Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns
for Tri-State Livestock News
Teri Loring Dahle as a child with her dad, Danny Loring, a Montana rancher. Courtesy photo.

Art has always been prominent and important in the lives and culture of First People. Blackfeet Nations’ Teri Loring Dahle is living proof that importance has not waned.

The timeless beauty, color and action of nature and animals theme and underscore Native art — Teri’s included. Montana’s wild beauty, rodeo photography, rodeo broncs and battle reenactments provided her first palettes, where she captured more than a million images. Now Teri and her computer are kaleidoscopically exploding those one-of-a-kind and once-in-a-lifetime moments, weaving past, present and mystical future into action-packed, color-drenched works of art.

Born into the Blackfeet Nation in northern Montana, Teri grew up under limitless skies on the vastness of a Seville Flats ranch her dad and mom started “with three little kids and a dream. He pursued that tradition of his grandfather, who came to the Blackfeet on a cattle drive from Texas,” Teri says.

“The ranch is still there, and four generations are involved, including my little great-niece who’s three and has four cows. She’s devoted and outspoken, recently telling her mom, ‘You know what’s wrong with this ranch — there’s not enough baby calves here.’” In actuality, the beef herd numbers around 800, and the well-watered and irrigated land also produces crops such as wheat and alfalfa.

Oftentimes, great art and literature is strongly rooted in a lifestyle as well as a region. “Cowboy” is this artist’s lifestyle, born of the blood racing through the pedigrees of both Teri and her husband Dennis Dahle, an enrolled Northern Cheyenne whose family ranch encompasses some 50,000 acres from Lame Deer to Birney, Montana. Headquarters are on Muddy Creek and their roughly 600 beef cattle winter in the Birney area.

Teri says she’s often asked why she named her business Cowboy Real. “Because Indians became cowboys,” she grins, adding “And Dennis’ family turned into cowboys, basically.”

A premiere horseman and cowboy, Dennis has always been a successful rodeo contestant, but his finest skill is training performance horses. Dennis trained the great calf roping horse Miss Piggy. He also trained and competed successfully on Dolly, the bay mare PRCA champion Dustin Bird still ropes on.

“Dennis won a lot on Dolly in 2006,” Teri says. “Dustin bought her on our word — he had seen her but never roped on her. She loves what she’s doing and never cheats. We got to see her perform at the National Finals Rodeo in 2012, 2013 and 2014. She’s such an athlete, I trained her to run barrels, too–she could’ve gone either way with the right jockey. She’s been the ‘People’s Choice’ in the Spin to Win Horse of the Year; and tied for 2nd/3rd in AQHA Horse of the year honors.”

Rodeo and horse training are probably the two things Dennis and Teri hold in common that they love the most. Both have trained great horses, both have won a lot in rodeo with horses they trained, and both have trained a lot of different places.

Teri’s dad, Denny Loring, was a roper and she grins, “My great uncle on my mom’s side is Bud Connelly, famous rodeo star of the whole bunch. Also, her great uncle, Dan Connelly won the Steer Un-decorating in 1934 at the Calgary Stampede, and he rode horseback from the Blackfeet up there to compete!” Bud Connelly is a legendary all-around cowboy and 2012 Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame honoree who appeared in HIDALGO and other movies.

Teri grew up team roping and competing in various rodeo events. She had an amazing barrel horse trained by Patty Ann Perry on which she could put a controlled ride good enough to win big venues like The Crow Fair at the age of 12. By the time she was 18 she’d sped her way into the Prorodeo Circuit Finals and beaten such top competitors as Lynne McKenzie and Martha Josey. Unfortunately Teri’s great barrel horse died during her first year in college; but she’d already impressed Martha Josey enough to be invited to move to the Josey Ranch to live and train horses after college, which she did for a time.

“Dennis and I always knew each other,” Teri muses. “We were really good friends. He trained fantastic horses! I followed him to Nevada 27 years ago, to where he was training horses, and we rodeoed out of there. He trained team roping horses for Larry Miller. He was all over Nevada and California training and selling horses. I lured him back to Montana in 1987,” she grins.

Teri went to college at Montana State University in Bozeman, and she shyly admits, “I was the first Native American woman to graduate from there with a degree in Ag Business.” If her great horse had not died she’d have been a force on their women’s rodeo team as well.

Upon being crowned Miss Indian Rodeo in 1983, Teri was whisked into a whirlwind of traveling, introducing the nation to her Native culture. “I went all over the U.S. promoting Indian rodeo, visiting beautiful places like Washington, and Oklahoma.” Along with the travel, she developed her skills in promotion and public speaking and began a comfortable relationship with the media and publicity. Those skills help her build her own business, along with helping other First People find and develop their own niches.

Teri says photography always appealed to her. “I was photographer for my high school annual, took some college classes at MSU, and really liked it,” she says. “My mom suggested since I loved rodeo and photography and was good with computers I should try the rodeo photography business.” That suggestion led Teri to write the Four Times Foundation, which supports Native American entrepreneurs on some reservations, including the Blackfeet. Some funding resulted, helping her acquire the necessary basic equipment.

The Dahles’ inspiration to begin rodeo photography came from Blood Indian Jim Good Striker. “He photographed every Indian rodeo for years with the old school equipment, printing the old 4 by 6 images you had to sort through,” Teri says. “For a while between when he passed and we started there were no Indian photographers. Now his whole collection is in the Glenbow Museum up at Calgary.”

Teri’s first commercial venture was a Chinook/Havre high school rodeo, and she went there by herself. “It was a three ring circus, in spite of my mom coming there and trying to help me,” Teri laughs. “Taking pictures, showing them to potential customers, printing them, selling them! Mom, at that time, didn’t know a thing about a camera or a computer, and we didn’t sleep the whole time we were there.

“I told Dennis, if this is gonna work you’re gonna have to learn how to take a photo! He still to this day knows when to take a photo because of our rodeo background. Timing is everything, and with the first equipment we had to click a half second before the optimal view was there. I think back and wonder how we got those great shots.”

Their photos capture broncs and bulls, ropers, barrel racers, bulldoggers and relay racers at the prime instant of exploding action. A million images in all, there are hundreds that approach perfection. And all the time the Dahles were shooting and selling their photos they were competing and making a living — traveling, rodeoing, winning, training and selling horses too.

That lifestyle will always define them, and they’re now passing it on to future generations. Teri’s stepson Wacey Real Bird from the Crow reservation is a successful bulldogger, team roper and calf roper who’s given her and Dennis two grandchildren. “Lucia is 7 and Jhett is 4, so we’ll probably start hauling them to junior rodeos,” Teri says, proudly.

Tomorrow is on Teri’s mind, and while she will continue to shoot select venues, the Dahls’ dreams include possibly developing their own studio gallery. “We have a property right on Highway 2 here on the Blackfeet – hopefully we could catch some of the 1.5 million people that come through Glacier Park each year,” Teri says. Naturally she’d like to successfully market her own unique and beautiful art, helping other artists at the same time.

She recently attended a “Made in Montana” show which was both wholesale and retail, and reports, “From that, my art’s gonna go different places I never thought it would go – a home decor place in West Yellowstone, shops in Polson, Lewistown. Four thousand people went through there on retail day and I know I got at least two thousand audible ‘WOW’s’ At the Chamber meeting yesterday I told ‘em, ‘I’m almost like a walking billboard for our Reservations, I can show them the beauty of our areas.’ Last winter we spent I month in Nevada and two months in Arizona, where I took in a couple shows and visited some galleries.

 “One of our dreams is to help develop and promote artists who are cowboys and cowgirls right here on Seville Flats, as a means toward helping young kids that don’t even know how to start promoting themselves. That’s kind of in our plans,” she says.

Through the First People Fund, Teri is a nationally certified artist trainer. “The program is pretty prominent on the Blackfeet,” she says. We have a lot of amazing talent.

“I sometimes wonder what will happen to our million images. When I start looking through to choose some for my art I’m amazed at all that’s been shot through windstorms, rainstorms, sandstorms, heatstorms…. I truly believe in 40 years someone’s gonna come along and say, ‘Omigosh, just look at this collection!’

“And that causes me to believe, and to say, ‘An image is not for today, it’s for tomorrow.’”