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Date posted:  June 14, 2022

Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa is situated on the unceded territory of the Osage Nation, who, along with the Wichita, Caddo, Quapaw, Pawnee, and other Indigenous communities, were the original stewards of this land. These nations all called this place “home” before the federal policies of forced removal and the eventual land runs led to an influx of other communities. The museum also stands at the shared boundaries of the reservations of the Cherokee Nation and the Muscogee Nation, and in proximity to a total of thirty-nine federally recognized tribes in what is now the state of Oklahoma. As the steward of over three hundred and fifty thousand artistic and anthropological objects and archival materials—evidence of the complex, multivocal, and multicultural histories of the Western Hemisphere—Gilcrease Museum carries the crucial responsibility of appropriately caring for these items, as well as respecting the creators and communities from which they originated.

The museum’s founder, Thomas Gilcrease (Muscogee, French, Scotch Irish), was an avid collector of ethnological objects from Indigenous communities throughout the Americas, but he also invested in the work of living Indigenous artists in the first half of the twentieth century. The Indigenous paintings at Gilcrease are a testament to the fervor with which Thomas Gilcrease patronized artists during his lifetime, and to the museum’s ongoing commitment to support the careers of Indigenous artists. Until now, however, this collection has been sorely under-researched, often because resources and attention were devoted to more publicly notable Euro-American artists. Because the museum sits on the ancestral and removed lands of numerous tribal nations, and because the museum’s founder was a citizen of the Muscogee Nation, devoting resources and attention to the Indigenous-made works in the collection is equally relevant and long overdue. In particular, the works that relate to the history of Oklahoma—even predating statehood—demand careful consideration by scholars, museum professionals, and the wider public.

The generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation supporting research into Gilcrease’s Indigenous paintings empowers the museum, scholars, Indigenous communities, and artists to rethink the role of culture, history, and identity in the study and display of Native arts. This project serves as a catalyst for more ethical, appropriate, and inclusive research and representation in colonial institutions. For Gilcrease Museum specifically, this significant responsibility does not begin and end with the Luce grant. Rather, this project serves as a starting point for anti-colonial praxis, multivocal representation, and institutional reflexivity.

—Chelsea M. Herr, PhD, Jack and Maxine Zarrow Curator for Indigenous Art and Culture
 

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Dr. Chelsea M. Herr (Choctaw) for honoring a request to provide an institutional positionality statement, as well as for the significant and immeasurable contributions she has made in support of this collection-based research project. A key component of this research has been seeking insight and advice from project adviser Dr. Jami Powell (Osage), curator of Indigenous art at the Hood Museum; Indigenous scholars; community members; and artists. I am grateful to everyone who participated in interviews that contributed to over eighty object-based texts, who often went above and beyond as I delved into new areas of study. I thank the following: Ruthe Blalock Jones (Delaware, Shawnee, Peoria), Marla Redcorn (Osage, Kiowa), Norman Akers (Osage, Pawnee), Walter Echohawk (Pawnee), Benjamin Harjo Jr. (Seminole, Absentee Shawnee), Talee Redcorn (Osage), Bobby C. Martin (Muscogee), Kevin Connywerdy (Kiowa [Cáuigù], Comanche), Yatika Fields (Osage, Cherokee, Muscogee), Vanessa Mopope Jennings [also called Vanessa Paukeigope Jennings] (Gila River Pima, Kiowa Apache, Kiowa [Cáuigù]), Nina Sanders (Apsáalooke), Monroe Tsatoke (Kiowa [Cáuigù]), Antonia Belindo (Navajo, Pawnee, Choctaw, Kiowa [Cáuigù]), Kenny Harragarra (Kiowa [Cáuigù], Otoe), Travis Mammedaty (Kiowa [Cáuigù], Cayuga, Wyandot), Dana Tiger (Muscogee, Cherokee, Seminole), Mike Pahsetopah (Osage, Cherokee), and the Cheyenne and Arapaho consultants to Gilcrease Museum, Fred Mosqueda and Chester Whiteman.
 

Daum Yì:dop (“Touching the Earth”): The Place-based Indigenous Arts Research Praxis

The Kiowa concept of having integral connections to the land, to placemaking, and to the Earth can be called Daum Yì:dop, which roughly translates to “touching the Earth.” Although Daum Yì:dop is a Kiowa phrase, it describes a worldview shared by many Indigenous nations across North America: that is, the tangible and intangible interrelationships between people and the land through reciprocity, kinship, and intergenerational knowledge. As a scholar, I am reflexive of my positionality as a Kiowa woman, an enrolled member of the Kiowa Tribe raised in Oklahoma; and as a Tongan woman educated overseas in New Zealand. My academic genealogies include being mentored by Māori and Indigenous scholars in the disciplines of design, museum studies, Indigenous studies, anthropology, and art. In addition, the belongings of my own Kiowa ancestors are included in Gilcrease Museum’s anthropology collection. My background and experiences enhance and motivate my commitment to upholding Indigenous research methodologies[1] and curatorial practices while examining Gilcrease’s collection of Indigenous paintings. The plurality of my position provides an intergenerational insight and perspective beyond formal academic and artistic training, a frame of reference that is connected to the land, the community, and the kinship systems that raised me. The Indigenous arts research methodologies I utilized within this project are steeped in the ontological frameworks of my own Kiowa protocols, which uphold and honor ancestral values of reciprocity, humility, and sovereignty through intentional collaborative dialogues with the artists themselves if possible, or with the artists’ descendants or community members.

The 2020–22 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation was allocated to a twofold project: half to the research of Gilcrease’s collection of works by American artists Thomas Moran and Mary Nimmo Moran, and half to the research of more than twenty-five hundred Indigenous works. To frame and focus the research, I began with a deep-dive investigation into the records of over two hundred and fifty Indigenous artists who represented vast regions of the North American continent. Biographical research further revealed that over 50 percent of these artists descended from the more than thirty-nine federally recognized Indigenous nations now connected to the fluid boundaries of the region known as Indian Territory,[2] or present-day Oklahoma.

The place-based Indigenous arts research praxis centers upon the artists’ connections to land as well as their biography or lived experience, and it seeks to actively collaborate with artists or with their descendant communities through the inclusion of first-person narratives accumulated through interviews, contributing to a multivocal (literally, “many voices”) perspective of both history and art. There have been critical shifts in Indigenous arts research that have moved it away from the use of settler-colonial lenses of interpretation and dissemination. Using a new ontological framework and methodology, I approached the research by first prioritizing the voices, the experiences, and the ancestral or treaty territories of artists whose artworks exemplify pivotal shifts in Indigenous art and point to the past, present, and future trajectories of Indigenous painting practices. Based on these findings, I first created a list of artists and then constructed a list of fifteen hundred works of art by those artists.[3]

Indigenous Art Is Timeless: Intergenerational Art Forms that Predate Colonialism

Since time immemorial, Indigenous nations on this continent have recorded personal and communal stories using the pictorial and figurative arts.[4] These graphic visual languages have taken the form of pictographs and figures carved, painted on, or formed from pottery, bone or ivory, wood, metal, beads, and hides. There are works that exemplify specific historical turning points where artists—either through circumstance or personal choice—integrated Western mediums and styles into their practice. The adaptation of various media from a range of geographies led to the stylistic movements that shaped Indigenous art in the twentieth century and continue to impact Indigenous artists today. This research carefully considers the relationships between Indigenous artists’ biographical and lived experiences as vital to recognizing the historical societal and cultural dynamics that led to these stylistic movements. Art historians are more widely embracing[5] the intergenerational Indigenous time frames as a primary lens through which curatorial arts research and the interpretation of Indigenous art are to be accessed and derived. The field is continuously progressing beyond chronological time lines, or the so-called evolution of Native American art,[6] upheld by the long-standing practice of historicizing Indigenous art as a tool of the colonial project.

This project sought to uphold Indigenous sovereignty by utilizing qualitative data as a primary source for object-based texts, recognizing collaborative, interview-based research and oral histories as invaluable first sources and primary citations. Because the research took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, I interviewed and spoke with artists and their descendants via phone and video call. Each of the interviews is intended to honor constituents whose works are housed at Gilcrease Museum by providing a valuable first-voice perspective.

Autobiographical Art Forms as Preserved and Living Examples of Tribal Sovereignty

Well-maintained historical records attest to the long-standing autobiographical art forms featuring representations of Indigenous sovereignty and self, including figurative imagery. These figurative art forms would go on to influence and establish the late nineteenth-century stylistic transitions in media such as the move from hide to ledger paper, watercolor, pen, and pencil, referred to as ledger art. The Gilcrease Museum’s 1879 and 1887 Fort Reno ledger books comprise over two hundred and fifty drawings by Cheyenne and Arapaho warrior artists, and they compose roughly 10 percent of the estimated twenty-five hundred Indigenous paintings and drawings. Furthermore, the twentieth-century Kiowa Style or Flatstyle[7] of painting popularized by the Kiowa Five artist collective, later referred to as the Kiowa Six, drew upon a range of traditions including ledger art and Kiowa calendar painting by creating autobiographical pictographic narratives. 

Importantly, these paintings were traditionally produced along with oral histories, providing aural and visual records of an artist’s personal lived experience and creating a continuum of Indigenous knowledge systems that spanned generations. Combat veteran and artist Dennis Belindo’s modernist acrylic painting Kiowa Warriors (01.2539), for example, epitomizes the fluidity of cultural continuity and the passage of time. This painting, and the memories that the artist’s granddaughter, Antonia Belindo, has of her grandfather, both speak to issues of continuity and intergenerational knowledge transmission.[8] Antonia remembers that her grandfather “had stories of who his ancestors were and what they encountered. The Kiowa warriors who encountered the U.S. Army and were considered criminals, when in reality they were heroes, defending their land and protecting their peoples from being removed to what we now know as the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache [Reservation] in Oklahoma.” She recalls “the stories he shared of family members,” adding, “Just as he taught and influenced me at a young age, those were the relatives who taught and influenced him at a young age.”[9]

Intergenerational Indigenous knowledge systems continue to inform Indigenous governance, ceremonies, language revitalization, and ecological understanding. Yet because of more than a century of gross underrepresentation within arts institutions, with rare exceptions, the museum field has only just begun to consider Indigenous knowledge systems as valid frameworks of art history. Oral history as a methodology has been a strong component of this art historical research, diverging from traditional curatorial research practices in order to centralize artists’ voices and perspectives.

Oral Histories, First-Voice Narrative, and Representation as Modalities of Understanding

In the past, many museums, including Gilcrease, have offered public narratives of erasure and promoted stereotypical myths about Indigenous cultures and artwork. Gilcrease’s collection-based project offers examples of Indigenous approaches to research that disrupt norms of (mis)representation of the museum’s collection. The Daum Yì:dop approach centralizes place-based knowledge, and oral histories offer context and provide language that deepens and reveals some of the relationships connected to the artworks. The range of Indigenous systems of knowledge expands dialogues about the artworks by opening up questions rather than answering them, while maintaining a high level of multivocality within the research. For instance, Muscogee artist Bobby C. Martin’s mixed-media painting APR ’55 (01.2503) explores multilayered concepts connected to Indigenous identity through landscape, archival documents, and portraiture. Martin’s composition includes historical imagery superimposed on images from his personal collection of family photographs, inviting multiple lenses through which his vibrant paintings might be interpreted. Representing Indigenous art histories through our own words and on our own terms is vitally important to educating the public ethically about Indigenous art, because it is a departure from the view of Indigenous cultures or Native America as a monolith. Accurate representation of personhood, nationhood, relationships to land and environment, and community experience are meaningful components that, through this research, have become more accessible to Gilcrease Museum’s diverse audiences.

While this project illuminates a wealth of information about the artists and artworks, it also leaves us with questions to consider moving forward. How does a museum holistically discuss the importance of artists and artworks that shaped more than a century of Indigenous art? How can the humanity, individuality, and sovereignty of the artists and artworks be adequately celebrated and fully recognized within a two-year research project? This research, the first of its kind, took place during a global pandemic, within the same year the museum closed for a full institutional rebuild. It is important to acknowledge the limitations that these circumstances imposed on the project, including the ability to gather information in person, and the ability to access the collection. Within the space of art historical scholarship, the roles of culture, politics, society, artist biography, intergenerational knowledge, and stylistic influences certainly impact the level of engagement an audience will have with traditional or community knowledge. This research project is an important first step toward understanding the museum’s vast holdings, as well as a catalyst for mending relationships between artworks and their source communities.

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[1] Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies, 10.

[2] Bowes, “American Indian Removal beyond the Removal Act,” 66–67.

[3] The list of artists included the following: Norman Akers, Spencer Asah, James Auchiah, Fred Beaver, Dennis Belindo, Harding Big Bow, Larry Big Bow, Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Big Bow, Archie Blackowl, Ruthe Blalock Jones, Acee Blue Eagle, F. Blackbear Bosin, Parker Boyiddle Jr., Jimalee Chitwood Burton, Allan Bushyhead, T. C. Cannon, Narcissa Chisholm Owen, Kevin Connywerdy, Wayne Cooper, Minisa Crumbo, Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Crumbo, Chebon Dacon, Marcell J. Darling, Cecil Dick, Brummett Echohawk, Tennyson Eckiwaudah, Bronson Edwards, Yatika Starr Fields, Franklin Fireshaker, Franklin Gritts, Enoch Kelly Haney, Benjamin Harjo Jr., Valjean McCarty Hessing, Joan Hill, Jack Hokeah, Larry Hood, Allan C. Houser, Norma Howard, Jerry C. Ingram, Lee Joshua, George Keahbone, George Kishketon, Frank Knickerbocker, Alfred Calisay Kodaseet, Bobby C. Martin, Mike Martin, Jane McCarty Mauldin, Solomon McCombs, Alfred Momaday, N. Scott Momaday, Gary Montgomery, Stephen Mopope, Doc Tate Nevaquaya, Loren Pahsetopah, Paul Pahsetopah, Woodrow Wilson Palmer, Bill Rabbit, Connie Seabourn Ragan, Robert Redbird Sr., Jim Lacy Red Corn, Charles Emery Rowell, C. Terry Saul, Bert Seabourn, Don Secondine Jr., Louis ShipShee, Ben Adair Shoemaker, Arthur Silverhorn, George “Dutch” Silverhorn, Lois Smoky, Ernest Spybuck, Willard Stone, Virginia Stroud, Carl Sweezy, Jim Tartsah, Marian Terasaz, Dana Tiger, Jerome Tiger, Johnny Tiger Jr., Monroe Tsatoke, Two Leggings, Russell Wagoshe, Kay WalkingStick, Antowine Warrior, George Smith Watchetaker, Richard West, Gary White Deer, Roland Whitehorse, White Swan, David Emmett Williams, Nancy Williamson, and Carl D. Woodring, and Fort Reno ledger artists Red Eagle, Short Horn, Red Wolf, and Washee.

[4] Wong, “Pictographs as Autobiography,” 295–316.

[5] Rifkin, Beyond Settler Time, 99–128.

[6] White, “Oscar Howe and the Transformation of Native American Art,” 36–43.

[7] The Kiowa Six artists are Spencer AsahJames AuchiahJack HokeahStephen MopopeLois Smokey, and Monroe Tsatoke.

[8] Tone-Pah-Hote, Crafting an Indigenous Nation, 82–84.

[9] Antonia Belindo, granddaughter of Dennis Belindo, interviewed by Jordan Poorman Cocker, May 4, 2021.