Dan Deuter, Preserving the Old West

By Carole Anne McKelvey

.

Dan Deuter is a nationally-known artist who preserves the American “Old West” through his art. He is especially well-known for his paintings of the American Buffalo. Raised on a ranch in South Dakota near two pre-Columbian buffalo jump sites (locations where early Indians drove the animals over cliffs), he became fascinated with the historic beasts, and formed a life-long love for the historic American Western culture. From early childhood, he learned to live the life, hunting, fishing, trapping, and eventually running cattle.

Deuter’s life changed dramatically in his 21st year when he was given a painting set for Christmas. “I decided I liked it,” he said. And, he was very good at it. Painting has been the driving force of his life ever since.

At the suggestion of an aunt in South Dakota, he began showing his artwork of the “Old West,” and specifically, buffalo. At first, his paintings sold for $100-$200, back when he was doing outdoor shows. Then he moved into galleries, eventually showing in Santa Fe, N.M, Scottsdale, Ariz., and Wyoming’s Jackson Hole, where his paintings, featuring buffalo and American Indians, now go as high as $40,000.

His love of hunting, trapping, and all things “Old West” led him to the directorship of the Fort Uncompahgre historical site in Delta, a position he held for 12 years. He and his co-worker, the late Ed Maddox, came to work wearing buckskins and pre-1840s attire. “We attracted a bit of attention around town,” Deuter said. “People thought we lived in the museum full time.”

While at the museum, Deuter said he and Maddox trapped problem beaver when the  DOW or people with a problem beaver would contact them for help. “We trapped beavers from Dallas Divide to Grand Junction and donated hides to schools and museums all over the world,” he said.

“We also taught people how to tan deer hides. We worked with the Sheriff’s Office, State Patrol, and DOW to get the road-killed deer off the highways. Those were the animals we used to teach people to tan and make clothes.”

Deuter calls being an artist, “just another bad habit;” one he’s had for 50 years. His research of the “Old West” is prominent in his art, which he devotes his time to daily. His living room is also his studio. His favorite subjects are the mountain men, American Indians, and wildlife of the late 1880s.

In addition to painting buffalo, Deuter has also hunted them, like the one pictured here. “When I shot the buffalo,” Deuter said, “I was helping to manage the buffalo on a ranch (in Colorado). That buffalo was coming to kill us when I shot him, and I shot him from my horse. I think he had every intention of doing the three minute waltz—that never ends well!” With him is his horse, Rio, which has appeared many times in Deuter’s paintings.

“Buffalo watch everything you do, and are at the top of the list for reading body language. Their wariness has evolved from thousands of years of being hunted. Long after we are gone there is a pretty good chance they will still be here.”

Indians had a use for nearly every part of a buffalo but it is physically impossible to use every part every time, Dan explained “Often they would shoot a buffalo for what ever part they needed that day. Every piece of a buffalo, from its skin, to its meat, and even its tail, is useful.”

Asked what he thought caused their eventual demise, Dan said: “A lot of factors took part, including climate change (yes, even back then) and cattle diseases, but I believe the biggest factor by far was the introduction of the horse.” As more of first Americans moved out of the woodlands onto the prairie, with the horse, they were mobile. The Indians could travel farther to hunt and bring back more of the meat. “The favorite meat and robes came from young cows for good reason, “Dan explained. “The meat is more tender and they aren’t nearly as dangerous to hunt as hunting bulls—plus bison cow hides are easier to tan.” When Indians were hunting buffalo afoot, there was a balance. With the introduction of the horse everything changed. The hide-hunters shot the last 12 million buffalo, but that means that 48 million were already gone before the hide-hunters showed up. Also, by the mid-1800s there were millions of wild horses competing with the bison for the prairie grass.”

In addition to hunting and painting buffalo, Deuter engages in other activities that help to preserve “Old West” tradition. On his 30-acre ranch near Montrose, he keeps horses (often used in photo shoots or appearing in his paintings). He also rebuilds historic cabins, repairs old equipment, traps beaver, hand-tans hides, and makes buckskin clothing and quivers decorated with beading. Deuter even made the buckskin wedding dress his wife wore those 28 years ago, complete with hand-made moccasins.

Between them, the couple have six grown children, 17 grandchildren and three great-grandkids. Deuter and his wife have restored and enlarged the home they live in, which also serves as his studio. His ranch is one of the locations for his photo shoots involving his cabins, animals, “trading post” and collection of hides, beadwork, and western memorabilia.

Deuter said he enjoys knowing many Native Americans, many of whom have appeared in movies such as Dances with Wolves, and who also enjoy working with him in the realistic photo shoots he hosts.

The ranch he shares with his wife is on the north end of the landing strip to Montrose Airport. Deuter says pilots flying over know they’re on the right path when they spot his Stonehenge-type, buffalo skull, medicine wheel, and Native American prayer circle below in the sagebrush. It’s like Stonehenge, because it’s built on an axis with the Summer and Winter Solstice.

Talking about buffalo, Deuter says the buffalo are unique creatures, that are fully aware of their surroundings and keep a close watch on anyone approaching. “They may appear to be just grazing along, but they are keeping a wary eye on you,” he said. Many people don’t know how unique buffalo are, he said, “with only 10% of their DNA matching cattle.”

To view Deuter’s work, do a Google search on Dan Deuter artwork. *

“Cheyenne River Ghost,” Dan Deuter painting. Courtesy of the artist.
Dan Deuter at his ranch. © Michael Lawton.
Dan Deuter and his horse, Rio, with buffalo he culled from the herd. Courtesy of the artist.

Ellie’s wedding dress; beaded quiver, both handmade by Dan.
Stonehenge-type buffalo skull medicine wheel, and Native American prayer circle on Dan’s ranch. Both photos, © Michael Lawton.