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Discover Mid-America —April 2005

Traditions continue to evolve in Native American art

by Ken Weyand

Prior to the infamous “Trail of Tears” eradication in 1838, the Cherokees were considered advanced. They had a government organized under a constitution, an alphabet for their language and desire to educate their children as to the times.

“The Stickballer,” a
life-size sculpture by Jerome Tiger, displayed at the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, OK. The piece was created just before the artist’s death in August 1967. He was 26.

Yet despite the pressures of assimilation, and patronizing and sometimes demeaning assessments from white society, the Cherokees in Oklahoma have retained their heritage of arts and crafts. Their creativity, like those of other native people, can be seen in paintings, sculpture, colorful basketry, pottery, jewelry, beading and textile arts.

Still the struggle to be recognized as artists amid the dominant culture was long. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that a transition in viewing and evaluating Native American art moved from non-Native “experts” to one where Native American artists began to shape and define their own visual, written and performing arts took place.

The time coincided with the Kennedy administration as Native American artists gained heightened visibility and the so-called “flat-painting” style began to lose favor.
One such artist’s work, Oscar Howe (Crow Creek Sioux), startled experts at the 1958 competition at the Philbrook Art Center in Tulsa, OK, so completely that his painting was rejected as nontraditional.

A few years later, and in response to artists’ demands that arts’ competitions change their rules, Howe’s work swept the Philbrook’s top awards in 1960 and 1961.

One young painter energized by Howe’s work and determination was Joan Hill (Creek-Cherokee). Born in Muskogee, OK, Hill taught high school and later was art and publicity director for the Muskogee Art Guild from 1958 to 1964.

Hill created murals for the Department of the Interior, portraits and book illustrations, including for a book of poetry about the Five Civilized Tribes of Muskogee. Hill won the Best of Show Award in the 2004 Master Artists show at the Five Civilized Tribes Museum.

In 1962, the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) was founded. According to the Encyclopedia of North America Indians, the IAIA was advanced by the Kennedy administration, Rockefeller Foundation-funded Southwest Indian Arts Project (1958-61), the Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB) and by the poet-writer John Collier, the Indian commissioner who had initiated the IACB in 1935.

In 1964, the IAIA and IACB organized and sponsored a series of key show, beginning with its first invitational Exhibition of Indian Art in Washington, DC. One of the artists that created excitement at the exhibition was self-taught painter-sculptor Jerome Tiger, “whose ethereal depictions of tribal life and simplicity of form” commanded top honors in major competitions.

The Tiger Tradition

“Buskita” (Green Corn Ceremony)
by Johnny Tiger, Jr.

Born in 1941 in Oklahoma, Jerome Tiger, a full-blood Creek-Seminole, grew up on the campground of his maternal grandfather’s Indian Baptist church in Eufala. After listening to stories of his heritage at the feet of Coleman Lewis, his Baptist missionary grandfather, Tiger continued his education in Muskogee.

Among other things, Tiger was a high school dropout, a gifted boxer with a reputation as a street fighter, and a laborer. He married, and was the father of three children.

In 1962, he began what was to become a six-year career as a self-taught artist, painting vivid images based on his heritage. Although he had no knowledge of historic masterworks, his paintings were compared with them for their spiritual vision and technical virtuosity. While his art was traditional in subject matter and composition, it was a radical departure from the classical Indian art. By the time his life was cut short by a firearms accident at the age of 26, Tiger had produced hundreds of paintings that assured his legacy as a prominent Native American artist.

During those years, Indian art buyers were perfectionists, demanding high levels of quality and authenticity. Tiger’s work satisfied even the most critical buyers, and he won awards and praise throughout the art world during his short career. His work inspired many art lovers to collect Native American art.

Since his untimely death, Tiger’s deeply spiritual style has greatly influenced other Indian artists. Since 1970, the Jerome Tiger Art Company, a family-owned business, has reproduced 33 limited edition prints of Tiger’s paintings. Many have been sold out, and are available only on the secondary market. The available prints can be seen online at

Tiger’s wife, Peggy, and her cousin, Molly Babcock, produced a 285-page limited edition hardback book, The Life and Art of Jerome Tiger. War to Peace, Death to Life. The book is the most complete collection of Tiger’s work, with art reproductions in color, along with other black and white photographs throughout the book. It is available through the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

Grand Prize winner at the 2004 Homecoming Art Show at the Cherokee Heritage Center was this artwork, “The Plants Become Allies,” glass beads on wool, silk and brass, by Martha Berry.

Dana Tiger was five years old when her father died. A major artist in her own right, in a 2001 interview with The Daily Oklahoman, she remembers her father as a “magnetic, charismatic man.”

In another interview with Canku Ota, an online newspaper serving Native America, Dana reminisced about her life in Tiger household.

“He was so full of life,” she said. “He would just draw people to him. Our home was always full of people because of him. He was so generous, sweet and kind. That’s what attracted others to him as much as his paintings did.”
Dana is a 1997 Master Artist at the Five Civilized Tribes Museum. Her paintings reflect her involvement with her community and her advocacy for the rights of women and minorities, especially Native Americans.

Johnny Tiger, Jr., Jerome’s brother, grew up listening to their maternal grandfather, Coleman Lewis, as he recounted the history of the Creek people on trips to Baptist churches in rural Oklahoma. Thus he received the same inspiration as his brother to paint with feeling the stories of his ancestors and their survival.

Sharing his brother’s talent for painting, Johnny is a 1982 Master Artist at the Five Civilized Tribes Museum. He has won numerous awards at various shows and exhibitions.

Johnny paints and sculpts at his studio southeast of Muskogee. His painting, “Buskita” (Green Corn Ceremony), received the Indian Heritage Award at the 2004 Masters’ Art Show.

Nurturing and Exhibiting the Art

Two Oklahoma institutions strive to preserve, advance and promote Native American art and culture in the state and nation. — the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah and the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee.

To see outstanding traditional Cherokee artwork at the Heritage Center, a visitor should plan to visit during the annual Homecoming Art Show, one of two major competitive shows that showcase Cherokee art. It is only open to artists who have membership in the Cherokee Nation, United Keetoowah Band or Eastern Band of Cherokees. Artists from across the nation compete in several categories for more than $5,000 in cash awards.

The 2004 Homecoming Art Show opened Oct. 8 and ran through Dec. 31. Sponsored by Cherokee Casinos and the Oklahoma Arts Council, the show was divided into traditional and contemporary divisions, and included basketry, jewelry and beading, pottery, sculpture and visual arts.

First prize was given in each division as well as a Grand Prize award. This year’s Grand Prize winner was Martha Berry for her beaded Bandolier bag “The Plants Became Allies.” To see entered work online, visit

“Beaver Dam,” an oil painting by Troy Anderson, Cherokee, was a Spirit of Oklahoma Award winner at the 2004 Master Artists exhibit at the Five Civilized Tribes Museum

The Cherokee National Historical Society, established in 1963, operates the Heritage Center. Mickel Yantz, museum curator, said the society is committed to being the best and most visited tribally specific educational museum in the world.

“That means we are also committed to making the Homecoming Art show the best art show for Cherokee artists,” he said. “For us, this means increasing the quality of art and increasing the sales and recognition for Cherokee artists worldwide.”

The Trail of Tears Art Show and Sale is set for May 1 through June 21 at the Heritage Center. The exhibition in nine categories features works from across the U.S. Other shows and exhibits include an Artists’ Showcase, Feb. 1 through April 20, and other showcases that include basketry, beadwork, pottery, and contemporary arts. There are also classes and lectures scheduled throughout the year.

In addition to hosting the two shows and other exhibits, the Cherokee National Museum at the Heritage Center features a shop where visitors can purchase handcrafted Cherokee clothing, pottery, pins, jewelry, baskets and weavings.

To the south, the new Cherokee Arts & Pottery Center at I-40 at the Warner Exit offers an opportunity to purchase arts and pottery items handcrafted by Cherokee artisans. Artist showcases are held the second Saturday of each month at this location. For more information call 1-888-999-6007 or visit

The Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee preserves the art, history and cultures of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole Tribes. In October 2004, the museum presented its 31st Competitive Art Show, recognizing Master Artists. A dozen artists exhibited more than 30 pieces in the show. They represented a wide range of media and styles, each conveying their own interpretation of their tribal heritage.

Johnny Tiger, Jr. won the Indian Heritage Award. Troy Anderson, Enoch Kelly Haney, Gary Montgomery and Virginia Stroud won Spirit of Oklahoma awards. The Art Committee Award went to Bert Seabourn.

First Place winner in the Traditional Arts category at the Homecoming Art Show was this artwork, “Little Buffalo,” gourd, bull horns and buffalo hair, by Roger Cain.

What is a Native American artist? Such a determination can be elusive.

Beth Seim, executive director of the museum, said, “Because some of our Master Artists’ ancestors didn’t sign the Dawes Rolls (which authenticated their tribal origins), they cannot prove their tribal heritage.”

Seim added that the show participants were to be considered “Master Artists of the Five Civilized Tribes Museum. The tribe indicated on their work is the tribe they indicate is those of their ancestors, which in some cases cannot be proved due to circumstances beyond their control.”

She said the important thing is the sharing of their heritage. “What a magnificent honor it is, for each of us, to be able to relive the stories that each piece of work depicts.”

During 2005, the Five Civilized Tribes Museum will have several events for anyone wishing to learn more about Native American art and artists.

Art Under the Oaks, a competitive show that will be held April 2-30, is an important part of Muskogee’s Azalea Festival tradition. The Museum’s April Indian Art Market, featuring arts and crafts, will be held April 2-3 on the Museum lawn. The rain-or-shine event features refreshments and food, along with dancing, singing and other activities.

A series of “Growing the Arts” programs featuring the five tribes kicks off May 9-14 with the Chickasaw Tribe. Members will demonstrate their tribe’s arts and crafts tradition. Many items will be available for sale. The programs continue with “Celebrating Seminole Traditions,” May 23-28; “Celebrating Choctaw Traditions,” June 6-11; “Celebrating Muscogee (Creek) Traditions,” Sept. 5-10, and “Celebrating Cherokee Traditions,” Sept. 9-24.

A Competitive Art Show will be held June 25 through July 31. The event is kicked off with a Native American Symposium on June 25. The 2005 Masters Competitive Art Show will be held Oct. 1-31.

Two Native American markets each year give the public access to tribal arts and crafts. This year’s spring Indian Market, set for April 2-3, will be held under tents on the museum lawn, rain or shine. In addition to the unique arts and crafts, there will also be dancing, singing and other activities. The Native Holiday Market, set for Nov. 25-27, will include prints, note cards, basketry, jewelry, woven items, flutes and other Native American arts and crafts.

The annual Invitational Art Show will be held in November and December, featuring a silent auction and other events.

The Five Civilized Tribes Museum is located at Agency Hill, Honor HeightsDrive, in Muskogee, OK. It is open year-round except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. For more information call 918-683-1701 or visit

Discover Mid-America founder and Senior Contributing Editor Ken Weyand files regular reports on notable Midwest destinations. He can be reached at

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