Native American art in Oklahoma

The state of Oklahoma doesn’t receive much love outside of college football season. Think about it. What do you know about Oklahoma?

The Sooners.

Timothy McVeigh, America’s worst of a long procession of white nationalist terrorists.

What else?

Perhaps “Reservation Dogs” now. The highly acclaimed FX series centered on a group of Native teens is set in Oklahoma.

OU and the bombing was about it for me before visiting Tulsa the first time roughly 10 years ago now. I loved it! I checked out the University of Tulsa and downtown on a quick trip through the state. In 2021, I was able to return, twice: Tulsa in June and Oklahoma City in September.

By that time, I had learned about the race massacre in Greenwood. Following a standard trope, a white woman dubiously accused a Black man of sexual assault resulting in a violent white mob forming. Mass death ensued. In Greenwood, state officials used aircraft to drop bombs on Black citizens, destroying a prospering Black community. I again visited Tulsa where the race massacre was nearing a 100th anniversary to write about projects there designed to keep its memory alive.

Now more interested in art than sports on this trip, I checked out Tulsa’s two exceptional art museums: the Philbrook and the Gilcrease.

My travels to Oklahoma City coincided with the opening of the First Americans Museum there. Native American history told by Native Americans. Oh, here’s something else you surely know about, but may not know Oklahoma’s connection to: the Trail of Tears. The Indigenous people forced at gunpoint from the southeastern U.S. on the Trail of Tears were sent to what is now Oklahoma. Then it was Indian Country.

Terrorist bombings, race massacres, the Trail of Tears. Oklahoma goes toe-to-toe with any state in trauma per square mile.

I included Chickasaw Country in southeastern Oklahoma on my itinerary. I checked out the Chisolm Trail, and the Cowboy Museum back in OKC. I met one of my favorite contemporary artists Starr Hardridge (Muscogee).

I learned about allotment, another devious and successful plan by the federal government to disposes Native people of their land. This scheme parceled out – allotted – individual plots of land to Natives, removing land from communal management the way tribes had always understood it, thereby making it easier for whites and the government to disposes Native people of this land by hook or by crook. Usually by crook.


Native Artists in Oklahoma

Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.
Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.

Visiting the First Americans Museum, the Gilcrease, the Cowboy Museum, Chickasaw Country, Exhibit C Gallery in OKC and through my ongoing partnership with WYLD Gallery online and in Austin, TX, it dawned on me – not a particularly groundbreaking insight, but an insight none the less – that after New Mexico, Oklahoma was America’s top spot for Native American art. This is owed, of course, to the 39 tribes who call it home, the 31 relocated there from points across America and the eight either indigenous to the area or having a historical connection to it.

Among WYLD Gallery’s roster of exclusively contemporary Native American artists are a majority from or with ties to Oklahoma: Nocona Burgess (Comanche), Bobby C. Martin (Muscogee), Dylan Cavin (Choctaw), Billy Hensley (Chickasaw), Joyce Nevaquaya Harris (Comanche), Steven Grounds (Navajo/Creek/Yuchi/Seminole).

Outside of WYLD Gallery artists, Anita Fields (Osage/Muscogee) and Yatika Starr Fields (Cherokee, Creek, Osage) call the Tulsa area home. Mother and son are prominent Native American artists on the national scene. Hardridge was born in state. Jeffrey Gibson, arguably the most prominent of all contemporary Native American artists from a museum perspective, spent big parts of his life visiting family in Oklahoma.

Legends, Leon Polk Smith (Cherokee), the great T.C. Cannon (Kiowa/Caddo) and Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache) were from Oklahoma. In Cannon and Houser, you have arguably the greatest Native American painter and sculptor.

Steven Grounds' 'Heroes' mural in Oklahoma City Plaza District. Photo by Benny Oscar.
Steven Grounds’ ‘Heroes’ mural in Oklahoma City Plaza District. Photo by Benny Oscar.

A 2022 program from the Oklahoma Arts Council took advantage of this creative resource, commissioning Native American artists with ties to the state to create artworks highlighting long overlooked stories of Native American history in Oklahoma. The pieces now reside in the Oklahoma Capitol Building, a tremendous repository for artwork I look forward to seeing on my next trip.

And there will be another trip to Oklahoma. Surely. Many more for me in coming years. I want to see the work of the WYLD Gallery artists in the Capitol, I want to check out the Gilcrease Museum when it reopens in late 2024 following a total renovation. I should visit the bombing memorial. I want to continue learning about the Native American art and history of Oklahoma, a state with lessons for the country we overlook at our peril.

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