Alumni Spotlight—Chad “Little Coyote” Yellowjohn (Shoshone Bannock, Spokane, and Ho-Chunk) ’19
Chad “Little Coyote” Yellowjohn (Shoshone Bannock, Spokane, and Ho-Chunk) ’19, who graduated with a BFA in Cinematic Arts and a Minor in Studio Arts, has become known for his digital and hand-drawn depictions of Native peoples—including playful caricatures, portraits, illustrations of Indigenous issues and subjects, and Indigenized takes on cartoon and video game characters. His work is alternatively humorous and serious, often conveying a deep love and affection for community. “My mom and my brothers—they would speak for me when I was a kid,” he shares. “And so, I was never really vocal of how to express myself, and so, art is my only outlet, and to actually express how I actually feel about situations.” He is currently working on commissions for fashion designer Kayla Lookinghorse (Lakota) and previously did a commission for Prados Beauty. He’s also done work for several musical celebrities, such as Taboo from Black Eyed Peas. A favorite project of his was with rapper Cody Coyote (Ojibwe). “He’s also a visionary when it comes to lyrics,” Yellowjohn notes. “And so, it was like that piece was more of a collaborative piece, like he’ll tell me what he’s thinking, or how he’s feeling, or you know, tell me his vision of what he sees … that whole process with him, was just amazing. And he’s also very respectful of my creativity. And as I was for his.” Despite the wide reach of Yellowjohn’s work—his illustration Our Best Days Are Ahead of Us was featured in the NDN Collective Billboard Series in Rapid City, South Dakota, in 2021, and he was included in “On the Edge of Something Great” in the September/October 2020 issue of Native Max Magazine—he remains humble and friendly, frequently seen at cultural events and powwows, traveling, and sharing his art.
Yellowjohn previously attended IAIA in 2009 and, years later, decided to return to campus. “I remember I was working morning shift and a night shift at the UPS airport, and we were just stacking boxes all morning, and then [we’d] come back all night. It was just a repetitive thingy. And I remember looking through my phone … just seeing all these Indigenous artists that came from IAIA just doing impactful things in their communities … and I was just like, ‘I want to do something like that.’ And I remember, again, an email the next morning—the following day—and saying that, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been re-admitted to IAIA.’ And I was like, ‘Dang, I’m really doing it, like I’m really going back to IAIA. And so, I always keep that part of my mind, and I’m very thankful for where I’m at. And so, and I think just joining the inspirational row that we’re all on is gonna be impactful for those who may need it. There might be that one kid looking through his phone working at an airport.”
Yellowjohn’s decision to focus on Cinematic Arts as a major comes from making videos with his family. “Well, when I was a kid, I remember when my nephews were about 4 or 5—wait, 5 and 7—we would just like—I would just say, I have this idea, and it was more just like, using the camera, then pressing the pause button, and then going over here, pause, pause, , and I worked on little editing projects, and I made like a few karate fight videos with my brother. And my brother Shanner, he pushed me towards that way because he was saying, like, ‘Art is always gonna be a part of your life, and I think you would be cool if you went to cinema.’” Cinematic Arts allowed him to reformulate some of his ideas as well. “And there’s a lot of value that I got from that situation, or from that experience because I have all these stories in my head, but to put them in a script form is very helpful, and also, it inspires me.” Yellowjohn says that Cinematic Arts “helped me draw out this one story” that he plans to turn into a children’s book, featuring a Native boy and his dog, which originally came to him in a dream. “It wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t take cinema,” he says.
While Yellowjohn worked at the Poeh Cultural Center creating marketing materials, at the time, he hadn’t yet applied digital tools to create illustrations. He once held the opinion that digital artwork was “sort of cheating.” “And so, when I took a digital art class, I was stressing out so much. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ ‘Oh, the wrong layer!’ or ‘Oh, my gosh! Like how do you—how do I get this?’ … And so, I was like, no, digital is not the easy way out.” While Yellowjohn works digitally extensively these days, he appreciates drawing traditionally. “But yeah, if I had to choose one, I definitely would choose hand-drawn, just because there’s teachable moments in it. With markers, there’s no going back, like you can’t just erase or put white-out. You could use white-out, but just won’t look the same.” He sees the process as “a life lesson.” “Once you mess up, you can either work with the problem or just get rid of it. And I don’t like to do that because I think all of us artists think the same way, like that piece has a life to it. It needs—No, no. I would feel guilty about just throwing it away if I just messed up. And so, just like in life, you can work with your problems and figure it out.”
His time interacting with a diverse intertribal community at IAIA enhanced his creativity. “…when you go there, it’s like more of like a big collaborative,” shared Yellowjohn. “It’s like [an] Intertribal chapter in your life. You’re picking up certain techniques or certain outlooks or certain perspectives from the students are attending IAIA, and you’re gonna share yours. And from where I’m from, there’s not a whole ton of two-spirited people. And when I arrived to IAIA, just seeing that, their free spirit has impacted me in a way to where I can be more expressive about myself as an artist, and especially being more expressive when it comes to Indigenous issues, and also going to Standing Rock too, with the group of students was a big impact on me, too, because, like there’s a bigger picture.” He is also happy to see the success of other creatives. “And also still, a day like when I run into you or run to any of the other artists, we’re all doing our own thing, and I see it as like us climbing up on top of this endless mountain … we’re all on our own path. We’re all taking different trails. They’re all gonna have their own obstacles. And so, I always just tell people, ‘Just promise that I’ll meet you at the top.’”
After graduation, Yellowjohn was commissioned to create a series of caricatures of artists featured in the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian’s exhibition Laughter and Resilience: Humor in Native American Art. The portraits were on display from November 10, 2019, to March 7, 2021. Ben Calabaza (Tewa), a former IAIA staff member who was then at the Wheelwright, recommended and presented Yellowjohn’s work to the exhibition committee. Yellowjohn “had this other idea of just collaborating with their style” and incorporated aspects of “that style into their portrait.” “It was just— that was my first time to really meet those artists, cause there’s a few of them I have never met. And so, I was really excited. I was really thankful for Ben to give me the opportunity,” says Yellowjohn.
Yellowjohn was also chosen as the 2021 IAIA Molly of Denali Fellow with WGBH/PBS. For “Homemade Heroes,” the first episode of season three, which aired the following year, he designed the superhero outfits for the characters Molly, Tooey, Oscar, and Vera, and the Denali Defender, which was “one of my highlights on my life, because I remember my nieces and my nephews like they watch it.” He worked with Sydney Isaacs (Tlingit), who was the inaugural Molly of Denali Fellow. “I remember she was telling me that we both went head-to-head to take the opportunity that she’s in, and she got it, and she was the best one to be chosen for the opportunity, of course. And so, when I applied again, got it, and it was just really cool to be under her wing, and also just seeing how, in that area of work, how she’s involved, and also how careful she is, and when it comes to cultural detail.” Isaacs advocated for Yellowjohn. “I remember we were in a meeting, and they were talking about having a superhero episode … It’s almost kinda like it was Sydney; just kinda opened the door for me in that area. [She] just said, ‘Chad knows how to draw.’”
During the pandemic closures, Yellowjohn began developing a series, Masked Dancers. “Markets were getting shut down. Powwow ceremonies were being canceled, and so I had nothing to do. And so, I remember just motivating myself to dance … So, I did this sketch of myself dancing, and it was motivating … I posted it, and I got a lot of likes from it. And so, I was just like, this is kinda fun! And so, I drew my sister, drew my mom, and I drew my uncle—drew my cousin, and then it slowly, just branched off into these different cultures and different backgrounds.” He created 25 illustrations of dancers from a variety of Native North American and other Indigenous cultures, such as a Navajo basket dancer, a powwow fancy dancer, a Pueblo buffalo dancer, a Yaqui dancer, and a Woman Calpulli Dancer. Some illustrations depict IAIA alumni, such as a Shell Shaker Dancer based on Faithlyn Seawright (Chickasaw, Choctaw) ’21 and a Yup’ik Dancer based on Golga Oscar (Yup’ik) ’20. The illustrations also include a Samoan fire dancer, a Hawaiian Hula dancer, and a Tonga dancer, which speaks to friendships with and familial connections to Polynesian peoples. His “sister cousin” NaTika Leuluai (Shoshone Bannock) married a Samoan man, with whom she has three children. Yellowjohn also went to school with Polynesian classmates, had a Polynesian roommate, and created shoe designs for Polynesian friends and friends of friends. “I painted on shoes, but I never thought I’d do Polynesian art on shoes.” A “favorite chapter” of his was “just learning about what the shapes mean.”
The Masked Dancers series culminated in his first solo show, Masked Preservation, at the Spokane Falls Community College Fine Art Gallery in Spokane, Washington, from September 22 to October 25. KXLY 4 News Now invited the public to the reception, featuring Yellowjohn on the segment as well as his niece and nephews Makli, Sisnce, and Sabine BrownEagle-Branson, who danced in regalia. Masked Preservation was the first time Yellowjohn’s family got to see his work in an exhibition. “And so, just to have my own show and have my family attend was awesome,” Members from both his father’s and mother’s sides of the family danced at the opening, including his nephew Sabine BrownEagle-Branson and his “sister-cousin” Nakita Leuluai, who “was recently diagnosed with MS [multiple sclerosis.” “But yeah, NaTika Leuluai—she dusted off her old jingle dress … It was just very inspiring to see her in her regalia,” said Yellowjohn. “And also, she was one of the first five dancers that I made out of that Masked Dancers series. And so that was really cool—is just—and to have your sister cousin to just come back out of retirement to just come and dance for you.”
During the opening, Yellowjohn became emotional, thanking his family, particularly his mother, which led to a humorous moment. “I turn around back to the crowd, and I was like, ‘I wanted to thank you guys for attending. Please enjoy the show.’ And right before I was about to end it, my mom yells, ‘Thank your brother! … everyone just looked at my mom …. so I looked at my brother. He’s behind a tree, taking photos. I was like, ‘Thank you Shanner, thank you for…’—and the only thing that popped up my mind—I was all like, ‘Thank you for drawing bunnies when I was a kid, cause it made me want bunnies,’ and then the crowd, the applause, was not that great. Yeah. And then my brother comes out like, ‘That’s me!’ that everyone just started clapping again.”
Yellowjohn will undertake his first artist residency at IAIA from October 18–November 15, 2023. On his way back home from a trip, he decided to apply to the A-i-R program after seeing a “last chance” email. He plans to work on some large-scale panel pieces depicting dancers and experiment with animation. In preparation, he has been working on a large hand-drawn depiction of a Native man braiding his hair, a reinterpretation of a past favorite work, to see how long it takes to complete a piece. The choice to work with markers more for the residency is intentional. “And it’s very therapeutic, too. And I spend so much time on digital. And I was telling my friend this, and I was like zooming out on the paper, and you can’t do that,” he smiles. He plans to scan the works and make the dancers move using Adobe Premier, which he originally learned at IAIA to, as he says, “put motion to my art.”
Meet Yellowjohn at the A-i-R Welcome Dinner on Monday, October 23, from 5–7 pm, and during Open Studios on Monday, October 30, from 3–5 pm. And, if you’re fortunate, you just might catch him at upcoming events around the country. Be sure to keep up with Yellowjohn’s creative adventures on his Instagram account @lil_coyote and website www.littlecoyote.com.
Thirteen free stickers created by Yellowjohn when he was a student will be available first come, first serve at the President’s Office in the Lloyd Kiva New Welcome Center on the second floor.
Quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity.
If you would like to be considered for a future Alumni Spotlight, contact IAIA Communications.
Neebinnaukzhik Southall is the IAIA Communications Writer. They are a graphic designer, artist, photographer, and writer specializing in covering and promoting Native cultures, arts, and design.