Whose Land Was This?

Heidi Bigknife, Bloodlines or Belief Systems

Amelia E. Chamberlain, Director, Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar 

A Stillwater Living Magazine article written in April 2013 by Ammie Bryant, then Director at the Stillwater History Museum, asks the question, “Did Oklahoma really begin in Stillwater?” The article delves into the Indian Removal Act of 1830 when the Five Civilized Tribes—Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole—were forced from their traditional homelands and relocated to Indian Territory. In the center of this territory was a section called the “Unassigned Lands.” It was in the northeast corner of these unassigned lands that present-day Stillwater was eventually founded. In 1887, the Dawes Severalty Act stripped remaining lands from Native people through a process most simply known as allotment. After individual allotments were assigned, remaining land was opened to settlement. At noon on April 22, 1889, cannons fired to signal a literal race for these lands by non-Native homesteaders. Overnight, cities were born in Indian Territory—one of those being Stillwater. This is the basis for claims that Oklahoma began in Stillwater.

But, this land had a history long before it was called “Indian Territory.” Several sovereign nations recognized it as their homeland. Native Land is an app for mobile devices that acknowledges the indigenous people on whose land we stand. In the case of Stillwater, the Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo), Wazhazhe Manzhan (Osage), and Wichita are cited.

Cultural organizations such as the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar have a responsibility to their community to at times pose difficult questions and/or host exhibits and programs that challenge long­ held ideas and trigger thoughtful conversations. When the Museum was presented with an opportunity to host an ExhibitsUSA exhibition titled, Savages and Princess: The Persistence of Native American Stereotypes, it felt like a very appropriate time to do so. Recent news coverage of a long time Stillwater tradition, Eskimo Joes, brought to the forefront a local stereotype, creating awareness about the fact that long­ held traditions can be harmful even if it was not the original intent to be so.  

The exhibition Savages and Princess: The Persistence of Native American Stereotypes brings together twelve contemporary Native American visual artists who reclaim their right to represent their identities as Native Americans. Whether using humor, subtlety, or irony, the telling is always fiercely honest and dead­on. Images and styles are created from traditional, contemporary, and mass culture forms. The exhibition intends to counteract the disappearance of Native portrayals. It embraces Native Americans’ power to replace stereotypical images that permeate the current pop culture landscape. Recognizing that stereotypes often occur without conscious awareness, the exhibition includes didactic information that explores common stereotypes about Native peoples that are falsehoods, followed by the truths behind them. The exhibition’s artists use the unexpected—humor, emotion, or shock—to encourage viewers to question and challenge stereotypes, even unspoken, unacknowledged ones.  

The twelve Oklahoma artists represented are: 

• Matthew Bearden, citizen of the Potawatomi­-Kickapoo­-Blackfeet­-Lakota, is a mixed media artist and painter from Tulsa. After graduating from Northeastern State University in 1992, Bearden attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa fe, New Mexico. An award-winning artist, Matthew has shown his work throughout the southwest, in Manhattan, New York, at the Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma City, and the Eiteljorg Indian Market in Indianapolis.  

• Heidi BigKnife, Shawnee Tribe, is a jeweler from Tulsa. BigKnife was born in Enid, and she says her career was influenced in childhood by her mother’s artistic eye. She remembers doing countless arts and crafts projects with her mother, and developed the skill to “create something out of nothing.” Shawnee on her mother’s side, BigKnife began to be more aware of her heritage and identify as Shawnee during her college years. After graduating from the Institute of American Indian Arts, she adopted her maternal grandmother’s maiden name, BigKnife, as her surname. BigKnife works in jewelry design, often gathering found items for inspiration. She is also a skilled metalsmith and combines political and social messages into her pieces. 

Heidi Bigknife, Bloodlines or Belief Systems

• Mel Cornshucker, United Keetoowah Band, is a ceramic artist from Tulsa. Cornshucker is a contemporary Cherokee potter who works in stoneware, porcelain, and raku clay. Cornshucker is known for his high­fire stoneware, decorated with hand­painted, Native­inspired motifs and designs. He strives to create pieces that communicate past and present Native American spirit which reflects his heritage and honors the creativity of man over time. He has shown his work in a variety of nationally significant markets, including the Eiteljorg Indian Market and Festival, the Santa Fe Indian Market, the Pueblo Grande Museum Indian Art Show in Phoenix, and the Contemporary Indian Art Show at Cahokia. 

• Tom Farris, Otoe­Missouria­Cherokee, is a mixed media artist from Norman. Farris has been immersed in American Indian art his entire life. The child of passionate collectors, Farris spent a good deal of his formative years in various museums, galleries, and artists’ homes. Having such intimate contact with the genre, Tom found inspiration for his own growing artistic aptitude. A member of the Cherokee Nation and Otoe­Missouria tribe, he draws from his culture and his lifelong influence of American Indian art to create his works.  

Tom Farris, …But I can’t Prove It

• Anita Fields, Osage­Muscogee, is a ceramic artist from Stillwater. Fields is nationally recognized for her unique rendering of ceramic sculptures and mixed-media installations. Fields specializes in ceramics, non­functional earthenware, and ribbonwork, and is an arts educator. She says, “the work I make signifies a continuum of thought, knowledge, and the essence of who we are as indigenous peoples living in a modern, chaotic, and challenging world.” The early Osage notions of duality, such as earth and sky, male and female, are represented in her work.  

• Shan Goshorn, Eastern Band Cherokee, was a photographer from Tulsa. Goshorn was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1957, and passed away in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2018. Her multi­media work is exhibited extensively in the US and abroad. Her baskets belong to prestigious collections such as the National Museum of the American Indian (Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC), Denver Art Museum (CO), Gilcrease Museum (OK), Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (NM), The Museum of the Cherokee Indian (NC), and more. Goshorn’s painted photographs (many of which address stereotypes and racism) toured Italy with the Fratelli Alinari “Go West” Collection and were exhibited in venues including England, France, South Africa, and China.  

Shan Goshorn, Study for Vessel

• Juanita Pahdopony, Comanche, was a sculptor from Lawton. Pahdopony was a published writer in local, state, and national storytelling venues. She was also a visual artist and a passionate advocate for tribal language preservation and the protection of our planet, its resources, and animals. Juanita Pahdopony ­Mithlo returned home on Friday, August 21, 2020. She was an accomplished Comanche educator, poet, artist, writer, storyteller, Tribal Administrator, mentor, and cultural consultant.  

Juanita Pahdopony, Kitsch me, I’m Indian!

• K. H. Poole, Caddo­Delaware, is a draftsperson from Oklahoma City. 

Kira Poole, Lazy

• Zach Presley, Chickasaw, is a collage and digital artist from Durant. Presley is a young, emerging contemporary artist examining his Native American identity from insider and outsider perspectives. The insider examination is relative to his mixed heritage (including Chickasaw) and outsider perceptions of Native people by mainstream culture. Humor is used to facilitate the opportunity to recall possible preconceptions of Native American culture. Through his art, the viewer is challenged to connect understandings about how one views social processes, social identities, social change, and conflict. “My work highlights the stereotyping and commercialization of Native Americans and their cultural objects. … I illustrate how stereotyping and consumption dilutes both appropriated culture and the consumer.” 

Zachary Presley, Genuineness

• Hoka Skenandore, Oneida­Oglala Lakota­Luiseño, is a mixed media artist from Shawnee. Hoka Skenandore was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1982. Skenandore grew up in a home where he learned to appreciate tra­ditional Native American art alongside fine art. On his own, he embraced the D.I.Y. ethos of punk rock and hip hop culture and painted graffiti art. With a background in graffiti, murals, painting, and printmaking, Skenandore said his work is a vehicle creating a less rigid definition of “Native Art” and its potentialities. Through his art, Skenandore said his aim is to “bridge the gaps between the gallery, the gutter and everything in between.” 

• Karin Walkingstick, Cherokee Nation, is a ceramic artist from Claremore. Walkingstick’s passion for art began at an early age. Throughout her life, she has explored many forms of creative expression but since her introduction to clay in 2013, she has committed her time exclusively to creating one­of­a­kind works of pottery using techniques that echo her Cherokee culture. All of her pieces are hand coiled and stone burnished.  

Micah Wesley, Muscogee­Kiowa, is a mixed media artist from Norman. Wesley crafts paintings in the areas of impressionism, realism, and surrealism, saying his paintings are based off his experiences or interpretations. Wesley has embraced collaborations and group shows, including The Humble Collective and Broken Boxes show in Santa Fe, working with Apache Skateboards in San Carlos, Arizona, and participating in the Mvskoke Et viwv celebration in Washington D.C. Wesley‘s expressive palette and powerful figuration often engage with his tory and pop culture. Time and space warp as his subjects emerge from — or melt back into — the canvas. 

Micah Wesley, Redskin, Our Scalps, Your Honor

The exhibition intends to counteract the disappearance of Native portrayals. It embraces Native Americans’ power to replace stereotypical images that permeate the current pop culture landscape. Recognizing that stereotypes often occur without conscious awareness, the exhibition includes didactic information that explores common stereotypes about Native peoples that are falsehoods, followed by the truths behind them. The exhibition’s artists use the unexpected—humor, emotion, or shock—to encourage viewers to question and challenge stereotypes, even unspoken, unacknowledged ones.  

Originally presented at Tulsa’s 108|Contemporary in 2016, this exhibition is organized by ExhibitsUSA, a program of Mid­America Arts Alliance. ExhibitsUSA sends more than twenty-five exhibitions on tour to over 100 small­ and mid-­sized communities every year. These exhibitions create access to an array of arts and humanities experiences, nurture the understanding of diverse cultures and art forms, and encourage the expanding depth and breadth of cultural life in local communities. Mid­America Arts Alliance (M­AAA) strengthens and supports artists, cultural organizations, and communities throughout the region and beyond. The Alliance achieves this primarily through national traveling exhibition programs, innovative leadership development, and strategic grant making. They are especially committed to enriching the cultural life of historically underserved communities by providing high quality, meaningful, and accessible arts and culture programs and services—believing in more art for more people.  Savages and Princesses: The Persistence of Native American Stereotypes opens November 10, 2020, at the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar. It will be available for viewing, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. through January 7, 2021. After-­hour arrangements are also possible. To provide a safe environment for viewing, patrons are asked to make a reservation prior to their arrival so we may limit the number of people in the building at a time. Call 405-­377-­0359 or email [email protected] to make your reservation on the hour or half-hour. The exhibition is free and will be supplemented by a virtual collection produced by graduate students in the OSU Public History Department’s Museum Studies course.