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Contest Dance / Spencer Asah


Contest Dance depicts two Kiowa men in mid-motion, performing what is sometimes referred to as the War Dance. (The War Dance in its contemporary form is a type of contest dance.) The dancers wear ornate headdresses made from deer-tail hair or porcupine hair adorned with two eagle feathers, jewel-toned breechcloths, and bustles made of eagle wings. Over their shoulders are loom-worked beaded strips, which are fastened at the belt. Both wear beaded armbands tied at the biceps and beaded cuffs tied at the wrist, as well as silver-bell garters tied at the knees and around the ankles. Groups, and occasionally two people (as seen here), perform many types of contest dances today, always with musical accompaniment. Both men and women can compete, although the dancers are primarily men. Powwows with contest dances take place annually during the spring, summer, and fall.

Kiowa (Cáuigù)1 artist Spencer Asah was a member of the Kiowa Six artist collaborative, whose collective artworks came to be known as Kiowa Style or Oklahoma Flatstyle, referring to the Plains figurative paintings devoid of background. Contest Dance is in the Kiowa Style.

Asah lived during the post-reservation era when Kiowa dances, ceremonies, and spiritual practices—as well as other cultural elements such as Indigenous languages, hunting and fishing, and so on—were banned by the federal government; in essence, this painting depicts an illegal activity.2 During Asah’s lifetime the punishment for violating these laws and policies could mean the withholding of food rations, beatings, imprisonment, or death. That he, a survivor of the reservation system, chose to paint this scene is profound.

—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 The Ghost Dance, for example, was banned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1890. Eventually federally appointed Indian agents banned all ceremonies they felt weren’t Christian. This ban lasted until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) was passed in 1978. See Kyrova, “Let’s Dance.”

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Contest Dance
Spencer Asah (Artist)
Oscar B. Jacobson Collection (Collection)
Native American; Kiowa
circa 1940
tempera on paper
Landscape; single-sided 0.235-0.245mm Brown, machine made paper. Fibers are evenly distributed in transmitted light.
Object Type: 
Accession No: 
Previous Number(s): 
0227.37; 13712
Not On View

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