The Kiowa Five

Written by N. W. Hager, Melton Art Reference Library

 

“Our forefathers’ deeds touch us, shape us, like strokes of a painting.

 In endless procession their deeds mark us. The Elders speak knowingly of forever.”

James Auchiah, Kiowa Five Member

 

            The Kiowa have a long history of art traditions linked to their pride in the mastery of horsemanship, as successful hunters of the Great Buffalo herds, and as a culture that prides the beauty of dance, song, stories and the visual arts. Five Kiowa men from Anadarko, Oklahoma became internationally known artists in the 1920’s, often referred to as the “Kiowa Five.” These Native American Artists were: James Auchiah (1906 – 1974), Spencer Asah (1905 – 1954), Jack Hokeah (1902 – 1969), Stephen Mopope (1898 – 1974), and Monroe Tsatoke (1904 – 1937).

The artwork of the Kiowa Five is well known for its representational, narrative style with ceremonial and social scenes of Kiowa life as their subject matter. Many of the oral traditions in the Kiowa culture express the purity and distinct colors of their native landscape. In many colorful paintings, using flat planes of color in bold and direct figures, the Kiowa Five developed a distinctive cultural style, still emulated today. As students of the University of Oklahoma, they received formal art training and wide national and international exhibitions of their artistic skill and finesse with paint, pottery and dance.  Travel in the 20’s and 30’s was a unique opportunity for them to follow the age-old Kiowa tradition, to “journey to the four corners of the Earth.”

Legend holds that the Kiowa people originated in the vast territories of the Yellowstone River in Western Montana, and migrated eastward to the Black Hills. Their culture centered on their relationship to the Buffalo. All aspects of their lives were an incorporation of the buffalo. Their tepees were made of buffalo hides, as were their clothes and moccasins. The Kiowas used the entire animal for many functional uses. For the Kiowa, the buffalo was at the center of their religion. Rituals like the Sun Dance and aspects of healing prayers and ritual song were all tied to their pursuit and respect of great buffalo herds. Like many other Native cultures, the Kiowa were devastated by the annihilation of the buffalo herds on the Great Plains in the mid-nineteenth century. As the buffalo population was destroyed by professional hunters (with single hunters killing as many as 150 buffalo a day), the Kiowa way of life and religion was brought to a crushing close. Intricate drawings by the Kiowa appear on buffalo hide canvases and record the story of the demise of their nomadic culture, a precursor for art traditions to come.

            As white culture clashed with the Kiowa way of life, Kiowa warriors were imprisoned for their confrontations with the U.S. Cavalry. As many of these prisoners were homesick and nostalgic, they turned their sorrow to ledger-book drawings. The ledger book drawings were eventually valued by white culture and became the sketchy forerunners to Indian art.

            The Kiowa Five began their art training out of a traditional artistic heritage and from their own experiences as professional dancers. “Silverhorn” (1861 – 1940), who was an exceptional illustrator of Kiowa myths, also influenced them. His pictorial records of Kiowa culture were highly prized and may have served as an inspiration to his nephew, Stephen Mopope, who was one of the Five.

            In addition to art traditions passed down from family members, the Kiowa Five all received formal art training. Sister Olivia Taylor, a Choctaw, taught art to Jack Hokeah, Spencer Asah and Stephen Mopope at the St. Patrick’s Mission School in Anadarko, Oklahoma. After a teacher who worked for the Indian Agency noticed their potential talent, arrangements for informal art lessons for the “Five” were arranged. In 1927 and 1928, the “Kiowa Five” studied with Professor Oscar Jacobson at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma. There were five main artists in the “Kiowa Five” however,  “Kiowa Six” could be their true namesake so as to include the lesser-known artist Lois Smokey (1907 – 1981), who also studied with Jacobson in that era.

            The Kiowa signature is flat, ground planes of color, remembered historical events and ceremonies shared in the oral traditions of their tribe by relatives and elders. Thirty-six watercolors painted by the Kiowa Five were widely circulated throughout the United States and Europe by Professor Jacobson in the late twenties. Many feel that Jacobson was responsible for establishing world-wide acceptance for Native American art by affording the Kiowa Five the opportunity to travel and showcase their work and talent. In 1928, newspapers in Paris, Prague, London and the United States boasted of their acclaim.

            While their celebrity was growing overseas, the “Five” had an important impact in the domestic art scene as well. Hokeah, Asah and Mopope participated in the Intertribal Indian Ceremonials in New Mexico in 1930. Together, Mopope, Asah and Auchiah painted sixteen murals on the upper walls of the Anadarko Post Office in 1936- 1937. Monroe Tsatoke painted a famous group of murals (1934 – 1937) for the Oklahoma Historical Society on the third floor of the State Museum. In 1985, an exhibit by the Historical Society highlighted the subjects of Kiowa figures and Tsatoke’s family shields featured in the mural.

As individuals, the Kiowa Five also made important contributions to the art community. Hokeah independently lived and studied with the renowned potter, Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo for ten years. Mopope was considered a talented dancer, highly respected in his tribe. Tsatoke is known for his talent as a singer, storyteller and an accomplished painter.

In the time period when the Kiowa Five flourished, their achievement as artists had a positive effect upon Western, European and Native American cultures. Art traditions had begun as an outcry of expression by elders of the Kiowa Five. Their eventual success created a more positive “capture” of the essence of their culture, even as it began to fade from them.

The Melton Art Reference Library based in Oklahoma City, is currently compiling research on renowned Oklahoma Artists.

 

 

Bibliography

Nabokov, Peter, Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations form Prophecy to the

Present, 1492 – 1992. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. (174-175).

Denton, Joan Fredrick, (July 1987),“Kiowa Murals: Behold I Stand in Good Relation to All Things”.

Southwest Art: 68 – 75.

Berlo, Janet Catherine and Phillips, Ruth B., Oxford History of Art: Native North American Art. New

York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Jacobson House Native Art Center. (2004). The Kiowa Five, (2004) Available from the Jacobson House

Web site, http://www.jacobson house.com

©The Fine Arts Trader 2009