Cheyenne Warrior drawings at Cummer Museum of Art

I will never look at the St. Augustine Lighthouse the same way again. The whimsical, black-and-white spiral jutting from the treetops on the fancifully named Anastasia Island had previously symbolized the area’s joyfulness to me. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit St. Augustine annually, basking in the warm weather, enjoying the beaches and historic downtown, filling up at innumerable boutiques and restaurants. Having the time of their lives.

I find myself in St. Augustine a couple times each year. I live 75 miles north of there in Fernandina Beach. I typically pass by the lighthouse on my trips to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm.

Lighthouses are welcoming. Colorful. Their individual designs give them personality. They’re protectors. Associated with the ocean, which I associate with recreation and free time, I associate them with happiness. To me, lighthouses seem to smile.

To the 72 Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, Caddo and Arapaho warriors who were taken from their homelands on the Southern Plains of what is now Texas and Oklahoma in shackles following the Red River War and sent 1,000 miles east by train to St. Augustine’s Fort Marion, the lighthouse was a menace. It loomed over them. The lighthouse represented the removal of their freedom, the absence of their families, the inhospitable surroundings of this bizarre and foreign place – it’s humidity, bugs, sand, and vegetation so unlike anything they had experienced previously.

O-kuh-ha-tuh, also known as Making Medicine and David Pendleton Oakerhater, Cheyenne, 'Lighthouse at St. Augustine,' Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum
O-kuh-ha-tuh, also known as Making Medicine and David Pendleton Oakerhater, Cheyenne, ‘Lighthouse at St. Augustine,’ Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida, 40 miles north of St. Augustine, recounts this story through the extraordinary drawings of the captives held there during the exhibition “Imprisoned but Empowered: Cheyenne Warrior Artists at Fort Marion,” on view through February 27, 2022. The drawings belong to the Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, one of the finest Western art and history museums in the country.

More importantly, for the first time ever, the artwork and the exhibition are presented from an Indigenous perspective, through a Cheyenne world view. Artist, professor and Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal leader Gordon Yellowman Sr. served as the show’s chief curator.

Indigenous drawings

Twenty-six prisoners, mostly Cheyenne and Kiowa, shared not only their misery in confinement on Fort Marion, but memories of their wonderful past freedom on the Plains in notebook sized color pencil drawings. The detail in the reminiscence of their previous lives has been fantastically captured and preserved. The artworks are in astonishingly good condition considering their age and materials.

Buffalo hunts, ceremonies, family life. The exhibition soars – heartbreakingly – with drawings of better days gone by.

Place yourself in the shoes of a prisoner.

What would you draw?

You’d draw what brought you momentary happiness. You’d allow your mind to temporarily drift from the pain of your captivity to the joy you once knew. That’s what visitors see in this exhibition along with recordings of prison life.

The importance of buffalo to the tribes is made clear through the drawings. So many buffalo. After people, buffalo are featured most regularly in the pictures. The exhibition strikes home how connected the cultures of the Indigenous people of the Southern Plains were to these magnificent animals. How effective the U.S. government’s policy of exterminating buffalo to subjugate Native people was.

“Imprisoned but Empowered” continues the Cummer Museum’s recent emphasis on sharing more stories and artwork from Indigenous people, and, more broadly, its ongoing attempts to highlight minority artists and imagery.

Nock-ko-ist, also known as James Bear's Heart, Cheyenne, 'Anastasia Island,' colored pencil on paper. Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum
Nock-ko-ist, also known as James Bear’s Heart, Cheyenne, ‘Anastasia Island,’ colored pencil on paper. Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

The traumas of Indian Removal from the East to the West are well known; episodes of removal from the West to the East, like this, have largely been erased from American history. As the nation reckons with its past abuses including an attempted genocide of the Native population – and whether or not to face that past, own it, teach it – chapters from that book, like this one, need to resurface. They need to be remembered.

In this way, the art museum doubles as a history museum. As I have personally come to terms with my understanding of American history being wholly shaped by white nationalism throughout my formal education, and its resulting biases and inadequacies, I have come recognize artists as the country’s real historians.

Gordon Parks. Jacob Lawrence. Cheyenne Warriors at Fort Marion.

Artists certainly, but more importantly, chroniclers of people and stories excluded from the racist, colonial, patriarchal, capitalist telling of American history.

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