Les quits work to be big Chief

At first glance Les Atkins shows more resemblance to the Native American chief Sitting Bull than a manager at a mayonnaise factory.

Les quits work to be big Chief

And now this week he is calling time on the 9-5 after 15 years of service to embark on a new Wild West adventure – showcasing the life of Native Americans.

And he's determined to dispel a few myths.

"There are a lot of misconceptions which have been based on how they were portrayed in films – such as rain dances and scalping people's heads," he smiles.

The 65-year-old has been an enthusiast of North American Indians for decades – inspired by the Western films in the 1950s and 1960s.

He has accumulated a huge inventory of items from colourful headdresses, costumes, toys and models.

Les in (slightly) more conventional clothes

His particular interest is in the Native Americans of Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico in the south west.

He now plans to use his retirement to educate school children, clubs, and groups about the story of American Indians.

Mr Atkins, of Hillbury Drive, New Invention, Willenhall, said: "During the 1970s I used to go to a lot of exhibitions, including putting on my own exhibitions and talks, about the North American Indians and their artefacts. "In recent years I started making my own items as well as buying what we would call antiques. About 80 per cent I make myself.

"Now I want to do something entertaining and give something back by holding demonstrations and various sessions with schools and groups like the Scouts."

Mr Atkins, who retires from Piquant in Bloxwich tomorrow said: "I hope my talks prove entertaining but also factual. It has been a big interest of mine – but about 95 per cent of the people at work will have no idea about this side of my life.

"It is something I do take quite seriously and is something I enjoy."

The avid collector has built up many artefects

Before European settlers arrived on American shores, it is estimated some 10 million natives lived in the area that today makes up the United States of America. Today the natives only account for around one per cent of the US population at around 2.9 million people.

Most Native Americans still live on designated Indian reservations but the history and culture remains popular with their descendants who take pride in the music, art, and ceremonies that took place many years ago.

The married father-of-two has been to the States half a dozen times and has visited Native Americans in Arizona and Utah.

"I am lucky enough to have danced with them," he said.

"It involves us getting up and what they say is to 'shake a feather'.

"They were really quite impressed that I took such an interest – it is a wonderful experience."

Les sporting a traditional Indian headdress

In 2004, a museum was opened in Washington DC paying tribute to their heritage containing more than 800,000 objects and artefacts.

"What many people don't realise is that when the European settlers arrived, the Native Americans helped them and gave them things such as peaches, potatoes and oranges.

"But as more and more settlers arrived they pushed further and further back inland. It was hard for them because they believe in Mother Earth and believe the land belongs to everyone.

"They could not understand the concept of a fence.

"One of the great things Native Americans introduced was sign language. There were more than 400 tribes and it was through hand signals that those different groups communicated. Their way of life is based on Mother Earth and that life is a circle. They believe that when you die you return to the earth.

"They wasted nothing. When they would go buffalo hunting they would obviously eat the meat but also use the bones for things like clubs or grind them down for medicine.

"They would also use the bladder as a water carrier and the hide for material." Among his collection are war bonnets which were seen as items of great spiritual and magical importance. The eagle was considered as the greatest and most powerful of all birds because it flew high and close to the Great Spirit and thus the finest bonnets are made out of its feathers," said Mr Atkins.

"The idea of it being a 'war' bonnet is bit of a fallacy of the Westerns which made more of an issue of it."

Other items include a roach – a smaller headdress used for hiding in the long grass.

They are typically made out of deer hair and porcupine tails.

Les added: "I hope to make the talks accessible to youngsters and hopefully that will help them take the history and heritage in.

"The costume and the artefacts will really capture their imaginations as they are big, bold, lively and bright – and of course something they are not used to at all.

"It is a mission of mine to educate people more about the heritage and culture of the Indians – it's not something people know much about."

* Les can be contacted by email at lesatkins21@gmail.com

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