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Tonkowa Chief / Woody Big Bow, January 29, 1915 - July 10, 1988, Native American; Kiowa (Artist)


The profile view that Kiowa (Cáuigù)1 artist Woody Big Bow chose for his tempera and watercolor Tonkawa Chief emphasizes the contours of the bison’s head and shoulder hump. The whimsical linework detailing the bison’s hair, which is speckled with freshly fallen snow, creates an endearing, almost playful portrait that illuminates the intimate connections between artist and subject. Throughout the Plains regions, Indigenous cultures have an intersectional relationship with the American bison that extends far beyond commodity or food source. The once ubiquitous Great Plains mammal sustained the ecology of the grasslands, as well as the Indigenous nations that shared its environment, and it played a key cultural role in many societies. Precolonial bison culture involved economic, environmental, and spiritual sustainability.

The ancestral territory of the Great Plains was home to tens of millions of bison until they were exterminated under the War Department’s unofficial policy by the post–Civil War frontier army. From the mid-1860s to around 1890, U.S. military commanders, and particularly Generals William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan, encouraged the slaughter. The military understood that many Plains Tribes depended on the bison for sustenance; therefore, removing the bison would force tribes onto reservations.2 This was analogous to the Indian Removal Act of 1830 instituted by President Andrew Jackson (1829–37) in that both were systematic acts of genocide undertaken for western colonial expansion. And that is what happened. With no animals to hunt, bison-dependent Indigenous nations whose ancestral and treaty territories traversed the Great Plains were coerced onto reservations.

Big Bow was born in the early twentieth century, placing him among the first generation to begin life on a reservation, and marking the profound separation from the animal that had sustained his family’s way of life. Nevertheless, experiences of bison culture endured through stories told by Big Bow’s father, and through oral histories. Today, Indigenous nations are seeking to conserve and restore bison populations.

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

1 Cáuigù is the correct identity used by the Kiowa Tribe.
2 See Smits, “The Frontier Army and the Destruction of the Buffalo: 1865–1883.”

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Tonkowa Chief
Woody Big Bow, January 29, 1915 - July 10, 1988, Native American; Kiowa (Artist)
Native American; Kiowa
mid-20th century
tempera on matboard
Portrait; single-sided 1.316-1.326mm blue colored, textured matboard
Object Type: 
Accession No: 
Not On View

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