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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


Indians throughout the Americas have always created objects of beauty for both secular and spiritual use, and an aesthetic standard was developed within both of those areas. From the northernmost points of Canada and Alaska to the southern tip of South America, indigenous peoples developed architecture, painting, sculpture, weaving, pottery, and, like all known cultures, a love of jewelry and body ornamentation. In the early part of the twenty-first century accelerated research into the history and art of early peoples of the Americas and the rapid disbursal of that information continues to add to an understanding of the antiquity and forms of indigenous arts among multiple cultures and tribes. Recent attention to authentic, individual tribal interpretation now adds a new dimension to identify, explain, and understand how contemporary artworks are informed by the First Americans.

The need to classify and preserve their distinctive styles, materials, and forms of art are of vital importance to human beings of all cultures. Because the subject is so broad, this essay concerns only the Indian people of the United States and those removed into Oklahoma. This state has a singular relationship to the Indians of North America. This particular area of land into which the U.S. government removed many Indian tribes in the nineteenth century was once home to very early Paleo-Indian inhabitants. Evidence of their occupation is seen in Clovis points left embedded in mammoths some eleven thousand years ago in western Oklahoma and in abandoned campsites where they left carefully designed and often aesthetically pleasing spear points, knives and scrapers.

Later Indian presence included the Mound Builders of the sophisticated Mississippian Caddoan site of Spiro in eastern Oklahoma. Objects now associated with the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex found at the Spiro site are dated between A.D. 900 and 1450. Located in far eastern Oklahoma on the Arkansas River, the site consisted of an outlying village and eleven earthen mounds. All of the artistic expressions of contemporary society were present, including architecture, stone sculpture works in shell, jewelry, weaving, and pottery. These objects continue to inspire and inform contemporary artists.

After the demise of Spiro, tribes such as the Wichita, Caddo, Plains Apache, and Comanche settled in or ranged in and out of Oklahoma. The Osage were also a significant presence from the fifteenth century forward. The influences of peoples from both the western and eastern side of the state became apparent in the nineteenth century as Indian history and Indian art was forever changed by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Scores of tribes were removed into Oklahoma, forming a microscopic precursor of contemporary globalism. Different languages, different modes of life, and, most certainly, different arts were thrust into an immediate proximity, eventually resulting in some artistic interchange of forms and materials.

The cultural groups that emerged as dominant in the nineteenth century were the Southeastern Indians, the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes," the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Muscogee/Creek, and Seminole. Many Indian groups from the Great Plains of the vast midsection of the United States were removed into Oklahoma after the 1860s, including the Cheyenne/Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache. These also had a direct influence on the arts and culture of Oklahoma. Tribes from the Great Lakes area were settled in the central and northeastern parts of the state. Among these were the Shawnee, Kickapoo, Miami, and Sac and Fox, and other disparate groups joined them, including the Delaware and Potawatomi. All were mixed together in a construct of nineteenth-century "white" cultural ideals of how Indians should live. While the common goal was to unify the different Indian groups, the character and traditions of the different cultures continued to prevail.

Each of the major groups, the Southeastern, Northeastern, and the Great Plains, all brought artistic conventions that were centuries old and comprised basic forms of art, including architecture, sculpture, and painting, that are now recognized as unique and tribal specific. Not until the latter part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century was any real acknowledgment of creative artistry given to clothing, weaving, pottery, jewelry, body decoration, and contemporary media such as photography, video recording, and film making.

The end of the nineteenth century was one of monumental change for all Indian people. The impetus of life was to accommodate reservation confinement and reduced landmass, and simply to survive as a people. However, in the third decade of the twentieth century the U.S. government commenced to promote Indian arts, sending teachers into the field to teach and encourage the arts and to reassert where possible, the arts of American Indians.

Painting in the twentieth century in Oklahoma is circumscribed by the results of the imprisonment of Oklahoma Indian men and women at Fort Marion Prison in St. Augustine, Florida, in the late nineteenth century. During their captivity these Plains Indian artists transferred their skill in painting on hide to painting on paper. Their grandsons became Oklahoma's great early artists, including those now termed "the Kiowa artists." In the 1920s a group of young men and women were painting under the tutelage of Susie Peters at the Kiowa Agency in Anadarko. A group of six Kiowas, then later five, went to the University of Oklahoma, and their international fame is now part of the Oklahoma story of Indian painting. Traditional Indian painting, usually flat, highly colorful, and two-dimensional, became associated with the Kiowa artists. Traditional materials were replaced with paper, gouache, watercolors, and other commercial paints were also used as the art evolved.

Indian painting was transformed in the mid-twentieth century by a later generation of artists who commenced to incorporate new materials and styles into their artwork. An art market was growing and reaching individuals other than anthropologists and government officials. Teachers and students at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe ventured into Abstract Expressionism and other broad styles of Euroamerican art. The head of Bacone College art school, Richard West, Sr. (Cheyenne), experimented in abstraction, Dennis Belindo (Kiowa/Navajo) used motion and cubist figures in many of his works, and Benjamin Harjo, Jr. (Seminole/Shawnee), executed adaptations of geometric forms in his lyrical and colorful works. Photorealism of the late Cheyenne artist Benny Buffalo brought family and tribal figures to life in his prize-winning images of Cheyenne people. Kelly Haney (Seminole), Mike Larsen (Chickasaw), Robert Taylor (Blackfeet/Cherokee), and Edgar Heap Of Birds (Cheyenne/Arapaho), Joan Hill (Cherokee/Creek), and America Meredith (Cherokee) are some of the active painters whose work is now known nationally and internationally.

Horace Poolaw (a Kiowa) photographed Kiowa life during the early and mid-twentieth century. Others whose photographic works are important include Richard Ray Whiteman (Creek/Pawnee), who did a series titled "Street Chiefs" in the 1980s, and Tom Fields (Cherokee/Creek), of Stillwater, Oklahoma. Eastern Band Cherokee Artist Shan Goshorn of Tulsa, embellishes her black-and-white images with acrylic, tempera, and other media.

The sculptural arts are found in a range of materials from marble to wood to cast bronze. A premier example is the finial located on the top of the dome of the Oklahoma State Capitol. Titled The Guardian, the seventeen-and-one-half-foot-tall image was executed by Seminole artist Kelly Haney. The creative use of materials is seen in a series of monumental sculptures by the Choctaw artist Ronald A. Anderson. His work Car Scaffold Burial (1984) received national attention. This environmental piece incorporated a Mercury Cougar wrapped with a funerary blanket and situated on burial posts (telephone poles). Located on the top of a hill outside Anadarko, Oklahoma, the car was later ritually burned. Anderson has executed other monumental sculptures, including one in Binger, Oklahoma, in memory of those who died in the World Trade Center in September 2001. Contemporary sculptor Bill Glass (Cherokee), also a premier potter, was awarded a commission by the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, for a memorial to Cherokee Chief John Ross and as a "location for river transportation for a portion of Cherokee removal during the trail of tears in 1838 and 1839."

Baskets remain an important aspect of cultural expression in tribes throughout the United States and in Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah has recognized women who continue to make the special, double-wall baskets. In the last century Mavis Doering won major competitions across the nation for her creative and innovative work. Other important Cherokee basket makers include Bessie Russell, Thelma Forest, and Peggy Brennan. The fiber arts include women who make patchwork, such as June Lee (Seminole). Many women among the Osage, including Georgeann Robinson, are recognized for their expertise in ribbon and silk appliqué. Finger weaving continues to be practiced in many areas of the nation and this state.

Both the western and eastern regions of Oklahoma reflect the great diversity of Indian population and their distinct styles of jewelry. In eastern Oklahoma Knokovtee Scott (Creek) perpetuates the use of mussel shells for traditional jewelry that includes the iconography of Spiro. In Western Oklahoma German silver reverberates in Plains ceremonial dress. Work by Julius Caesar (Pawnee), his son Bruce, Marlene Mameah (Pawnee) and others includes roaches, bolo ties, and the spirit bird. Beading continues as a strong avenue of expression in the arts of both western and eastern Oklahoma Indians. Mary Little Bear Inkanish (Cheyenne 1877–1963) was an early subject of a study of Cheyenne beadwork. During the twentieth century Alice Littleman (Kiowa) received national attention for her traditional designs and buckskin dresses. Among the dozens of artists who continue to work with beads is Marcus Amerman (Choctaw), whose portraits in beads constitute a revolutionary technique.

After Indian Removal, pottery making became dormant, especially among the eastern tribes in Oklahoma who had had a long tradition of clay artistry. In the early 1800s trade goods and metal replaced the need for clay vessels. However, a renaissance of pottery commenced in the mid-twentieth century. Annabelle Sixkiller Mitchell (Cherokee) became the leader of a Cherokee pottery revival, and now more than a dozen gifted potters create pottery and embellish pots with Southeastern iconography and innovative designs. Some of Mitchell's students include Victoria Mitchell, Jane Osti, and Crystal Hannah, all prize-winning artists. Robert Wallace (Cherokee) also wins awards nationwide. The expert potters Bill Glass and Mike Daniel (Seminole) also use Southeastern iconography. Jeri Redcorn (Caddo) uses ancient designs from the Mississippian Caddoan culture and leads a Caddo pottery revival.

The architecture and arts of the Wichita and the Caddoan peoples who were in Oklahoma from the sixteenth century forward reflect an ingenious use of local materials to make houses, baskets, pottery, sculpture, and other objects that reflect an idea of beauty. The Great Plains Indians developed a portable lifestyle that was also creative, decorating their lodging and rawhide bags, or parfleches, in which they carried important articles for their travels. The southeastern Indians built wooden homes and had farmed for thousands of years. They were able to carry on their traditions, possibly with early influence by Mesoamerican Indians, and to continue their arts and belief systems after their removal into Oklahoma. The artists of the Great Lakes areas became masters of cloth inlay, beading, and sculpture and adapted a type of housing in Oklahoma that suited their needs. The needs and aesthetic values of all the tribes were carried through into the twentieth century. During that century a return to some original designs became apparent in public buildings such as the truncated mound office building constructed in Okmulgee for the Muscogee/Creek Nation. Similarly the architectural renderings for the anticipated American Indian Cultural Center in Oklahoma City feature elements of a Wichita grass house and a large earthen mound. Thus the artistic influences of the indigenous peoples of North America have come full circle, from traditional utilitarian and decorative objects and structures, to design elements that remind Indian citizens of their still-living cultures and also inform the general public about Oklahoma's Native heritage.

Mary Jo Watson


Margaret Archuleta and Rennard Strickland, Shared Visions: Native American Painters and Sculptors in the Twentieth Century (Phoenix, Ariz.: The Heard Museum, 1991).

The Arts of the North American Indian: Native Traditions in Evolution, ed. Edwin L. Wade (New York: Edwin L. Wade, 1986).

Janet C. Berlo and Ruth B. Phillips, Native North American Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Lois Sherr Dubin, North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999).

Susan C. Power, Early Art of the Southeastern Indians: Feathered Serpents and Winged Beings (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004).


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Mary Jo Watson, “Art, American Indian,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=AR017.

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