-Cowlishaw, Leah McMurray, and Leah Cowlishaw-McMurray. Leah Yellowbird appears to be a professional name. I was unable to find records indicating it’s her legal name. 

This is how Leah describes herself on her website:
Intricate, graceful, thought-provoking, and prolific — these are all the words that have been used to describe the elaborate masterwork of Leah Yellowbird. Originally a traditional bead-worker, she identifies strongly with her First Nations Algonquin-Metis and Anishinaabe heritage. At a young age, Yellowbird learned from her extended family how to follow traditional beading patterns and has been working in this medium her entire life. This knowledge, combined with her creative eye and exploration of color, has spilled over into the realm of painting, and she is now well-regarded for her work in all mediums. Leah Yellowbird is a fiscal year 2021 recipient of a Creative Support for Individuals grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.

Source: Leah Yellowbird Art – About Us
Direct Link:
Archive Link:

…she identifies strongly with her First Nations Algonquin-Metis and Anishinaabe heritage. At a young age, Yellowbird learned from her extended family how to follow traditional beading patterns and has been working in this medium her entire life.” This is an unusual description because a specific community isn’t mentioned. What is “Algonquin-Metis”? Which extended family members taught Leah to bead?

Leah is generally vague about her family but, back in 2016, she was featured on PBS North Native Report and gave a few details:
Transcription begins at 1:31.
"Leah's paintings come to her in her dreams and the reflections of her Ojibwe heritage."

Transcription begins at 2:41.
"I'm really trying to stick with a traditional style that my auntie was a big part of giving to me. The double line of the white around all the edges was very important to her to always have that double line of beads. And I understand it's a very, very old style. And even my regalia is beaded in that way. And I always have older people come up, elders, and ask me which grandma beaded my regalia, and it's me. Because I've kept my auntie's old style, but I've given a little contemporary twist to the colors and the combinations of the colors. But I haven't seen anything like what I'm doing. I don't usually just think of an image. I usually wake up, and I've been given the image."

Transcription begins at 5:03.
"When the wolf hunt was really in the news big here in Minnesota, I did a piece. And there was a lot of arrows in it, because it was like the government was piercing the heart of the Anishinaabe people. And I put a lot of strawberries in it, and all the strawberries were bleeding. And the wolves had targets on them. But I think if you weren't in the community, in the Indian community, when you looked at it, you saw a beautiful piece with raindrops that were red. So, I think to me, the harder part is explaining the concept of why instead of what. The symmetry is definitely important for the patterns that my auntie did. Everything was probably much more symmetrical than I do now."

Transcription begins at 8:01.
"I'm a native artist. I definitely will continue in this vein. I think all my life, I was looking for something. I didn't know what it was. And when I started painting again, the inner peace that I so desperately needed came. I think that we're all on a journey of some sort. My journey is a healing journey from a long, long time ago."

Source: YouTube - PBS North Native Report Season 11 Episode 7
Direct Link:

Leah talks about her “auntie” teaching her bead. Who is this auntie? She has one maternal aunt that I’ve been unable to connect to any tribal community. I’m still finishing genealogy, but at this point have found Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, and French Canadian. It’s possible Leah could have a “Native Woman” from the 1700s in her French-Canadian genealogy, like 80% of white French-Canadians, but I’m not seeing anything that explains Leah’s claims.

Does anyone have information that supports Leah’s claims?

Leah is selling art at the Macrostie Art Center listed under a “Buy Native” category.
Source: Macrostie Art Center – Buy Native
Direct Link:
Archive Link:

In 2021, Leah gave an Artist Talk at the Hopkins Center for the Arts (Minnesota) and discussed her Native American ancestry, auntie, and selling her art.
Transcription begins at 0:31.
"I'm Ojibwe. Anishinaabe is another word for that. And I'm Metis and Algonquin."

Transcription begins at 1:18.
"My auntie when she passed she left me her sketch book of all of her designs. And I don't necessarily use them for every piece but -um- I love to just flip through it and sometimes it's just an outline of something that will -you know- spawn something else. And so, to me it always comes from- it comes from the people who came before me. It's all comes from my ancestors. So you know to me, they're giving me this."

Transcription begins at 19:09.
"I have had a couple of pieces not sell and I have said to my agent “What do people say about that piece? Why is it still here?” And she'll say well they don't really like this part of it or that part of it. So, I stand back and take a look at that part. And I’ve redone two pieces -not a ton- just a little tiny bit, put them in the next show, and they sold immediately."

Transcription begins at 29:38.
"I do love to laugh. I didn't laugh a lot as a kid. I had a different kind of situation as a child."

Source: YouTube - Leah Yellowbird Artist Talk June 24, 2021 - Hopkins Center for the Arts MN
Direct Link:

Can anyone more knowledgeable about the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA) provide guidance as to whether Leah may be in violation of IACA?

I found a picture of Leah at an event in 2016 that makes me concerned she is using red/brown face. The picture shows Leah with make-up on her face that is significantly darker than her ear/neck. I’ve uploaded the picture to this post and it can also be found at these links:
Direct Link:
Archive Link:

I've been unable to find a source where Leah commits to her alleged Native American ancestry being through her maternal or paternal family. This makes genealogy time consuming as all lines need to be researched and posted. I hope to post more detailed information soon. Here are a few sources that connect Leah to her parents, Edward Rudolph Hanson and Pamela Kay (Titus) Hanson:

The obituary of Leah’s father, Edward Rudolph Hanson:
Direct Link:
Archive Link:

The obituary of Leah’s maternal grandfather, Richard Willis Titus:
Direct Link:
Archive Link:

Offline Diana

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Re: Leah Yellowbird - Minnesota Artist
« Reply #1 on: November 28, 2023, 09:22:56 pm »
Advancedsmite, I read her father's obituary and it appears he only had brothers. So, this so called Native aunt is probably on her mother's side.