Lyle Johnson honors Crow leader.
Plenty Coups helped the U.S. Army obtain Crow scouts for George Custer’s ill-fated Little Bighorn campaign in 1876 and Nelson Miles’ pursuit of the Nez Perce reservation jumpers the following year. Much later, he persuaded young Indians to serve in World War I and represented all Indians at the 1921 dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Before he died in 1928 at age 80, he requested that 40 acres of his ranch be turned into a park where Indians and non-Indians could get to know one another a little better.
Crow lands once ranged across Montana from Three Forks to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Plenty Coups became chief of the Mountain Crows at age 25 and proved to be a peacemaker in tribal relations with the white man. Fittingly, Lyle E. Johnson’s bronze tribute to Plenty Coups stands guard in front of the Chamber of Commerce office in historic Red Lodge, Mont.
Johnson, who grew up on the Ute Reservation in northeast Utah, began dreaming of a Plenty Coups sculpture after meeting Crow educator Barney Old Coyote on an art trip to Billings, Mont. Reading F.B. Linderman’s biography Plenty Coups: Chief of the Crows fueled Johnson’s desire to make that monument. When a collector gave Johnson the go-ahead for the money and Red Lodge officials backed the idea, the sculpture became a reality. It was dedicated in 2000.
Johnson, 64, has been producing sculptures full time since 1981, but he has always been an artist. “As a kid, if I picked up a piece of bailing wire, I’d make it into a flower or some kind of design,” he said from his Pryor, Mont., home. “My mom would make homemade Play-Doh, and I’d sculpt those. She’d put them on the top of the cabinets in the kitchen, and they’d sit there till they dried out and fell apart.” At age 10, he got his first set of modeling clay for Christmas. He tried his hand at taxidermy between ages 12 and 24 and then went into business, before dropping it all to follow his dream.
Johnson and his wife have managed to bring up 12 children of their own, four adopted children and more than 60 foster children. Still, he managed to work in an art career. “I’ve always had a studio at home, and when I’d do different projects, I would always motorhome and take the children with me,” he says. “I’d take three at a time and always managed to get them all in. Of course, in the summer, I’d get them all in on one trip.” Most of his children, he says with pride, have grown up to become artists themselves.
Lyle E. Johnson’s art can be viewed at www.lylejohnsonstudios.com.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.