Thirty-six hours before my triumphant return to Michigan last week, I pulled out of Oklahoma City after a night’s rest, jumping on Interstate 44 cutting northeast to Tulsa. There amongst the Osage Hills stands one of the country’s most distinguished facilities for the preservation and study of American Art and History. The Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art – known as Glicrease Museum – houses an unmatched collection of Native art and materials, including the world’s most comprehensive collection of artifacts of the American West.
Surprisingly taken with the beauty of middle America, I shared my love letter to the Kansas plains, where killer winds, me and a dozen birds of prey floated across the landscape on mid-winter thermals. On the way back, Oklahoma - the state's name derived from the Choctaw words okla and humma, meaning "red people" - offered miles and miles of wavin’ wheat that sure smelled sweet, and the same wind came right behind the rain, just like the musical says, or sings rather. Eastern Oklahoma looked a lot like Michigan in April, with sun bleached, yellowed fields, craggy bare forests and blazing sunshine.
Back in the 1800's, as European-Americans expanded westward, a series of migrations and forced removals by the United States government relocated numerous Native nations to “Indian Territory”, in present-day Oklahoma. The Choctaws, Cherokees, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles, known as the “Five Civilized Tribes” were removed from the Southeast to Oklahoma in the 1830’s, culminating in the famous Trail of Tears. Throughout the late 1800’s, tribes from the Great Plains and California were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. Geronimo and a small band of Chiricahua Apache eluded American troops in what proved to be the last of the Indian wars, the Bedonkohe Chiricahua leader removed to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1894. Today, Oklahoma is home to 39 distinct Native American tribes.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, many of Oklahoma’s Native peoples asserted their sovereignty, writing constitutions and establishing tribal governments to provide social services for their people. Native American artists in Oklahoma produced distinct work, celebrating their cultural heritage and responding to a range of influences from the diverse Native people of the region. Today, culture and language preservation continue to be a priority for Oklahoma’s Native nations.
The story of Native American Art is one of many traditions and cultures. It’s a story of change, continuity and endurance. The breadth of Native Art encompasses the sacred and the secular, the political and domestic, the Ceremonial and commercial. Throughout America, many Native peoples continue their ancient worldviews and lifeways, often expressed through music, dance, Ceremony and the visual arts. Despite centuries of epidemics, cultural, religious and political repression, and forced removal from homelands, Native traditions continue on. Exhibitions at the Gilcrease present some of the finest creative expressions and rich diversity offered by Native artists, ancient, historic and contemporary.