BILLINGS — Russell Walks knew exactly what he wanted the artist acknowledgement for his new Billings show to say.
"We recognize and appreciate that the land through which the river flows is the ancestral and current home of the indigenous peoples of Montana," Walks writes.
The new display - Intelligent Design - is showing off some of Walks' most personal work yet: images of wildlife found along the Yellowstone River. But he’s also paying tribute to the river’s indigenous roots.
"There was a time I was standing on the bank, and it occurred to me that what I was seeing or experiencing would be the same thing that say a teenage Crow girl scraping a hide would have experienced," Walks said.
Intelligent Design is based a virtual, year-long float trip of the Yellowstone, and the life you might see along the way. The idea came to him during a quiet time for many people.
"During the pandemic, we had this little chickadee in the backyard," Walks said. "They have this little two-note sound that reminds me about everything I love about Montana."
He named the chickadee Magnum, and it’s his favorite piece at the show. Walks pictures Magnum living down in a cottonwood in Riverfront Park. That's where we met Lanny Real Bird, a Crow tribal member, to talk about the river’s meaning to his people.
"This is basically home," Real Bird said. "This water has a quality of being like a parent - it is supernatural."
Real Bird knows all about the river, from its roots inside Yellowstone National Park along its nearly 700-mile span to joining the Missouri in western North Dakota. He has a story for almost every key point along the way.
"I would say there's probably close to 35 named places between Yellowstone Park - the falls - and the confluence," he said. "The Yellowstone River, or as we call it, the Elk River."
So named for the elk migration route along the river hundreds of years ago. Real Bird also spoke about the river's meaning to the Hidatsa tribe, often associated with the Crow.
"The Crow have been along the river from the early 1700s," he said. "It's been a center for trade and commerce, for both the Crow and the Hidatsa people. This river represents the backyard of the Crow legacy and the Apsáalooke civilization."
Walks has produced 30 images for his show, all centered on wildlife, a stark departure from his comfort zone of Star Wars and pop culture.
"It's so fun, so much of a departure of what I’ve done in the past," he said.
Patrons can find the show at Undammed Spirits distillery in Billings, a fitting location for a show focused on the longest un-dammed river in the country.
"I was all in," said Undammed owner Allen Hodges about partnering with Walks. "Anything to give accolades to the fact that the river is un-dammed. It's wild.
"I’m hoping people up their appreciation for the blessing we have to live by the Yellowstone."
The show will be at the tasting room through the end of the year, with a welcome reception planned for Thursday night Dec. 1 from 6:30-8 p.m.