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Browse: Gilcrease Museum’s Indigenous Paintings: Relationships between People, Artworks, and Material Culture

Since the rise of cultural anthropology as a social science in the early nineteenth century, white American collectors and anthropologists sought Indigenous-made objects from around the world to document people and their cultures people prior to and during acts of colonial genocide.[1] These objects entered the collectors’ market as part of an effort to sustain (disproven) claims of racial hierarchies and used as a rationale for westward expansion.[2] Because of this, many American anthropological collections currently house thousands of objects—such as the gourd rattles illustrated here—that were extracted from Indigenous communities. Today, Indigenous communities continue to take steps toward sustaining ongoing relationships and, in some cases, recovering relationships with objects in these collections.[3] For example, the poignant remarks by Tulsa Artist Fellow Anita Fields during an interview at Gilcrease in 2019 extrapolate on the nuanced and storied relationships between artists, their descendants, and the institutions that house the artifacts.

“A suppression of our history has always been here, so I think it’s really important that people understand. . . . A safe place to be able to look at a lot of things that are difficult to talk about is the arts, so it’s really important that, yes, that these shows, these exhibits come and people are able to understand who we are. . . . 

If you live . . . in the United States of America, our history is the history here, and so for it to be put on the back burner all of these years . . . or to think of [our history as] just artifacts . . . revealed how people thought about us [as Indigenous people].” —Anita Fields (Osage, Muscogee), from “The People. The Land. The Art,” an interview with Anita Fields and her son Yatika Starr Fields at Gilcrease Museum, October 14, 2019

Gilcrease Museum’s Indigenous paintings include works by artists who create bridges through memory, time, and space to Indigenous objects that in some cases may have been collected from their original people more than a century ago. Artists such as Yatika Starr Fields (Osage, Cherokee, Muscogee, b. 1980), T. C. Cannon (Caddo, Kiowa [Cáuigù], 1946–1978), and many others refer to their intergenerational relationships with material cultures, both sacred and profane, by creating painted representations of the Indigenous objects that honor their original design, function, and purpose. Cannon, for example, employs specific items as cultural identifiers in his woodblock print Woman in Window, including the sitter’s elk-tooth dress, hair-pipe earrings, and tacked leather belt. Other artists, such as Fred Beaver (Muscogee, Seminole) and Harrison Begay (Navajo), created autoethnographic imagery that includes highly detailed representations of cultural items such as Seminole patchwork clothing and Navajo weavings. Fields visited the anthropology collection at Gilcrease to create his painting Half Moon Night and Remembrance, and his process illuminates the need for more critical dialogues between Indigenous communities and their objects, as well as the potential for paintings such as this to be a catalyst for mending the relationships between descendants and colonial collecting institutions such as Gilcrease Museum.

“I visited the Gilcrease collection to gather information on Plains Indian ceremonial articles, specifically the gourds and rattles used in ceremonial practices of the Native American Church. The fire, songs, and singing brought each of these gourds to dance with the rhythm of the processions of the night. They all hold recollections and memories; they all still hold the powers of those meetings.” —Yatika Starr Fields (Osage, Cherokee, Muscogee), 2019

—Jordan Poorman Cocker, Henry Luce Foundation Curatorial Scholar for Indigenous Painting Collection Research, 2021


[1] Cooper, Spirited Encounters, 28–48, 65–84.

[2] Baigell, “Territory, Race, Religion,” 3.

[3] Bedford, review of Stewards of the Sacred, 186–89.