I've always been into woodworking, and I also love design and being creative. About 20 years ago, that led me to start dabbling in installing flooring, but I had never had a chance to be truly creative with my floors until I had a job for a doctor here in South Dakota. That job not only gave me the chance to design a unique floor, it also was the first time I was able to incorporate my heritage—I'm Lakota, and my great great uncle was Crazy Horse—into my wood floors, and that has become extremely meaningful for me.

On that job, the doctor and his wife asked me to just come up with something, and they mentioned they liked animals. He also had an idea about having an octagon in his office floor. As I drew up the floor, a design with a turtle popped into my head. When I showed it to them, his wife liked it, but he thought it was kind of busy. He asked me, "What made you do that?" I answered honestly, "I really don't know." But then I told him the story about how I met Wallace Black Elk.

I should explain that although I grew up about a mile away from the reservation, my Native American heritage didn't play a huge factor in my life while I was growing up. It wasn't until I went away to (of all places) Ohio to go to photography school and happened to go to a lecture by a Sioux medicine man, Wallace Black Elk, that I really connected to my heritage. He was speaking one night at a local college, and I got lost on the way to the lecture and walked in late. When I arrived he stopped speaking and stared at me. Everyone turned and looked at me, and I was pretty freaked out. When the talk was over, he waved me down to the front and told me, "The spirits told me you were coming. You're from where I'm from." That was pretty weird; the hair was standing up on the back of my neck. From that point on we became close until Wallace died, and it was Wallace who told me that my spirit animal is the turtle. (When he told me that, I jokingly asked if that was why I was so slow at everything, but he said it was because I was well-protected.)

Fast forward to that job in South Dakota, and when I shared my story about Wallace Black Elk, the doctor immediately said, "I want it. Do it." We settled on the turtle design for the office, and in the dining room I created a design with four eagle feathers and the four directions of the medicine wheel in the center of it (see the photo above). Eagle feathers and the four directions of the medicine wheel are very important in Sioux culture. The eagle feather represents the Great Spirit's power over everything. The medicine wheel represents all the knowledge of the universe and has four colors, red, yellow, black and white, that can represent many different things, including the people of the earth.

I can't say exactly how I came up with the designs for the floor; I just have visions of all kinds of things. In photography school I used to have dreams about pictures I wanted to make, so I started keeping a notepad by my bed. Still today, when I wake up, most of my ideas seem to be right there.

I had never made a wood floor with inlays like the ones in this floor, but I was excited about the challenge. I hand-cut all the pieces ⅜ inch thick and glued them piece by piece to cabinet-grade 12-ply. I don't know how long it took me; fortunately I didn't have any pressure to get it done quickly.

Since that job I've been able to do more floors that represent my heritage. The clients I get are super nice people and very receptive to the Lakota ways and beliefs; they just seem to find it fascinating. I even had a lawyer from San Diego who saw my turtle in the doctor's office and commissioned me to create a wooden wall hanging of a sea turtle that I turned into a medicine wheel (top left on this page).

Eagles are extremely important to me and are very sacred for the Lakota people. When we see an eagle, we take some tobacco and offer it to the spirits in thanks for bringing the eagle to us. (When my wife and I were married in the Black Hills, the pastor told us all to look up, and there was an eagle circling us. Then another came and circled us—although they don't usually see eagles there.) Now I try to leave an inlay of an eagle feather on every job. I don't know if you would call it a signature, or it's just leaving a part of me on every floor I do.

See more on this topic: Custom Installation How-To

Jim Traversie lives in Rapid City, S.D.